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Russell Wasendorf Suicide Attempt Highlights Little-Studied Response To Disgrace

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Russell Wasendorf tried suicide when faced with real consequences for his admitted embezzlement.
Russell Wasendorf tried suicide when faced with real consequences for his admitted embezzlement.

"I am sorry it ended like this," wrote tourism executive Tom Sponseller sometime before he shot himself in the head with a 9 mm pistol in Columbia, S.C., in March. "I am a huge disappointment to everyone, my family, my friends, business associates and others. I let everyone down and have embarrassed those who I love the most, my wife, kids, and grandkids. I am so sorry I have failed you."

As he prepared to hang himself in a New Delhi public park in February, Olympus Corp. executive Tsutomi Omori wrote a note to whomever found his body. "I am sorry for bothering you," it read.

A similar tone was struck by former Enron Vice Chairman Cliff Baxter before he shot himself in a Houston suburb in early 2002. "I have always tried to do the right thing but where there was once great pride now it's gone," he wrote to his wife. "I love you and the children so much. I just can't be any good to you or myself. The pain is overwhelming. Please try to forgive me."

These notes, all written by executives at companies under investigation for fraud, sound a common theme among those who kill themselves: remorse and feelings that they have failed their loved ones.

"When I was suicidal, I genuinely believed the family would be better off without me, that I was sparing them all this future grief," said Heidi Bryan, a self-described "chronically suicidal" woman who now works as a suicide prevention advocate. "And if you're a high-powered executive, naturally you're going to feel the weight of the people you feel you have betrayed so much more -- your company, your family -- and there's so much shame."

But not all executives who try to kill themselves are significantly driven by shame. While suicide is always the result of a complex mix of psychological and social factors, the work of two experts suggests that remorse may not have been the driving force behind the high-profile suicide attempt last week by Peregrine Financial Group CEO Russell Wasendorf Sr. in the wake of his firm's collapse. Instead, they point to a more unusual motivation.

Among executives who attempt suicide, there exists a much smaller subset to which Wasendorf appears to belong: suicides and attempted suicides by individuals, nearly always men, with histories of borderline narcissistic behavior, characterized by a grandiose sense of self, rigid thinking, and a need for admiration and attention. These men can rationalize breaking the law, but when their crimes are discovered and they face the reality of public disgrace, suicide may seem like the best option.

Where executives have committed crimes, "it is not remorse that motivates" them to kill themselves, said Dr. Alan Berman, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology, a suicide education and prevention group. "Rather it's a refusal to accept a changed public persona."

As he prepared to take his life, Wasendorf confessed to massive fraud in a document whose tone often sounded more boastful than ashamed. He explained in detail how he had used "careful concealment and blunt authority" to steal hundreds of millions of dollars over two decades from clients of his brokerage firm. His scheme to falsify bank statements and balance sheets started 20 years ago, he wrote, because "my ego was too big to admit failure."

Wasendorf's plan to impose "a punishment far greater" on himself than the authorities "could have hoped to impose" fell apart on July 9, when he was discovered unconscious in a car he had altered to funnel the exhaust inside. The confession he hoped would be discovered alongside his body is now part of a mounting legal case against him.

Dr. Jill Harkavy-Friedman of the American Foundation For Suicide Prevention, however, cautioned against trying to group suicides together, including suicides by business executives.

"The fact is, most people don't kill themselves," she said, "which is why it's so important for us to look for individual risk factors."

"At the bottom of any suicide or suicide attempt, you're going to find a person in tremendous pain and discomfort," Harkavy-Friedman added. "Nobody kills themselves because they're happy or feeling good."

According to estimates by the American Association of Suicidology, more than 900,000 people attempted to kill themselves in the United States in 2009, the most recent year for which data are available. Of those attempts, 36,909 were lethal, or one in every 25. Although the association has no separate statistics on executive suicides, it recognizes a "clear and direct relationship between unemployment and suicide." In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the group also noted that "home loss has been found to be one of the most common economic strains associated with suicides."

In the cases of executive criminals, however, Berman said that "the suicide dies having preserved in his mind that the world's view of him will remain that of before his death. Death is preferred to losing face, suffering media coverage of the felonious behavior, prison and other consequences."

By committing suicide, Berman said, "in the mind of these folks, they still go out in charge, on top, not diminished or otherwise less than what their inflated ego and distorted sense of self believed them to be."

Calls to PFG's offices on Tuesday seeking comment were not returned.

An unusual 2009 study of suicide among people with narcissistic personality disorders found that they were more likely than not to be organized and lethal in their attempts. According to Dr. Herbert Hendin, founder of the American Society for Suicide Prevention, "major executives, with no [history of suicide], who kill themselves after a sudden reversal of fortune, or after malfeasance on their part has been exposed, seldom consult therapists prior to their suicide, so our psychological understanding of them is particularly limited."

In an in-depth 1994 profile, however, Hendin examined the case of Jake Horton, a utility company executive who committed suicide in 1989 after learning that he would likely be indicted for making illegal contributions to political candidates.

A career employee who had risen through the ranks, "Horton demanded attention," Hendin wrote. "He would walk into a room of people and announce 'Here I am' or 'Here he is.' His need to be admired and to impress people was striking."

Like Horton, Wasendorf was obsessed with his image. To be seen as an industry leader, he wrote op-eds, made himself available to journalists as an expert, and even interviewed actor Jackie Chan for a story that ran in the Wall Street Journal. He touted his professional accolades and philanthropy whenever he could. His extensive bio on the firm's website waxes on about how the "noted writer and educator" has written or co-written six books on futures trading, founded an industry magazine, won various awards, and is "widely recognized as an expert and industry voice."

But both Wasendorf and Horton's outsized personas masked a deep disregard for the rules and regulations that would be their eventual undoing. In his confession, Wasendorf wrote that he didn't "feel bad about deceiving the regulators" with forged bank statements about the whereabouts of more than $200 million. To Wasendorf, entities tasked with protecting investors from fraud, like the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, were "mean spirited," and "they made the decision to be my enemy."

Wasendorf's bizarre logic is reminiscent of what Hendin called one of Horton's "favorite expressions" more than 20 years earlier: "'I break the rules, not the law.'"

However he chooses to look at it, Wasendorf will face the law later this month, when he appears in an Iowa federal courtroom on charges of lying to regulators. There, the once-powerful CEO will be represented by a public defender, a situation reportedly forced on him because he is unable to afford private legal counsel. It remains to be seen how he will plead, but his confession leaves little room for legal maneuvering.

"I know the Regulators [sic] will try to make other executives at PFG culpable for my crime," he wrote, "but they will discover that I am the only guilty party."

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.