The Charade of Death

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At least Ted Maher can't complain about the view. From a room near his cell, he can look out over the Mediterranean where sailboats heel with the wind and seagulls circle overhead. Gazing downward, he can see a public garden with pine trees, flower bushes and manicured lawns. It's the kind of vista he dreamed of when he accepted what he called the "best job" of his life and moved to the Riviera. Trouble is, the window is located in the Monaco prison, and Maher may spend the rest of his days behind bars.

His life took an irrevocable turn at 5 a.m. on Friday, Dec. 3, when what he later described as "dark ideas" propelled him into a bizarre charade and the death of a female co-worker and his employer, Lebanese-born banker and philanthropist Edmond Safra, 67, founder of the Republic National Bank of New York and one of the world's wealthiest men.

Maher, 41, an American nurse, had sought to win his boss's gratitude and emerge as a hero by staging an attack on Safra's bunker-like two-story penthouse. According to police, Maher stabbed himself twice with his own knife then shouted out that he was being attacked by two masked intruders. Safra, who suffered from Parkinson's disease, fled into a bathroom with another nurse and locked the steel-reinforced door. Maher then lighted a fire in a wastebasket and rushed to the ground floor to alert the night watchman and call the police. But the blaze got out of hand, and firemen were unable to persuade the terrified Safra to open the door--even though his wife Lily had allegedly told him by cell phone that the coast was clear. By the time firemen broke into the bathroom, more than two hours after the fire started, Safra and nurse Viviane Torrente, 52, had died of smoke inhalation. The fumes reached the room through the fire-detection system.

Monaco police were mystified as to how two intruders could have got past a battery of security cameras and alarms. Videotapes showed no one going into or out of the six-story Belle Epoque building, which also houses three banks. Maher, a heavy user of sedatives whom prosecutors described as "psychologically fragile," did not help matters by frequently changing his story. Two days after the tragedy, police entered Maher's room at Princess Grace Hospital and put him under arrest as the prime suspect.

Within hours, Maher cracked and told them the whole story. He had run afoul of Safra's head nurse and decided to avenge himself by winning a promotion from the banker he had come to "love and respect." He admitted staging the break-in and setting the fire--"accidentally," his Monegasque lawyer, Georges Blot says. Officials believe he did not intend to murder his boss. Said Monaco prosecutor Daniel Serdet: "If he had wanted to kill Safra, he would have had 10,000 chances a day."Maher was charged with causing deaths by arson and faces a possible life term.

Blot told TIME that his client was motivated by his "affection" for Safra. "The first words Ted said to me when I met him were, 'This is horrible. I loved him. I admired him. I respected him. I don't understand why I did it.' He adored his boss and simply wanted to send him a signal and get his attention." As for Maher's frictions with head nurse Sonia, Blot says, "He was frustrated that she prevented a closer relationship between Ted and his boss that Ted felt he merited because he was doing such a good job."

A number of questions remain unanswered, and Lily Safra's attorney, Marc Bonnant, has requested access to the police files. "We would like to have all the details of the nurse's confession," he explains. "Was it credible and complete? What exactly pushed him to do what he did? How many fires did he set? Are there any inconsistencies in his confession?"

Safra's bank last year alerted the FBI to money-laundering operations emanating from Moscow, and Safra was widely reported to have obsessive fears for his life (Bonnant denies the fears). His security guards were recruited from among veterans of Israeli army special units. The night of the fire, however, Safra's entire security force were posted at his nearby villa; Safra was said to have wanted it that way, but it seemed a glaring lapse to leave him without a single guard. According to a Republic National bank spokeswoman, security chief Shmuel Cohen rushed to the apartment after the blaze started, but police initially blocked his access because he lacked the proper keys and I.D. to convince them who he was. Had Cohen got in quickly, she suggests, he may have been able to open the bathroom door or persuade Safra to come out.

The decision to bring Maher into the Safra household was the biggest blunder of all. The New York Times said Maher was offered the job after he returned a camera left by a close Safra associate. Bonnant says Maher had been carefully vetted through "in-depth background checks" and a personal interview with Mrs. Safra. "The fact that Maher is unstable became apparent to us only after the accident," Bonnant told TIME. "Nothing in Maher's files showed the slightest trace of mental instability."

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