by Murray Weiss
December 24, 2008 | 5:00am
A blueblooded French financial executive – despondent over losing $1.4 billion of his and his clients’ money to arch swindler Bernard Madoff – killed himself by slitting his arms in his Midtown office.
Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet, 65, was found dead yesterday morning at Access International Advisors, the Madison Avenue hedge-fund firm he co-founded.
Police said de la Villehuchet had one leg propped up on his desk, and had placed his wrists so that they bled down into a garbage can below. Nearby were a boxcutter and a bottle of sleeping pills, some of which the married aristocrat is believed to have taken before slashing both wrists and the crook of his elbow.
No note was found. But police strongly believe that he killed himself over the Madoff debacle.
He “could not cope with the pressure following the outbreak of the scandal,” one close friend said yesterday.
A former employee of Access International said de la Villehuchet “was a great guy. I’m saddened.”
“He was one of the hardest workers I know. He was clearly snookered – like a huge percentage of the population – by a crook,” said the ex-employee, who requested anonymity.
Guy Gurney, a photographer who lives in Connecticut, called de la Villehuchet his friend and “a very honorable man.
“He was extraordinary generous. He was an aristocrat but not a snob. He was a real person.
“When he was sailing, he was one of the boys.”
Gurney said that when he called de la Villehuchet to cancel a planned dinner last week, his friend revealed he was a victim of Madoff.
“He sounded very subdued,” Gurney said. Referring to de la Villehuchet’s wife, Claudine, Gurney said, “I can’t imagine what it’s like for her now.”
The ex-employee of Access International said de la Villehuchet owned a castle in the French province of Brittany that dated to the 16th century, had an ancestor named Magon whose name is inscribed on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, and was a world-class yachtsman.
“He hated the French – he insisted he was a Breton,” Gurney recalled. “He always said he hated the French because they had cut off the heads of 20 of his ancestors” during the French Revolution. Other sailing buddies remembered De la Villehuchet buying dinner for five to ten friends at a time, and said he was competing down in Florida as recently as last week.
De la Villehuchet’s long financial résumé includes founding and heading the American arm of Credit Lyonnais Securities .
“He was this blueblood French aristocrat [who] went to all the right schools and had all the right connections,” said the ex-employee.
De la Villehuchet and others at Access International Advisors learned two weeks ago that Madoff – whose offices are only three blocks away – had admitted to federal authorities he was running a Ponzi scheme, and that $50 billion of his investors’ money likely was gone. Madoff was arrested and then freed on bond.
The news rocked de la Villehuchet, who not only had placed client funds with Madoff’s firm over the years, but also himself had a substantial chunk of money invested with Madoff, sources said. Access International is feared to have lost $1.4 billion – at least two-thirds of its total assets – placing it sixth on the list of Madoff’s top 10 victims.
In recent weeks he had scrambled unsuccessfully to recover at least some money for clients, who are overwhelmingly European, and who had entrusted their funds with him because of his noble lineage and sterling reputation.
Others known to have solicited funds from clients for Access International Advisors include Philippe Junot – the first husband of Princess Caroline of Monaco – and Prince Michel of the former Yugoslavia.
Access International’s client list is rumored to include the Rothschild family and the Bettencourt family, which own the cosmetics company L’Oreal.
On Monday night, sources said, de la Villehuchet worked late at Access International and asked a janitor to finish cleaning his office by 7 p.m..
Later that night, a concerned partner at Access International who was not at the office called a security guard and asked him to check de la Villehuchet’s office. The guard found the office locked, sources said. At 7 a.m. yesterday, sources said, someone else tried to enter de la Villehuchet’s office on the 22nd-floor and notified security. When the door finally was opened, he was found dead at his desk.
A man who answered the door at de la Villehuchet’s home in New Rochelle asked reporters to respect the family’s privacy.
“I think it’s terrible he did that to his wife, killing himself over money,” said their neighbor, Ronald Zezima.
Zezima, 55, said the de la Villehuchets – who have no children – were very polite, and spent part of the year living in Brittany.
Patricia Schulz-Heik, whose late husband, Joachim, was a longtime friend and sailing partner of de la Villehuchet at the Larchmont Yacht Club, was devastated.
“This is really sad news,” Schulz-Heik said.
Although de la Villehuchet likely did not know Madoff was a crook, he and his firm could have been susceptible to lawsuits by clients.
Access International and other so-called feeders funds – including Fairfield Greenwich, which had $7.5 billion placed with Madoff – had the responsibility of doing “due diligence,” or making sure that their money was adequately safeguarded and being used for its stated purpose.
De la Villehuchet is believed to be the second Madoff investor to kill himself. On Dec. 17, 49-year-old HSBC banker Christen Schnor – whose firm may have lost $1 billion in the scam – hanged himself in a London hotel.
Meanwhile, the Boston Globe yesterday reported that Robert Jaffe, who had been vice president of a brokerage partly owned by Madoff, in the 1970s and 1980s handled investments of four brothers tied to the Mafia in Boston. Those brothers, the Angiulos, were convicted in 1986 in a large racketeering case.
A spokesman for Jaffe, who is known to have raised huge sums of money for Madoff in Florida, did not deny that Jaffe had been a broker for the mobsters, but called the Globe story “ancient history [that] has no bearing on the current Madoff tragedy.”
Additional reporting by Larry Celona, John Doyle, C.J. Sullivan and Post wire services