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Family, others praise man suspected of huge fraud

Associated Press People enter the headquarters building of French bank Societe Generale on Thursday  outside Paris.
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Associated Press People enter the headquarters building of French bank Societe Generale on Thursday outside Paris. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)

NEUILLY-SUR-SEINE, France – Dapper and disciplined, Jerome Kerviel taught judo to children, held the door for his elderly neighbors and lived in a surprisingly modest apartment building for someone on the glamorous futures trading desk of a major bank.

Somehow, and for reasons yet unknown, he also appears to have committed perhaps the biggest one-man bank fraud in history.

An emerging portrait of the 31-year-old futures trader filled out details of how he lived and worked but failed to explain why he overstepped his authority at France’s Societe Generale to bet as much as $73 billion of the bank’s money.

Four plainclothes police officers, trailed by a locksmith, searched Kerviel’s apartment in this chic Paris suburb Friday evening. The officers used a ladder to search a false ceiling just outside the door of his apartment.

They emerged more than two hours later with two large, black leather cases and one briefcase, but did not talk to reporters.

Meanwhile, skeptics from Kerviel’s neighbors to France’s prime minister questioned whether Kerviel could have manipulated such unfathomable sums all alone.

The bank insists he was a lone operator.

“When we interviewed him during the night Saturday and Sunday he imagined that he had discovered methods able to win money on the markets,” said Jean-Pierre Mustier, chief executive of the bank’s corporate and investment banking arm.

Societe Generale says Kerviel’s actions cost it 4.9 billion euros, or more than $7 billion. It has not explained his motivations and said the transactions didn’t earn him any money. Executives said he seemed to be irrational.

Family and acquaintances, however, described Kerviel as poised and trustworthy, unusually reserved and discreet. His whereabouts were unknown, though his lawyer said he was not fleeing.

There was no reply Friday at the apartment in the wealthy suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, and a note to reporters had been taped to a row of mailboxes in the entrance hall of the modest four-story building. One mailbox still bore Kerviel’s name.

“Don’t search here. He has been seeking refuge elsewhere probably for some time now,” said the handwritten note.

A preliminary investigation is under way in the case following a complaint by Societe Generale SA accusing the trader of fraud, and two complaints by minority shareholders.

It was unclear whether and when Kerviel could be questioned. The case could eventually lead to a prison term or fines.

In the Brittany town of Pont l’Abbe, where Kerviel grew up, his former judo teacher remembered him as a serious, helpful teenager.

“He came in to train two or three times a week, and he also helped out with classes for kids,” said Philippe Orhant, who has not seen his former student in about 10 years. “I liked him a lot, and I had total confidence in him.”

Kerviel’s family said he was unmarried. His father died two years ago, said an aunt, Raymonde Kerviel. Three union officials at the bank said managers told them Kerviel had suffered from recent family problems that appeared to have deeply affected him.

Kerviel’s mother traveled to the Paris area on Thursday, when the bank revealed the scandal, to see her son, “because he wasn’t doing well,” said another aunt, Sylviane Kerviel.

“Jerome has done nothing wrong,” she said . “He was a reserved, serious child. He didn’t pocket a cent, I’m sure of it.”

Bank officials also said Kerviel appears to have netted no personal financial gain from the alleged schemes.

The mayor of Pont l’Abbe described Kerviel as a “poised, calm, thoughtful young man.” Kerviel had supported Mayor Thierry Mavic’s election campaign in 2001.

“I’m bowled over,” Mavic told a local newspaper, Le Telegramme. The mayor said Kerviel’s father had worked as a teacher and that his mother ran a hair salon.

Societe Generale said Kerviel was involved in “plain vanilla” trading – the more basic forms – and had “limited authority.” He took home a relatively modest salary and bonus of less than 100,000 euros ($145,700).

In Neuilly, one of France’s richest towns, the apartment building was relatively modest. He lived in a former maid’s chambers converted into studios on the top floor of the walk-up, said Collette Thomas, 79, who has lived in the building for 30 years and whose apartment is one floor down from Kerviel’s.

“He was very young, handsome, a beautiful one … but he was not at all talkative,” she said.

Her daughter, Isabelle, a nurse, said she would see him about once a week. “But he didn’t talk, he climbed the stairs four at a time and disappeared,” she said. Both said he never smiled, but held the door for them.

“He was physically seductive, always elegantly dressed. But he was always alone,” said Anne Gillier, who works in a nearby real estate agency and saw him regularly – until recently. “I never saw him with a woman, or even with another man, I always saw him alone.”