Depositors wait for Jeffrey Levitt to show remorse

MICHAEL OLESKER

November 24, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

On the day that Jeffrey Levitt finally beat the system, an insider in the legal fight over his $14 million swindle blinked his eyes in disbelief.

''Parole after 7 1/2 years,'' he said softly. ''I never imagined it. I imagined 12 years, at least. I can't imagine how all those depositors feel.''

For openers, Old Court Savings and Loan depositors feel thrilled to have any of their cash back. Levitt was the man who swiped their money with both hands, whose greed set off the state's dizzying savings and loan collapse. He was sentenced to 30 years, in a time when furious depositors consoled themselves that he would never be paroled in this century.

They wanted him sentenced to life in front of a firing squad. They'd stood in endless lines outside locked branch offices, frantic to get to their savings, and never knew if they'd see their money again. They wanted him shot at dawn on "Good Morning, America." Failing that, they wanted him to stay in prison forever and feel deepest remorse for his sins.

''Do you think,'' this insider was asked now, ''that Jeffrey feels remorse?''

''No,'' he said, ''Jeffrey Levitt knows how to show remorse, but he doesn't know how to feel it. . . . He's still telling himself he didn't do anything wrong.''

Last Friday, the Maryland Parole Commission approved Levitt's early prison release for next year, when he will have served one-fourth of his original sentence. The feeling was: Levitt has paid the price.

In some profound ways, he has. His wife, Karol, has died, and his children are isolated from him. When he gets parole, Levitt will have to perform 2,000 hours of community service and pay all court-ordered restitution.

Is all that a significant price to pay? Absolutely. Is it enough? Maybe that depends if your money was tied up at Old Court, and you weren't sure if you'd get it back. Maybe it depends on what you remember of Levitt defending himself.

Go back nearly seven years, to January of 1986 in Judge Joseph Kaplan's courtroom. Levitt and wife, Karol, sat at a little wooden table, holding hands and hoping not to have their heads handed to them. Kaplan stared at them in a kind of awe. He'd never seen this kind of contempt for a court order before.

Months earlier, attempting to get a handle on the Levitts' money while the legal process played itself out, he'd directed them not to spend more than $1,000 a week. Instead, they'd gone on a binge, which special prosecutor Shale Stiller was reciting now from a list that went on for four typed pages: $7,800 to a jewelry store, $6,000 to a car agency, $1,000 to a country club, $446 for gas for a barbecue pit.

At the defense table, Levitt heaved an impatient sigh. His wife tapped her fingernails on the table. And Stiller kept reading from his list: Diners Club bills, fancy department store bills, an $18,000 cash withdrawal.

Rising to his feet to explain, Jeffrey Levitt groped for words. ''For some reason,'' he said, ''I and my wife . . . some way in our minds.''

It was all a misunderstanding, he said. He thought the $1,000 order was just for personal spending, but he could spend more for business expenses. Court spectators snickered.

What about that $18,000 withdrawal, Kaplan asked.

''For college,'' Levitt explained.

For a moment, it sounded almost reasonable. Why make the Levitt children suffer for their parents?

But then, standing above the Levitts, here was Shale Stiller again, with the truth.

''Jeffrey Levitt,'' he said, ''continues to be unable to tell the whole story. He told you the checks were for college. Why didn't he tell the court that his children have stock brokerage accounts in New York with $300,000 in each account?''

Karol Levitt tightened the grip on her husband's hand now. The game was up. Jeffrey Levitt lowered his face. It had the look of remorse, all right, but for whom?

We've never found out. Levitt keeps to himself. He's paid a price: time behind bars, the loss of his wife, the kids he sees only occasionally. But we still wonder about all those people whose money he took: Does he understand how much hurt he inflicted? Beyond the price he's paid, does he have any genuine remorse?

Yeah, you can say Levitt has suffered enough to be paroled. But it would feel a lot better, as we watch him go next year, if he gave us some little sign he was sorry.

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