Madoff’s fleet hits rough seas

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Victims of the financier’s investment fraud could share the proceeds when his seized boats are auctioned

As news helicopters hovered overhead, Bull, a 1969 Rybovich 56 sportfishing yacht — the pride and joy of disgraced financier Bernard Madoff — motored out of its covered slip at Roscioli Yachting Center in Fort Lauderdale for a very public promenade down the New River to an impoundment by U.S. marshals.

Bull, a Rybovich 56, was one of four boats seized by authorities.

The yacht, a classic valued at $800,000 to $1.2 million, will remain at the impoundment at National Liquidators — a company that auctions seized and repossessed boats — until a U.S. District Court judge in New York decides what to do with it. Madoff, who pleaded guilty March 12 to swindling investors out of $50 billion in a long-running Ponzi scheme, has given the court a list of his and wife Ruth’s assets totaling $823 million. Four boats were among those assets.

U.S. marshals also seized Little Bull, a 24-foot Pathfinder stored on its trailer in a warehouse at Heritage Square Industrial Park in Palm Bay, Fla., and the Madoffs’ $9.3 million Palm Beach mansion April 1. The next day, they seized a 38-foot, $430,000 Shelter Island Runabout named Sitting Bull — similar to the one singer Billy Joel owns — at the Montauk Marine Basin at Montauk, N.Y., on the tip of Long Island. One day later, French authorities seized a $7 million, 89-foot Leopard sportyacht, also named Bull, which Madoff kept in Cap d’Antibes, France, at the $1.5 million slip he owned.

Madoff

U.S. District Judge Denny Chin is to sentence Madoff June 16. He faces up to 150 years in prison. The judge likely will issue a final judgment on the assets after sentencing, says U.S. Marshals Service spokesman Barry Golden. If forfeited, the yachts would be auctioned or sold by National Liquidators, the proceeds going either to the government or as restitution to Madoff’s victims, Golden says.

Madoff was a customer of boatyard owner Bob Roscioli’s for almost 15 years. After Madoff’s arrest, Roscioli knew the seizure of Bull was imminent. “I knew this was going to come,” he says. “It was just a matter of time.”

The financier, who bought the wooden-hulled Rybovich new 39 years ago, kept it in its covered slip at the yard for six months during hurricane season, then moved it to Palm Beach to the dock behind his mansion there, Roscioli says. “He loved that boat. He absolutely loved it,” he says.

Yet he seldom used it. “I don’t think he even slept on the boat,” Roscioli says. “He just liked it behind his house. He’d sit on his back porch and look at it.” Admire it. Savor its lines.

Roscioli

Roscioli says Madoff was a good customer who paid his bills on time and kept the boat in immaculate condition. The yard just finished a $130,000 refit that included a new paint job and work on the wooden keel last fall. Madoff paid that bill shortly before his December arrest, when all his assets were frozen.

“I lucked out,” Roscioli says. Madoff still owes him $4,000 for storage, but Roscioli likely will write it off. “I could put a lien on [Bull],” he says. “But I’m sure they’ll want to pay the $50 billion [he owes victims] first before I get my $4,000.”

Madoff had employed just one captain on Bull in 39 years. That captain has declined to speak to the press, but Roscioli says he is out of a job — two years short of his anticipated retirement. He and the captain had talked about Madoff’s arrest. Like most who knew him, Bull’s captain couldn’t believe what his boss had done.

“When you work for a man for 40 years, it’s a shocker,” Roscioli says. “He really liked Bernie. Bernie was good to him for 40 years. They got along well. Bernie never put any pressure on him. They never had any

disagreements.”

Madoff was a “very private guy” — for obvious reasons, in retrospect — “non-descript, not flashy. He didn’t gloat [over his financial success],” Roscioli says.

“He was very smart, very knowledgeable,” he says. “He’d pop into the yard once in a while, and we’d talk about the boat and walk around the yard. He never showed any stress, no emotion.”

Madoff’s uncanny ability to manage his Ponzi operation for years — bringing in new investors every day to pay returns to old investors — without even a hint of stress is “absolutely amazing,” Roscioli says. To him, the man was very, very cool and very, very hard to figure.

Roscioli received no advance notice of the seizure. Marshals showed up at the boatyard gate on Fort Lauderdale’s Marina Mile about 10 a.m. Within minutes, it was overrun with reporters and television trucks, with news choppers hovering overhead. Two marshals went to the dock, slapped seizure stickers on Bull, and within an hour a hired captain was revving up the engines to go to National Liquidators.

“We were getting calls from all over the country,” Roscioli says. Good Morning America called. CNN and the Associated Press interviewed him. “Every major news outlet was here — just for a boat seizure,” Roscioli says. All three seized boats are in Ruth Madoff’s name, according to court records. The yacht in France is in the name of Yacht Bull Corp., a Madoff corporation registered in the Cayman Islands.

National Liquidators, as “substitute custodian,” is contracted to maintain the Rybovich, says Golden. Roscioli isn’t so sure it will weather the seizure well. “It’s a gorgeous boat,” he says. “It would make me sick to see it sit out in the open and be destroyed.”

This article originally appeared in the June 2009 issue.