NEW YORK — The fraud may not have been the work of Rene-Thierry Magon de La Villehuchet, but it came on his watch. For a man with a deep sense of rectitude, that was shame enough.
Friends and colleagues tried to console the fund manager, the scion of French aristocracy who despaired after losing more than $1 billion of his wealthy clients' money in the Ponzi scheme allegedly run by Wall Street wizard Bernard Madoff.
"Listen, people make mistakes," Leon Cooperman, founder of hedge fund Omega Advisors, said he told de La Villehuchet in a telephone conversation Monday. "You're not at fault and you have to pick yourself up from this."
But when a security guard opened the door to de La Villehuchet's office at Access International Advisors the following morning, he found the businessman dead at his desk, both of his wrists slashed. A box cutter and a bottle of sleeping pills lay nearby. Police say it was a suicide.
De La Villehuchet's death marked a grim addition to the toll laid bare since Madoff was arrested Dec. 11, telling FBI agents he had masterminded a $50 billion fraud. And it reinforced the emotional wounds the scandal has inflicted on many of its victims.
De La Villehuchet was shouldering part of the blame, having put so many millions of his investors' fortunes into Madoff's fund only to find out it was a complete fraud. His fund was among the biggest losers in the Madoff fraud, and one of a handful to get taken for more than $1 billion.
Cooperman strongly disputed some reports that de La Villehuchet might have had any deeper involvement with Madoff.
But the responsibility weighed heavily on de La Villehuchet, a descendant of one of France's most distinguished families who had a deeply ingrained sense of personal decorum, associates said. It is not yet known who his clients were.
"This guy is aristocracy, one of his ancestors was the admiral for Napoleon in the Napoleonic wars," said Cooperman, who traveled extensively with de La Villehuchet to meet with potential investors. "I think this thing brought great disgrace and embarrassment, and he didn't have the capacity to deal with it. In the end, he was sensitive to the disgrace and being involved with this thief."
Access International is believed to have lost $1.4 billion with Madoff, whom it entrusted to manage investments in one of its funds. The Luxalpha SICAV-American Selection fund, registered in Luxembourg, was marketed primarily to wealthy European investors.
Access was co-founded by de La Villehuchet in 1994. The company described itself in 2002 as working to "identify the best managers that have a unique and proprietary 'competitive edge,' with a consistent and verifiable track record."
"We endeavor to introduce these managers to investors at the most attractive stage of their development," it said.
But the Luxalpha fund, which was founded in March 2004, was a relatively recent addition to Access' portfolio. That fund was administered until earlier this year by Swiss-based UBS. A UBS spokesman, Kris Kagel, said Wednesday he did not know specifically when custody of the fund was transferred.
Kagel said at the time the fund was under the UBS umbrella, it was not on its list of approved, recommended funds. But the company made it available to clients who sought to invest with Madoff, he said.
De La Villehuchet's firm enlisted intermediaries with links to upper-crust Europeans to attract investors. Among the intermediaries: Philippe Junot, a French businessman and friend who is the former husband of Princess Caroline of Monaco, and Prince Michel of Yugoslavia.
Cooperman described de la Villehuchet as the kind of businessman who was in constant contact with clients, even on vacations.
De La Villehuchet, the former chairman and CEO of Credit Lyonnais Securities USA, was also known as a keen sailor who regularly participated in regattas and was a member of the New York Yacht Club. He and his wife, also French, lived in the New York suburb of New Rochelle.
But the fund manager also periodically found refuge at his family's 17th-century stone castle in Brittany, sometimes inviting friends and fellow sailing enthusiasts to join him. The castle and adjoining stables in Plouer-sur-Rance along the English Channel had been in his family for two centuries.
In June, his boat "Claudina" won its class in a regatta from the walled city of St. Malo to Plouer-sur-Rance. He had invited several New York friends to take part, said Plouer-sur-Rance city hall official Serge Simon.
"He did it in a very discreet way, but at the same time it showed his appreciation for sailing on the one hand, and on the other, his appreciation for the town he wanted to bring visitors to," Simon said.
Claude Renoult, head of the St. Malo Bay nautical club, said de La Villehuchet hailed from a sprawling family of ship owners, and was known as a "very simple man, with a lot of class" who "sailed like a gentleman."
Associated Press Writers Joe Bel Bruno and Adam Goldman in New York, and Jamey Keaten in Paris contributed to this story.