Nicholas Cosmo never looked up from the defense table in a Central Islip courtroom Friday when Dennis Hand said Cosmo's fraud was why he would never be able to retire or pay for his daughters' weddings.
Cosmo, 39, of Lake Grove, kept his head down when Paul Priore told U.S. District Judge Denis Hurley that a 40-year sentence - the maximum Cosmo could get when he is sentenced Feb. 18 - wasn't enough for a man who has been described as the middle-class version of Bernard Madoff, the financier who swindled wealthy investors of billions and is serving a 150-year prison term. Cosmo stole as much as $200 million from more than 3,000 victims, Assistant U.S. Attorney Grace Cucchissi said.
And when Frank Caserta, his voice shaking, told how Cosmo stole his money, his father's money and even his 5-year-old daughter's college fund, Cosmo didn't react.
"This is what a broken man looks like!" yelled Caserta of Staten Island. "He destroyed me!"
But after Cosmo pleaded guilty in an even voice to one count each of wire fraud and mail fraud, he read a statement describing how he operated the scheme through his Hauppauge companies, Agape World and Agape Merchant Advance. He said he told investors they'd be financing safe, short-term loans to businesses that would have high yields.
But when Cosmo couldn't pay those yields, he said that instead he invested the money in commodities and futures and kept some himself.
"It was never my intention at the beginning to defraud them," Cosmo said in a statement he read in court. "But my business plan had no possible chance to succeed."
Cucchissi said she was grateful Cosmo had admitted his guilt, as was Kenneth Silverman, the trustee in charge of liquidating Agape. Silverman said he hoped Cosmo would cooperate with his efforts to make some payments to victims and to pursue claims against others who may have benefited from the fraud.
More than 50 victims filled every row in Hurley's courtroom, and several spent about 40 minutes describing the wreckage Cosmo's crimes caused in their lives.
"I never had a pension plan or retirement," said Hand, 59, an Islandia mortgage broker. He said he had owned rental houses and when he paid off the mortgages, he looked for a way to invest the proceeds.
"I foolishly took the money out and put it with Cosmo," he said. "Needless to say, it's all gone. . . . This guy's really no different from Bernie Madoff. But we're not rich. We're not celebrities or movie stars."
Bob Young, like Priore, said Cosmo deserved more time in prison, but he vowed to Hurley that he would not let the loss of $300,000 defeat him.
"I'll beat him," an emotional Young said, pointing at Cosmo. "I'll work. I'll work, I'll work, I'll work and I'll work. The money is gone. It's history."
Hurley, clearly moved by the victims, said he would take their words into account.
"It's unlikely the people in this room will be made whole," Hurley said. "Is 40 years adequate? I'll have to reflect on that. . . . I wish I could say something to all of you that would be of some comfort."
Hurley ordered Cosmo to pay at least $195 million in restitution to his victims. He noted, however, that he was unsure how Cosmo would be able to pay it.
Several victims, including Priore, who lives in Flushing, said they should have been more diligent about checking out Cosmo, who had served time in prison for misappropriating money in 1997 while working as a stockbroker.
But Hand said it never occurred to him to do that kind of check.
"If you don't have larceny in your heart, you don't think to protect yourself from it," he said.