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Safra's Nurse Admits to Setting Fire

By Charles Trueheart
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 6, 1999; 11:58 a.m. EST

The American nurse who worked for banker Edmond J. Safra confessed today to starting the fires that eventually killed Safra and another private nurse in Monaco Friday.

Authorities in the tiny Mediterranean enclave said they would charge Ted Maher, 41, with arson resulting in the deaths of Safra, a Lebanon-born banking mogul who suffered from Parkinson's disease, and nurse Vivian Torrente.

According to Monaco prosecutor Daniel Serdet, Maher "did not intend to threaten Edmond Safra's life. He simply wanted to draw attention to himself to settle his differences with an employee of Mr. Safra."

Earlier speculation about a motive in the killings had centered on the impending sale of major Safra bank holdings and on the role of Safra banks in Russian money-laundering investigations.

Since Friday, Maher had been the chief witness to the dawn blaze that gutted Safra's luxurious duplex residence on the Monte Carlo waterfront, and the only one who said he had seen intruders.

Alerted by Maher to the presence of two armed men in the apartment, Safra and Torrente hid in the billionaire banker's bathroom and nearly two hours later succumbed to smoke inhalation from two fires spreading through the apartment.

According to police, Maher first said he had been taken by surprise and stabbed by two hooded, knife-wielding men who broke into the sixth-floor private infirmary where he had been asleep early Friday morning. Maher, bleeding from stomach and leg, was the first to alert authorities about intruders, but did not mention the fires.

Today Serdet said Maher used his own knife to stab himself. Serdet said Maher had been under the influence of unspecified medications.

Scrupulous video surveillance of the building, which housed three banking offices on the floors below the Safra duplex, showed no entry or exit by anyone, Serdet said.

Safra, founder and president of the Republic National Bank of New York and other financial institutions, was buried today in Geneva, where he maintained one of several residences. The funeral at Beth Yacob Synagogue was attended by family and friends who included Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Prize winner.

Little is known about Maher, a Safra employee for about five months. The Associated Press said he was from Stormville, N.Y. Because of his Parkinson's disease, Safra maintained a medical team wherever he went; the team included Maher, the Philippines-born Torrente, and other medical personnel including doctors.

Safra also had a staff of 10 bodyguards, but none was present in the duplex apartment the night of the fire. Serdet, the French prosecutor detached to oversee this high-profile case, said that despite intense concerns about his personal security, Safra preferred not to have bodyguards in the 10,000 square foot apartment.

Another source in Monte Carlo said that Lily Safra, his Brazilian-born wife, objected strenuously to the heavy security that always accompanied them on their travels. Mrs. Safra and a young granddaughter were in another part of the apartment at the time of the fire and were rescued by firefighters unharmed.

But Mrs. Safra, who along with others were in cellular-phone communication with Edmond Safra during the ordeal, was not able to persuade her husband to emerge from the bathroom. According to Serdet, Safra was convinced that the noise of firefighters tromping through the apartment came from the assailants Maher had described.

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© 1999 The Washington Post Company

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