Charles Bennett stood on a Manhattan pier and stared at the cold, dark water below.
Once a successful lawyer at a powerful firm, he was now a wreck. His once promising career had been consumed by addiction. Meetings with clients had given way to bottles of liquor and 8-balls of cocaine, his lawyer would later admit in a court document. When his attempt at starting his own practice failed, he burned through his savings, then began duping friends and family members into investing in a Ponzi scheme. He even stole from his own mother.
By Nov. 3, 2014, Bennett’s fraud was quickly unraveling. That morning, an investor again demanded his $100,000 back.
“Sorry but let’s talk after I have confirmed the wire … which shall be done this afternoon as promised,” Bennett replied in an email.
But Bennett was bluffing. There would be no wire transfer. He had already spent the money on drugs, fine dining, vacations and his girlfriend, authorities would later determine. And instead of going to the bank, Bennett took some sleeping pills, washed them down with vodka and went to the pier.
Then he jumped.
As he sank into the Hudson River, Bennett left behind more than 30 victims and a web of deceit worth more than $5 million.
He also left behind a suicide note saying he could no longer bear “the pure emotional weight of the guilt I feel.”
His heart stopped. He was dead: another financial fraudster fleeing justice in this world for forgiveness in the next.
But then he came back.
New York Police divers pulled Bennett from the river and performed CPR, restarting his heart, pumping air into his water-logged lungs and rushing him to the hospital.
When investigators searched his West Side hotel room, however, they found his 16-page suicide note, titled “A Sad Ending to My Life.”
Instead of a sad ending to life, the note would mark the painful beginning of a new one for Bennett. Armed with his confession to running “a huge Ponzi scheme envelopping [sic] my family and closest friends,” prosecutors charged him with fraud. In Oct. 2015 he pleaded guilty.
“I am deeply, deeply ashamed by my conduct,” he said at the time, according to Reuters.
On Thursday, Bennett’s life and near death came full circle. He appeared in court looking more like his old self, dressed in a dark suit and sporting a tie. Over the past 18 months, he had moved into his mother’s basement in the St. Paul, Minn., gotten sober and tried to atone for his crimes by teaching English to immigrants. Family members he had bilked said they forgave him.
“The moment I first saw him in the hospital … when he became conscious I saw the agony of his suffering visible on his face and when I looked into his eyes, I saw his deep remorse, shame and sorrow, a remorse so deep, he took his life believing that even his own mother wouldn’t love him,” his mother wrote in a letter to the judge.
But other victims had not forgiven Bennett. They called him a “narcissist” and a “manipulator” whose plunge into the Hudson wasn’t a suicide attempt but a ploy for sympathy.
Which way would the judge see it? Would Bennett be forgiven, or sent to prison?
Several fifths of liquor and an 8-ball of coke
To his friends and family back in Minnesota, Charlie Bennett was the Midwestern boy who made it good in Manhattan. That’s why many of them didn’t think twice about handing him their money.
Bennett’s childhood in St. Paul wasn’t bucolic, however. His father was an alcoholic and his mother suffered from bipolar disorder, according to a letter his lawyer sent to the judge ahead of sentencing. His parents got divorced when he was young, leaving a teenage Bennett to bounce between homes and schools.
But Bennett was smart. He earned a BA and MA from the University of Florida, then a law degree from Boston University, working part-time to pay for all three, according to the letter. After law school, he snagged a job in New York City as an associate at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, one of the biggest law firms in the world. He rubbed shoulders with other up-and-coming attorneys, including Silda Wall — at the time, the wife of Attorney General and future governor Eliot Spitzer.
When he tired of New York, he moved to Paris to work for another top firm, then it was back to Manhattan to join Proskauer Rose, another huge law practice.
“His family and friends back home watched with awe and pride at Charlie’s life trajectory — from a small town Midwestern boy to a successful New York City lawyer,” his public defender, Julia L. Gatto, wrote. “So much of his personal worth and value was derived from his family and friends’ image of him as a success.”
“Charlie was driven, rising above the fray, always pushing himself, making it on his own, successful but never taking an easy path because he wanted to learn more, experience more,” his younger sister, Kelly B. Joyce, wrote in her own letter to the judge.
In 2000, Bennett quit Proskauer Rose to start his own practice. It was supposed to the peak of an already soaring career.
Instead, it was the beginning of his downfall.
For years, Bennett had propped himself up with alcohol and cocaine, according to his lawyer.
“Things were not exactly as they appeared,” Gatto wrote. “In New York, Charlie was lonely and depressed. His family had a history of mental health issues and it appears that Charlie carried this legacy. He was also addicted to cocaine — a sometimes daily habit for him — and he was an alcoholic who regularly engaged in binge drinking.
“During binge episodes, Charlie typically consumed several fifths of liquor and, at least, an ‘8-ball’,” or 3.5 grams of cocaine, Gatto said. “As he watched people around him couple off and start families, Charlie was emotionally unable to form that kind of connection. Charlie was suffering from severe and undiagnosed clinical depression. Nevertheless, he always presented as together and happy.”
With his drug use accelerating and his law firm imploding, Bennett burned through his savings. But he was too proud to ask for a loan.
“In a cloud of cocaine-use, alcohol dependency, and significant mental health issues, Charlie proposed an ‘investment opportunity’ to a handful of friends and family,” Gatto wrote.
According to prosecutors, Bennett pretended to have personal connections to important people involved in European real-estate mortgage-backed securities deals with extraordinarily high yields. Eliot Spitzer was one of his investors, he claimed.
To his friends and family members back in the Midwest, it looked like the golden boy had found the goose that laid the golden egg. Many signed up, including his mother, brother, two sisters, and an aunt. He emailed them frequently with updates on their fake earnings.
