BOSTON (Reuters) - After losing his entire life’s savings to disgraced fund manager Bernard Madoff, 90-year-old Ian Thiermann abandoned retirement and now works the aisles of a grocery store to make ends meet.
Handing out fliers hawking avocados and pork ribs at a supermarket in Ben Lomond, California, Thiermann is one of many facing dramatic lifestyle changes after losing their savings in Madoff’s suspected $50 billion Ponzi scheme.
Thiermann wasn’t even aware he had invested with Madoff until December 15, when a friend who managed his investments called him on the telephone. “He said, ‘I’ve lost everything and you have lost everything.’” For Thiermann, that meant $750,000.
Days after the release of a list of thousands of Madoff customers — from Hall of Fame baseball pitcher Sandy Koufax to actor John Malkovich — a picture is emerging of a scandal that has reverberated far beyond America’s still-wealthy to those who have lost nearly everything.
And swept up in the pain are many who should be savoring the twilight of their lives in peaceful retirement rather than scrambling for a living.
Thiermann, owner of a pest-control company in Los Angeles before retiring 25 years ago, enjoyed returns of 10 to 12 percent each year on his savings for about 15 years regardless of whether markets rose or fell. He lived on those returns, devoting much time to nonprofit work.
“We don’t have any cash reserves now. And we still owe money on our houses,” he said in a telephone interview. He learned of his losses while shopping in a local grocery store with his wife, Terry.
“The store manager who we know very well said, ‘What’s wrong?’ We said, ‘Have you heard about this Madoff?’ And he said, ‘Oh my god!” Thiermann explained. “I now work there as a beginner and I deeply appreciate it.”
About 2,490 miles to the east in West Chester, Pennsylvania, Maureen Ebel has also surrendered a comfortable retirement, and works as a cleaner after losing her family savings of $7.3 million to Madoff.
On December 17, six days after learning of her losses, the 60-year-old widow found work cleaning the home of a friend and caring for a 93-year-old woman. Ebel’s husband, a doctor, died in 2000 at age 53. The former nurse is also selling her luxury Lexus SUV and a winter home in Florida.
“On the first day I went to work, after pushing that vacuum cleaner around, I came home and said to myself ‘this is what my life has come to,’ and I held onto my dog and I cried,” Ebel said in a telephone interview.
In Pompano Beach, Florida, 73-year-old Irwin Salbe also expects to return to work after losing about 75 percent of his investment portfolio to Madoff, who according to court documents confessed to his sons on December 10 that the firm’s investment-advisory business was “basically a giant Ponzi scheme.”
Such schemes use money from new investors to pay distributions and redemptions to existing investors.
Salbe said his family investments with Madoff date back to the 1960s, although he declined to say exactly how much.
“We were pretty heavily in it with my children and my grandchildren. They all had accounts with mine. We’re all in it and it’s substantial,” he said.
“Now we’re downsizing. I had two cars. We’ve gotten rid of one. I’ve canceled some trips. I’ve reduced my expenses with every opportunity. We don’t eat out like we did. If we go out, we got to a neighborhood place like for a pizza,” he said.
“I used to get my income from there. Now, there’s no more expensive dinners. I don’t hug my kids anymore like I used to,” he said. “The image of Madoff’s main clientele is of rich people. That’s not true. A lot of people have been devastated like me,” said Salbe, who had met Madoff several times.
Salbe, a general manager for a newspaper and magazine distribution company in New York before retiring in 1991, inherited the Madoff investments when his father died in 1984. Over the years, he poured in his own money and eventually parked his entire retirement savings with Madoff.
“I’m going to definitely have to go back to a part-time job,” he said.
In Wisconsin, Abby Frucht ponders the fate of her parents, whose $1 million in life’s savings seemingly evaporated with the collapse of Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC, Madoff’s investment-advisory business. Her parents lived off the money in a retirement home in Sante Fe, New Mexico.
“My dad is 85 and my mom is 79. We don’t know how long they can stay there. We’re working that out now,” she said.
Her father suffers from Alzheimer’s disease and may not fully comprehend what’s happening, she said in a telephone interview. “They are very elderly and can’t possibly go back to work. They are very comfortable and happy where they are.”
Her parents have enough savings to stay in New Mexico another two months. After that, they may have no choice but to move in with her in Wisconsin. “My sisters and I have power of attorney over them so we have been putting our heads together to try and find a way to keep our parents comfortable.”
Some want industry regulators or the government to pay.
After losing money to Madoff, Lawrence Velvel, dean of the Massachusetts School of Law, said both the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority could be held liable for investors’ losses.
“The brokerage industry is responsible for this because these are the people that caused all of this,” he said.
(Reporting by Jason Szep; editing by Richard Chang)
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