By Bill Hewitt
December 20, 1999 12:00 PM

As one of the world’s most influential bankers and wealthiest men, Edmond Safra never stinted on security measures. By one account, he often traveled with a dozen bodyguards, many of them former Israeli commandos. But when in Monaco, where he maintained one of his seven residences, a 10,000-sq.-ft. penthouse atop a beautiful six-story building called the Belle Epoque, overlooking Monte Carlo harbor, Safra relaxed. There, in the tiny tax-haven principality, where violent crime is all but unknown, Safra, 67, estimated to be worth $2.5 billion, “would pop out with his wife for a stroll or to go get the paper like anyone else,” says the concierge at the Belle Epoque. “He would never take a bodyguard. He obviously felt safe here.”

But it was in Monte Carlo, in the early morning hours of Dec. 3, that Safra met a terrifying death. As a fire swept through his apartment, Safra, along with a nurse, Viviane Torrent, 52, died of smoke inhalation in one of the bathrooms, where the two had taken refuge. Monaco officials reportedly said that despite frantic pleas from his wife, Lily, who had contacted him from another part of the home via cell phone, the billionaire banker had refused to emerge, apparently fearing he was under attack. In fact, another live-in nurse, Ted Maher, 41, at first told police that he had been. Maher claimed that two hooded intruders had entered the apartment, stabbed Maher in the leg and abdomen and then set the blaze. But within three days after the tragedy, according to authorities in Monaco, the U.S.-born Maher confessed that his wounds had been self-inflicted and that he had started the fire in a fit of pique at another nurse.

Safra’s bizarre death seemed in jarring contrast to a life characterized by caution, control and success. He was born in Beirut to a venerable banking family that had its start more than 100 years earlier, financing caravans along the spice routes of the Ottoman Empire. At 16, Safra left school to work for the family bank in Lebanon, eventually moving to Brazil, where he founded Banco Safra, now that country’s fifth-largest bank. In the 1960s Safra started the Republic National Bank of New York, where he earned a reputation as an inspired marketer by giving away color TVs to new customers. Unmarried into his 40s, in 1976 he wed heiress Lily Monteverde, a Brazilian widow, whose two children, Adriana and Eduardo, he adopted. By one account, the pre-nuptial agreement ran 600 pages.

Such prudence became the hallmark of Safra’s success, which involved catering to wealthy clients worldwide. “He felt responsible for every penny of his clients’ money,” says Yigal Arnon, chairman of the First International Bank of Israel, a Safra family institution. Safra was also a generous contributor to charities, especially Jewish causes. In 1996, he bought the oldest-known manuscript of Einstein’s theory of relativity for an estimated $3 million and donated it to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Though known as a charming and affable man who detested publicity, Safra could not escape controversy. In 1983 he sold one of his banks to American Express. But several years later, fearful that Safra might spirit away some of its business, AmEx spread stories that his banks were mixed up in gun-running and laundering drug money. In 1989 AmEx admitted it had fabricated the stories and donated $8 million to Safra-selected charities as part of its apology.

The fact that Safra had recently been cooperating with an FBI investigation into Russian gangsters’ use of banks to launder their assets raised the possibility of a Mob hit. But from the start, investigators in Monaco focused on Maher. Those who knew Safra found it incredible that outsiders could penetrate the elaborate security systems in his building. “I don’t see how anyone could have gotten in there without an army,” says Henry Kissinger.

Why exactly Maher would set the fire remained unclear. He was not known to bear a grudge against Safra, and robbery was ruled out. Born in Lewiston, Maine, Maher served in the Army and after his discharge in the mid-’70s ended up in Nevada, where he worked briefly as a police officer and married his first wife, Marla. Records indicate he pleaded guilty in 1985 to charges of vandalizing a Las Vegas construction site where he had worked. A few years later he and his wife headed east, and in 1989 he graduated from a community college in New York State with a degree in nursing. A friend, Jennifer Tobin, told the newspaper Newsday that Maher had met Safra earlier this year while working as a nurse at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City, where Safra was undergoing treatment for Parkinson’s disease. Maher had evidently found a camera at the hospital and returned it to its owner, who knew Safra and recommended Maher to him. For the past five months, Maher, who had been living with his second wife, Heidi, and three children in rural Stormville, N.Y., worked for Safra for a reported $600 a day.

As the chief prosecutor in Monaco, Daniel Serdet, told it, Maher, who had been in Monaco with Safra for six weeks, had become jealous of another nurse—not Torrent—and wanted to attract attention to himself. By setting the fire and claiming to have fought off intruders, said Serdet, Maher hoped to impress the boss. “The crime was not committed for financial reasons,” said Serdet. “Mr. Maher said it was the best job he had ever had.” Authorities planned to charge the suspect—whom Serdet described as a “fragile personality”—not with murder, but with arson leading to death, which could get him a life prison sentence.

At the time of his death, the ailing Safra had been about to crown his career with the pending $10 billion sale of his Republic National Bank to a British corporation, which would have netted him close to $3 billion. But friends insist Safra was driven by more than financial motives and that he saw banking as holding the potential for creativity and good works. “In the same way that a doctor wants to be the best doctor in his field, or a painter, he wanted to be the best banker,” says longtime friend Arnon. “It had nothing to do with the amount of money he made.”

Bill Hewitt

Alec Marr in Monaco, Dina Shiloh in Tel Aviv, Lyndon Stambler in Las Vegas and Eric Francis in New York City