“Blimey you are getting close to $1mil!” he wrote to one close friend who eventually lost $600,000 in the scheme, according to the complaint.
He also coaxed his investors to give ever increasing amounts.
“Yo, huge game changer 10 day deal,” he wrote to another investor, identified in the complaint as Victim 3. “It’s going to be a gangbuster I am sure (25%+ return is our model…).”
According to investigators, Bennett spent that ill-gotten money on vacations and expensive hotels.
According to his lawyer, however, “at no point did Charlie grow rich off the scheme.” Instead, she says, he spent the money on his spiraling drug addiction.
Whether or not he ever intended on paying back his creditors is up for debate.
“In his diminished mental state, Charlie genuinely believed he would figure out a way to pay back the money with interest,” Gatto wrote in her letter to the judge. “Since boyhood, Charlie had used his brains and skill with positive results. He went to good schools, earned top grades, and excelled at prestigious jobs. With blind and irrational ego, he assumed he would figure it out here too.”
The end of the pier
Bennett never did figure out how to make his investors whole again. And on the morning of Nov. 3, 2014, his house of cards came tumbling down around him. Victim 3 was demanding his money back. Other investors were also antsy. From his hotel room on the West Side, Bennett stalled for time, emailing Victim 3 that he would wire the money that afternoon.
Instead, he penned his suicide note.
“A Sad Ending to My Life,” began the 16-page handwritten note.
“I have systematically over the course of five years or so perpetrated a huge Ponzi scheme envelopping [sic] my family and closest friends,” he wrote. “I managed to completely squander the hard earned money that my family and dear friends managed to set aside over the course of their working lives.”
Saying that he was weighed down by guilt, Bennett came clean before jumping into the Hudson. “To be clear about this: the whole… investment scheme that so many thought was real was in fact a complete… fiction of my crazed imagination… It was all an illusion… The bulk of the funds were used in classic Ponzi scheme fashion to pay off other supposed ‘investors’ and my absurd lifestyle. All the while pretending I was making everyone wealthy with absurd returns on their money…
“It was a Ponzi scheme pure and simple.”
After “drugging” himself with vodka and sleeping pills, Bennett then walked to the pier and jumped in.
His family members and attorney claim Bennett’s suicide attempt was about accepting responsibility for his scheme.
“Suicide was not an escape from his crime, it was to protect us and because he was convinced that we would really want him gone,” his sister, Kelly Joyce, wrote later.
To his critics, however, Bennett’s plunge was every bit as calculated as the Ponzi scheme he had pulled off for half a decade.
Bennett happened to dive in the river right near the NYPD’s SCUBA team, the New York Post pointed out.
“He’s such a manipulator,” John Hanson, one of Bennett’s victims, told the newspaper. “His goal was to get attention and hope everyone feels sorry for him.”
“I think he’s a narcissist who’s trying to beat the system,” said Brendt Mullan, another victim.
“There was no cloud of cocaine,” a third victim, Mark Loader, told the Post, of the Ponzi scheme. “It was calculated. It was premeditated. He was sober.”
If Bennett’s plunge into the Hudson was a fake suicide, then it came dangerously close to working. According to his attorney, his heart stopped working while in the water. Once at the hospital, his lung collapsed and he went into “respiratory arrest.” For several weeks he was in and out of intensive care with pneumonia and fluid in his lungs. Psychiatrists diagnosed him with severe depression.
As he was recovering, federal prosecutors charged him with operating a $5 million fraud and froze what little assets he had left.
When Bennett bonded out of jail, he was allowed to move to his mother’s house back in St. Paul. The prodigal son had returned, and now he was broke, living in the basement and taking care of his aunt’s dog. He volunteered at a community center, teaching English as a second language. He attended court-mandated drug counseling, where he admitted to being an alcoholic. He even decided to reach out to a woman with whom he believed he had fathered a child years before. Above all, he apologized to the family and friends he had betrayed.
“As I have told him myself, I forgive him,” wrote Toni Lasorella Murphy, one of his sisters and also a victim. “I sense that he feels little reason to believe that I truly forgive him — his remorse is heavy on his heart and I think it prevents him from accepting my forgiveness.”
“Taking his life was not about escaping his responsibility,” his mother wrote, “for all I have seen him do since that moment of consciousness [in the hospital] is take responsibility.”
With his suicide note functioning as a full confession, Bennett had little option but to plead guilty in October.
That left only sentencing. Bennett faced a broad range of possible sentences, from the maximum of 20 years in prison to the prosecutors’ recommendation of five years to the one year asked for by his attorney.
His fate was in the hands of the Honorable Laura Taylor Swain, federal judge for the Southern District of New York.
A judge’s decision
On Thursday, Bennett appeared in court appearing every bit the lawyer he once was. He wept as family members asked Swain not to send Bennett to prison, arguing that he was sorry and could better pay back his victims if free and working.
But other victims told Swain that prison time was only right for swindling them out of their savings.
“The scar is too deep, but prison time will help with the healing,” Hope Mullan told the court, according to Reuters. Brendt Mullan, her relative, said he was evicted after losing his money to Bennett’s Ponzi scheme.
“Fifteen to 20 years in jail would be optimal for my sense of justice,” he said, according to the Post.
Bennett did not argue with his detractors.
“Why did I do this? I don’t know. I’m a criminal. I’m a thief, I’m a liar,” he told the courtroom, according to the Post.
Perhaps, it was part of his ploy to gain sympathy. Or perhaps it was genuine self-loathing over what he had done to his friends, his family, even his own mother.
“I didn’t run anywhere except off a pier,” Bennett added, according to the Associated Press. “I just thought that’s what you do when you steal from your own mother.”
“I just can’t say enough how sorry I am,” he concluded. “I deserve to be punished.”
Swain agreed. On May 19, she sentenced Bennett to five years in prison.