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Banker’s Nurse Admits Setting Fire

December 7, 1999

MONTE CARLO, Monaco (AP) _ An American nurse confessed Monday to setting the fire that killed banker Edmond Safra, saying he had hoped to emerge as the valiant hero who saved the billionaire’s life, police said.

Ted Maher, 41, told investigators that he started the fatal blaze in a wastebasket, but did not intend to kill the banker, said Monaco’s chief prosecutor, Daniel Serdet.

Maher, described by Serdet as an unstable man who had taken heavy doses of sedatives, was being charged Monday with arson leading to the deaths of two people _ a crime punishable by life in prison. Serdet said Maher acted alone.

An investigator in Serdet’s office, reading from Maher’s lengthy statement to prosecutors, later told The Associated Press that Maher deliberately sparked panic in Safra’s penthouse by pretending dangerous intruders had broken in. He then stabbed himself twice in the abdomen and thigh to make it look as though he had put his own life on the line to save his employer.

``Then he said he started the blaze so as to get the fire brigade involved and make it look even more dramatic,″ said the investigator, who demanded anonymity.

``He said he had an intense professional rivalry with another member of the staff, and that this seemed a good way of bringing attention to himself,″ she added. ``He said he forced Safra and his other nurse into the bathroom for protection and started the fire near a vent so it would spread.″

``He thought that, as a result, he would be given more authority within the household.″

Serdet said the rival member of staff was the banker’s chief nurse, identified only as Sonia.

Safra, 67, the founder of the Republic National Bank of New York and a member of a prominent Jewish family, died Friday along with American nurse Viviane Torrent in the fire at his seaside apartment.

In Geneva, about 700 mourners gathered Monday for Safra’s funeral and burial.

``You have brought together people from different backgrounds, cultures, religions and social horizons, just as you always have,″ Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel said.

``Each of us are dealing with his own memories of you, his own questions about what happened last Friday,″ he said.

Safra, a Monaco resident with homes around the world, was a leading philanthropist who helped build synagogues, schools and community centers from Greece to the United States.

After a security alarm sounded Friday shortly before the fire, Safra’s wife Lily hid in another room. She was unharmed.

The banker had been under medical care for Parkinson’s disease and reportedly had an elaborate health staff. According to the French daily Le Monde, eight nurses and four doctors tended to him.

Maher had worked for Safra for five months, but been in Monaco just six weeks. He originally hailed from Auburn, Maine, and later moved to Stormville, N.Y., officials in Monaco said.

On Monday, Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York released a statement saying Maher had worked as a nurse for the center but that he had been on a personal leave of absence for ``an extended period of time.″ The center declined to add details or comment further, noting that the matter is still under investigation.

Serdet ruled out any financial motive for the killing, saying the nurse, who once served with the U.S. armed forces, earned $600 per day. He said Maher showed remorse.

``He told us he had spoiled the most beautiful job he had ever had,″ the prosecutor said.

``It was my own dark ideas which led me to do this,″ Serdet quoted Maher, who is married and has three children, as saying.

Maher, the prosecutor said, had been next to Safra’s bed from 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. Friday morning, when he was replaced by Torrent. He then went to bed in a small room next to Safra’s.

``If he had wanted to kill Safra, he would have had 10,000 chances a day,″ Serdet said.

Maher had tried to fool police with his version of events, but there was no evidence _ video cameras were posted inside and outside the building _ to back up his claims that two hooded men had burst in. A bloodstained, 3-inch switchblade knife was found in the apartment, but there were no apparent fingerprints, Serdet said.

Maher confessed to starting the fire once the hospital where he was being treated for the stab wounds said there was no reason for him to remain there.

Police said that Safra spoke to his wife twice with a mobile telephone from the bathroom where he was barricaded, and was still alive when firefighters arrived at the apartment. Monaco’s prosecutor said Safra had ignored the firefighters’ frantic pleas to unlock the bathroom door, fearing assailants were outside.

However, a source with detailed knowledge of the case said Safra had called police twice while he was coughing in the smoke-filled bathroom and begged them to get him out. Reports that Safra had talked to his wife and refused to open the door were untrue, the source said. The source spoke on condition of anonymity.

The investigator in the prosecutor’s office said Monday that Safra did call police once, but denied the fire had already started and that he was coughing at the time.

The attack came during the final stages of the purchase of Republic Bank by London-based HSBC Bank.

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