March 12, 2009 -- Months after finding out that the millions in life savings they thought they had are gone, the day has finally arrived that so many victims of Bernard Madoff have waited for: when they hope to see the alleged Ponzi scammer plead guilty in court.
Even though just fifty seats at the hearing are reserved for victims – who number in the thousands - an overflow room at the New York court house will be made available, and many Madoff victims are expected to attend.
Burt Ross, the former mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, is one of them.
"I'm starting to feel anxious," Ross, who told ABCNews.com he lost $5 million in the scam, said of the hearing. He is hoping to see Madoff in person in the courtroom, instead of on a television monitor in an overflow room, as he deals with an experience he describes as "discombobulating." "This is all part of the process for me of catharsis," said Ross.
Victims will be able to sign in at the court room door to speak on the issues of Madoff's plea and the revocation of bail. During the court proceedings, U.S. District Court Judge Denny Chin will give his preliminary opinion on each issue and will then listen to victims if they disagree. He will then rule on accepting the plea and the issue of continued bail.
At least 25 victims have come forward and requested they be heard by the government at today's hearing.
Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz said it is very likely that Madoff will be immediately reprimanded after pleading guilty because he has had plenty of time to get his life in order before heading off to the slammer.
"The real question in the case is whether it's proper for a judge to listen to victims on questions of law, that is whether bail should be granted, whether or not the plea should be accepted, as distinguished from questions of sentencing," Dershowitz told Good Morning America. " On sentencing, it's traditional to listen to victims. On issues of bail and plea, it's not traditional, it's unusual. But this is, of course, a very unusual case."
Ross is planning on speaking at the sentencing hearing, which will happen at a later date. In the meantime, he wants Madoff's bail revoked immediately and possible Madoff aides to be investigated and prosecuted. And as for where Madoff lives out the rest of his days? Ross said a "plush penitentiary" is out of the question.
"Somebody who has caused devastation on this scale," Ross said, "doesn't deserve any leniency or mercy."
Madoff Victim Says Investigation Needs to Go On
Another Madoff victim, Richard B. Shapiro of California, told ABCNews.com he hopes Madoff will be incarcerated immediately "so that he's not living in the lap of luxury."
In a letter sent to the judge, Shapiro pleads for tough sentencing, comparing Madoff to an economic rapist whose victims "are emotionally forever damaged, and forever economically devastated."
"The truth is we were raped and he should be treated no differently than any rapist," Shapiro wrote. He said that after learning of the fraud, he fell into a deep depression and has been forced to put his home up for sale, return to work seven days a week, and cut back on all expenditures.
But the real estate developer, who lost 80 percent of his savings and 100 percent of his pension plan – "many millions of dollars" he said - worries that once Madoff is locked away, victims like himself will be forgotten.
"I am more interested not in what happens with the Bernard Madoff, but more so with what is the government and the SEC going to do for us victims?" Shapiro said. "How are we going to recover the money that has been stolen from us, which would not have been stolen had the SEC done its job?" He said what happens after Madoff is behind bars is most important, which is why he is fighting for a revision of the tax laws so that Madoff victims can recover taxes that they paid on their phony earnings and for recovery payments from the SEC.
"We need Congress to step in and be held accountable and make restoration to us because of the failings of our government," Shapiro said. "We have a long road ahead of us."
Victim Hopes Madoff Lives a Long Life Behind Bars
Lynn and Bob Sustak of Atlanta, GA, lost their entire seven figure retirement fund that they had planned on for inheritance for their five children and college money for their seven grandchildren. They also wrote a letter to Judge Chin, pleading for immediate incarceration.
"I said I don't know what I would do if I was in the same room as him," Lynn Sustak said of Madoff. "I think I would actually throw up."
Attorney Helen Chaitman, of Manhattan, said she hopes to confront Madoff face to face in court and anticipates that the atmosphere will be filled with anger.
"I'm thinking of it in terms of the 18th century trials in England where crowds of people would gather and throw stones," Chaitman said.
David Arenson, lost $65,000 in the Madoff scam - money that was supposed to go to a donor search for Arenson to get a much needed bone marrow transplant. Arenson has chronic lymphocytic leukemia and his doctors say there is no cure without a transplant.
"If I expect to live to be as old as Bernie Madoff is, I'm going to need a bone marrow transplant," Arenson told ABC News. "And that money that I had in Madoff, that my family had in Madoff, would've gone a long way to making that doable."
When Arenson was diagnosed in 2003 at the age of 52, he was given an 8 to 15 year life expectancy, but Arenson says he hopes Madoff will live a very long life – behind bars.
"May he live to be 100," Arenson said. "He ran the world's largest Ponzi scheme, may he live to be the world's oldest man and spend as many years as possible in prison."
Madoff, 70, is expected to plead guilty today to 11 felony charges including securities fraud, mail fraud, wire fraud, money laundering, and perjury. The disgraced financier, who allegedly ran a $50 billion Ponzi scheme, faces a maximum sentence of 150 years.
"The charges reflect an extraordinary array of crimes committed by Bernard Madoff for over 20 years," said Acting U.S. Attorney Lev Dassin. "While the alleged crimes are not novel, the size and scope of Mr. Madoff's fraud are unprecedented."
Though Madoff is expected to plead guilty, it could be several months before he is sent to prison.
Prosecutors have said that Madoff's expected plea will not end the matter and that their investigation will continue. Madoff is so far the only person charged in the purported fraud, but investigators continue to look for possible accomplices and have not ruled out his sons nor his wife, Ruth. Madoff has insisted that he committed the massive fraud on his own.