BUCHAREST, ROMANIA, DEC. 25 -- Nicolae Ceausescu, 71, and his wife, Elena, 72, reportedly executed today after a secret trial found them guilty of "grave crimes," ruled Romania with an iron grip for 24 years and created a cult of personality unmatched in Eastern Europe since the days of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. They were found guilty of the deaths of thousands of protesters and of trying to spirit $1 billion in public funds out of the country, Bucharest Radio reported. They were captured Saturday while trying to flee abroad. Before Ceausescu was shouted down at a Bucharest rally he orchestrated Thursday -- his last public appearance -- his hold on power was so firm that he could carry out a foreign policy independent of the Soviet Union and the other East bloc countries. Just a month ago, he was overwhelmingly reaffirmed as supreme leader by an obedient Communist Party conference. He was the last hard-line Communist leader in the Soviet bloc after democratic reforms swept through Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria this year. His party hailed him as the "Genius of the Carpathians" and the "Conductor." His severity gained him the nickname "Draculescu," for Bram Stoker's bloodthirsty count of Transylvania. He imposed austerity on the people yet was building a presidential palace as a monument to himself. He had lavish mountain and sea retreats. Born Jan. 26, 1918, in Scornicesti, Ceausescu was the third son of a large peasant family. An elementary school dropout, he was apprenticed as a shoemaker, took a job in a factory and joined the illegal Communist Party youth organization at age 15. He became a party member three years later, in 1936. Before and during World War II, his Communist activities landed him in jail several times. He became a protege of Communist leader Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, rose quickly in the party and succeeded his mentor after his death in 1965. He turned the party into a personal instrument, gradually pushing aside all leaders who opposed his policies and installing loyalists on the ruling 23-member Politburo, including his wife, who rose to head the country's scientific community despite doubts about her background and education. Elena Ceaucescu, who used to be praised by the regime as "the best mother Romania could have," was born in Petresti, a village in southern Romania, in 1917. Official biographies shaved two years off her age to make her appear younger than her husband. She married Ceausescu when both were teenage revolutionaries and joined the Communist Party in 1937 in Bucharest, where she worked in a textile factory. After Nicolae Ceausescu's takeover in 1965, Elena Ceausescu rapidly rose in the party hierarchy. She was named a member of the party executive committee in 1973, and she was first vice premier as well as being a member of the Politburo. Nicu, the Ceausescus' youngest son, was regional party chief in central Romania. Valentin, another son, Zoia-Elena, a daughter, and Ceausescu brothers held prestigious posts, as did several in-laws. Western analysts and knowledgeable Romanians estimate that 40 members of the Ceausescu family held top jobs in the party and state hierarchy. Elena Ceausescu was said to be a trained chemist and was praised as a "scientist of world fame." Her works filled Romanian bookstores and were translated into foreign languages. But they were believed to be ghostwritten by other scientists. As chairman of the national council for science and education, she was in charge of all curriculums, from elementary schools to higher education. She reportedly had her three children and high officials bugged so that she could keep tabs on them. Elena and Nicolae Ceausescu acted much like a royal family, traveling abroad, conducting well-staged visits to farms and factories, and making a regal promenade at state receptions. When Nicolae Ceausescu was elected president in March 1974, an official picture showed him holding a silver scepter as the symbol of authority. His wife developed a taste for furs and jewelry. Ceausescu's portrait lined the streets in Bucharest and other Romanian cities and bookstores were full of works attributed to him. Sources close to Elena Ceausescu's entourage said she was cynical and paid no attention to the real needs of the people. "The worms never get satisfied, regardless of how much food you give them," she was once overheard saying, referring to complaints about food shortages. The United States and other Western powers originally cultivated Nicolae Ceausescu's relatively independent foreign policy stand within the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact. Two U.S. presidents visited Bucharest, Richard Nixon in 1969 and Gerald Ford in 1975, and President Carter held a state dinner for him in Washington in 1978. Queen Elizabeth II conferred on him an honorary knighthood. Nicolae Ceausescu maintained diplomatic relations with Israel even after other Soviet bloc countries broke them during the 1967 Middle East war. In keeping with his maverick image, he denounced the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, refused to participate and refused to allow any foreign troops in Romania. Romania was the only East bloc country to send athletes to the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, breaking the Soviet-led boycott. In later years, Ceausescu grew more dogmatic, rejecting the need for reform adopted by other bloc allies, such as Poland and Hungary. This year, he urged his Warsaw Pact allies to invade Poland to prevent a Solidarity-led government from taking power. Romania became increasingly isolated in both East and West, particularly after 30,000 Romanians, mostly ethnic Hungarians, fled to Hungary last year. Moreover, Ceausescu accused other Warsaw Pact countries of abandoning orthodox communism. "The triumph of the revolution requires unity, severe discipline and a spirit of sacrifice. A firm organization is needed as well as a tested political leader who knows how to unite and lead the masses," he told a mass meeting in Bucharest this year. He invested billions of dollars in a crash industrialization program and rigidly followed a policy of domestic austerity to pay off Romania's $11 billion foreign debt. Once known as the breadbasket of the Balkans, Romania became one of Europe's poorest countries. The longer the food lines and the more vocal the people's complaints, the more harshly the regime cracked down on critics. Despair spread among the nation's 23 million people as hardships became more severe throughout the 1980s, and in the end not even the secret policy or the army could keep them down. On Dec. 17, Ceausescu's security forces opened fire on thousands of demonstrators in Timisoara who demanded freedom and a better life, beginning the chain of events that brought him down.