NEW YORK, JAN. 22 -- Steven J. Romer, a lawyer saddled with heavy personal debt, has disappeared with at least $15.5 million in clients' funds, including an orphan's inheritance, investigators and sources said today.

Romer left behind a wife, 11 grown children and a letter to investors that said he was suffering an inoperable brain tumor, had two months to live and had given away their money "to feed some hungry and poverty stricken people." Investigators said they doubt the claims.

Romer owed large sums to Citibank, Chemical Bank and the Internal Revenue Service, said an investigator who spoke on condition of anonymity. At least two companies in which he held most of the stock filed for bankruptcy last week, the investigator said.

District Attorney Robert Morgenthau said he is looking into accusations that Romer, 55, absconded with money belonging to 40 clients, including $700,000 that he held in trust for a 20-year-old orphan. If the allegations are substantiated, Romer could be charged with grand larceny, Morgenthau said.

Romer was last seen Dec. 31 just before he was to begin a vacation in Arizona with his wife, Rita. She waited for him at the home of friends, but he never appeared.

Romer's son, Kenneth, who works with his father in his several businesses, reported Romer missing Jan. 1, and police began investigating.