FBI, Marshals Hunt For Missing Bayou Fraudster

Jun 11 2008 | 2:00am ET

In the classic movie MASH, suicidal dentist “Painless Pole” Waldowski is tricked into taking a fake poison pill by his comrades. As Waldowski climbs into a coffin, Private Seidman serenades him with the film’s theme song, “Suicide is Painless.”

It seems state and federal officials may be familiar with the scene: They are hunting for Bayou Group founder Samuel Israel, who was scheduled to report to prison Monday to begin a 20-year term for defrauding investors of more than $400 million. Israel’s SUV was found on a bridge north of New York City, with the words “suicide is painless” etched in the dust and pollen on its hood.

Israel’s 2006 GMC Envoy was found, facing east, at about 12:30 p.m. Monday on the shoulder of the Bear Mountain Bridge, which crosses one of the deepest parts of the Hudson River about 40 miles north of New York City, near West Point. The unattended SUV was found with the keys in the ignition. But no one saw anybody leap from the span, and Israel’s body has not been recovered; investigators are not ruling out that Israel staged his death and fled.

“We can’t conclusively say someone jumped off the bridge,” Bruce Cuccia of the New York State Police said. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and U.S. Marshals Service are also investigating Israel’s disappearance.

“The FBI is actively looking for Sam Israel,” a Bureau spokesman said.

Israel’s girlfriend told police that the 48-year-old left their home in Armonk, N.Y., about 10 miles from the bridge, between 8:30 a.m. and 9 a.m. on Monday morning. She said he was driving himself to prison—he was due to report to a federal facility in Ayer, Mass., about 20 miles northwest of Boston, at 2 p.m.—and gave no indication that he planned to end his life.

Asked why Israel would drive himself to prison, Cuccia told the Journal News of White Plains, N.Y., “I have the same question.”

“What, do they have valet parking? I’m not sure. It does seem odd.”

A surveillance camera near the bridge appears to show a second car pulling up alongside Israel’s Envoy, WNBC News 4 New York reports. But it is unclear whether Israel got into that vehicle, and cameras on the bridge did not catch Israel leaving the SUV at all.

Cuccia said that the state police will continue to patrol the Hudson River shoreline and estuaries over the next several days. The bridge is about 150 feet above the river, and state police officials say that, of at least 40 suicides from the bridge since 1980, all but one body has been recovered.

“If he’s down there, he’ll come up,” Cuccia said.

Israel’s victims seem just as skeptical that he would take his own life. Ross Intellisano, an attorney for 20 Bayou investors, told the Associated Press, “Their comments to me are, ‘Show me the body, I’ll believe it when I see the body.’”

“My gut tells me he’s not the type to jump off a bridge.”

Israel had written to the judge presiding over his case, Colleen McMahon, after she had sentenced former Bayou CFO Daniel Marino to 20 years in prison, that he “considered taking my own life.”

“But,” he wrote, “I also have learned that my life is not mine to take and I have to accept responsibility for my actions no matter what the consequence.”

Marino had also written a “suicide note and confession” as investigators closed in on the Bayou fraud. Police were able to apprehend him before he harmed himself.

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