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Robert Trigaux

Vanity Fair article sheds more light on suicide of ex-Beneficial Corp. Finn Caspersen



Finncaspersengeraldford1983harbourislanddevelopmentphoto Wake up and good morning. It's been nearly four months since the suicide at 67 of former Beneficial Corp. chief, philanthropist and equestrian lover Finn Caspersen-- whose real estate investment presence and Ivy League aura in Tampa once earned him the local nickname "Prince Caspersen" -- and nearly that long since a New York Times articlereported the ailing Caspersen may have had big financial troubles with the IRS.

(Photo: Former President Gerald Ford, right, talks with Caspersen at a 1983 groundbreaking ceremony for Tampa's Harbour Island, a 177-acre real estate investment of Caspersen's in the area. Caspersen had Ford drive a golf ball across Garrison Channel to promote how close it was to downtown. No observers were beaned in the process. Photo from the files of Harbour Island Development.)

Little news of substance about the reasons behind Caspersen's untimely demise has emerged since then. But now comes a longer Vanity Fair magazine examination of Caspersen's last days, his advanced illness from liver cancer, his alleged depression and a bit more insight into his financial strains that lead to a self-inflicted gunshot to the head in Rhode Island. Here is the complete Vanity Fair story from the February 2010 issue by William D. Cohan, but below are some key highlights:

* The local police had been called by Caspersen's wife, Barbara, who had grown worried that things were not right with her husband when he texted her that he was at the local reservoir, that he loved her and was coming home. When the police found Caspersen, he was wearing a white checked dress shirt, a blue-and-red vest, gray dress pants with pink-and-blue suspenders, and brown penny loafers with no socks. According to the police report, there was “severe trauma” to the back of his head. His upper torso was lying on rocks and against an aluminum ladder; his left arm, with a closed fist, lay across his chest, and his right arm was extended outward, also with a closed fist. The Smith & Wesson revolver was under his right foot. One shot had been fired, leaving four bullets in the gun.

* On Caspersen, the police found his BlackBerry, his driver’s license, and $360 in cash. There was a handwritten note in the pocket of his dress shirt. According to the police, the note said that Caspersen "was tired, diminished and in constant pain, and that he did not want to be a burden to his loving family."

* Caspersen had "severe" kidney cancer and faced regular chemotherapy treatments, according to Fred Whittemore, a retired Morgan Stanley partner who shared an office with Caspersen. As Caspersen told him, "I have either 10 months to live or 10 years, and I don’t know which." Whittemore recalls that the treatments left Caspersen so weak that when he went to a party, "he couldn’t stand up." The uncertainty about his health led to depression, and he would sometimes nod off in the middle of conversations. "Finn was really sort of horrified about his medical outcome," Whittemore recalls.

* There are large segments of the story about Caspersen's life in the exclusive Florida town of Jupiter where he even served as a town commissioner. He resigned his position, citing personal reasons and a need to downsize, in August 2009.

* The IRS was cracking down on offshore banking accounts in which many wealthy Americans allegedly were hiding taxable income. The IRS had targeted the Swiss banking firm UBS in particular, though Caspersen was reportedly tied to a Liechtenstein bank called LGT. Either way, the IRS had set a Sept. 23, 2009 deadline for Americans too fess up about offshore accounts before severe penalties could results. Vanity Fair, quoting IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman, says the UBS agreement "sent a shock wave around the world... and showed we are serious about piercing the veil of bank secrecy." The original I.R.S. deadline to obtain the amnesty of Sept. 23 was 16 days after Caspersen committed suicide.

* Whittemore says Caspersen was "very aware" of the Sept. 23 amnesty deadline. Caspersen made numerous decisions based upon what could be looming problems for him with the government, "some subtle and foolish, some thoughtful," Whittemore says. "I don’t know how he avoided the IRS for so many years and then got in trouble."

* Records kept by Martin County show that on Sept. 25 the Caspersen's Jupiter Island house (originally bought for $2.5 million) was "sold" to Caspersen's wife for $100. The article says her neighbors would not be surprised to see Barbara move full-time to Jupiter Island, if for no other reason than that Florida’s bankruptcy laws protect a residence from being part of a bankruptcy proceeding—meaning that she could keep the house and live in it and creditors could not get hold of it.

The article ends with the musings of Baird Tipson, the president of Washington College, in Chestertown, Maryland—one of the four colleges that are annual beneficiaries of Caspersen's philanthropy. States Baird:

"Anyone reading about the difficulties with the IRS would have to assume that that had something to do with his decision. But my guess is that most of us are more complicated than that. You mentioned the cancer -- there may be other things we don’t know about that kind of preyed on him, and I think when people get into a state where they’re willing to do something like that it’s not necessarily rational. He may have just felt like: everything is piling up on me and there’s no way out. But how can anyone know?"

-- Robert Trigaux, Times Business Columnist


[Last modified: Tuesday, June 1, 2010 11:27am]


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