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Vermont Quarterly

Bernie Madoff to sunken evidence, the quest for justice

FBI agent Theodore Cacioppi
Photograph by Bobby Bruderle '11


Bernie Madoff to sunken evidence, the quest for justice

By Jon Reidel G’06

Special Agent Theodore Cacioppi ’91 had waited long enough. He and a fellow FBI agent were parked outside Bernie Madoff’s home at 133 East 64th Street in New York City hoping the billionaire investor would come outside so they could question him about a tip they received regarding a $50 billion ponzi scheme.

Concerned that Madoff had already skipped town, Cacioppi decided to knock on his door. He would need to get some sort of a confession from Madoff, who had the right to shut the door and call his lawyer. Cacioppi rode the elevator up to the palatial 10,000-square-foot apartment. To his surprise, Madoff opened in a silk robe and soon started confessing.

“We’re here to find out if there’s an innocent explanation,” Cacioppi asked Madoff, who once served as chairman of Nasdaq. “There is no innocent explanation,” replied Madoff, who proceeded to admit that he paid investors—including Steven Spielberg, Elie Wiesel, and several foundations run by billionaires—with money that didn’t exist. Madoff said he expected to one day go to jail for it.

“We eventually took him into his closet that was the size of an apartment, filled with rows of suits, dark mahogany walls as you would expect, and coached him on how to dress to be arraigned,” says Cacioppi. “We took him in, my partner booked him, and then we walked him across the street to the courthouse in handcuffs. No one even noticed. It was surreal.”

Looking back, Cacioppi said he did not fully know the magnitude of Madoff’s crimes at the time. Later he would learn that, hours before, a senior official in the Department of Justice had emphasized the importance of the case to Cacioppi’s supervisor, saying, “Teddy better flip him,” slang for drawing a confession.

Madoff would later be sentenced to 150 years in prison with restitution of $17 billion. Cacioppi’s career bringing criminals like Madoff and other lower-profile cases to justice is rooted, in part, in a sociology class he took at UVM. Taught by the late Professor Laura Fishman, the course examined the criminal justice system with a lens on inequities in treatment of impoverished socioeconomic groups

“It showed me that there are a lot of societal reasons for people from disadvantaged backgrounds being convicted of crimes,” says Cacioppi from his office in a warehouse in New Jersey, where he is now senior team leader with FBI New York’s Underwater Search Evidence Response Team.

“There are plenty of smart, sophisticated, high-end criminals that deserve to be arrested just as much as those who don't have the same advantages,” Cacioppi says. “It's not fair that you don't get arrested just because you enjoy sub rosa and other advantages that you don't get selling crack on a street corner in Harlem. It should be a level playing field for everyone.”

Cacioppi’s career path would take him to St. John’s University’s School of Law and, eventually, practice with a high-powered Manhattan law firm defending precisely the type of white-collar criminals he’d learned about at UVM.

“I saw what they were doing because I was defending them,” he says. So, at the age of thirty-one, Cacioppi decided to apply to the FBI. Soon after graduating from the academy he was on the other side—investigating high-end criminals involved in insider trading, securities fraud, and other financial crimes.

In a career that doesn’t lack for excitement or variety, Cacioppi has traded a business suit for a scuba diving suit these days. In addition to the primary duties of his underwater unit—searching for murder weapons, bodies, and other clues related to crimes—his unit is poised to offer support around threats such as a terrorist attack.

Unraveling the deception of a Bernie Madoff or recovering a sunken piece of evidence critical to gaining a conviction, for Theodore Cacioppi it’s all about seeing that justice is served.

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