It's probably just a sad coincidence, but the sudden deaths since December of a group of young men who worked for JPMorgan Chase & Co. (or who once did) have conspiracy theorists in a tizzy.
For the less conspiracy-minded, the deaths again raise a troubling question: Is the already-difficult job of working in finance even tougher in the aftermath of the financial crisis? Having worked on Wall Street, I can attest to how demanding the hours are. (Disclosure: I lost an arbitration case against JPMorgan Chase over my dismissal, and I am now involved in litigation against the bank on a separate matter.)
Let's review. On Dec. 7, Joseph Ambrosio, 34, a financial analyst, died suddenly from acute respiratory syndrome, a severe form of pneumonia. A week later, Jason Alan Salais, 34, died as a result of a heart attack outside a Walgreens drugstore in Pearland, Texas. His LinkedIn profile showed he joined JPMorgan in May 2008, and for nearly three years had been working in its information-technology department in Houston.
Then, in a case that generated international publicity, Gabriel Magee, 39, fell to his death from JPMorgan's European headquarters in London's Canary Wharf district sometime on the evening of Jan. 27. He was found the next morning dressed in a suit on the flat roof of the ninth floor. According to Magee's LinkedIn profile, he joined the bank in 2004 and was the lead architect for the "planning, development and operation of systems for fixed-income securities and interest-rate derivatives." Magee's girlfriend had reported him missing the night before, after he had sent her a text saying he would be home shortly. One of his colleagues speculated to the Daily Mail that perhaps Magee had "made some kind of terrible error. It's possible he had been in the office all night trying to put it right before the fall." A coroner's inquest will be held May 20 in London to determine the cause of death.
Less than a week later, Ryan Crane, 37, died at his home in Stamford, Connecticut. Since 2005, Crane had been the executive director of global program trading at JPMorgan in New York.
The Internet had a field day with the deaths of Magee and Crane. Somebody called "V" (who also goes by "Guerilla Economist") wrote that Crane and Magee "knew each other" and had "uncovered something." V said Crane headed up the program trading desk, "oversaw all the trades" and was "familiar with" the software trading platforms on which the trades were made.
V further suggested that the two deaths happened just as JPMorgan announced it was exiting the commodities trading business and that it was selling 1 Chase Manhattan Plaza, its downtown Manhattan office tower. (The relevance of that last fact escapes me.) Of course, the conspiracy theories have been set back by a ruling from the medical examiner that Crane died from an "ethanol toxicity accident," which sounds like a case of extreme drunkenness.
Two weeks later, on Feb. 18, in a narrative eerily reminiscent of what happened to Magee, Dennis Li Junjie, 33, who worked in the bank's finance department, fell to his death from the 30-story Charter House office tower in Hong Kong, where JPMorgan occupies the top floors and has its Asia headquarters. According to Paul Joseph Watson at Infowars.com, Junjie had recently purchased a HK$5.5 million ($709,436) apartment in Hong Kong and had also told a friend that he wanted to return to Toronto, where he had previously worked as an analyst for the Royal Bank of Canada. A friend wrote about Junjie: "RIP ... What happened to all the promises and plans you made? What happened to your return to Toronto? I didn't know you were that upset! I will miss you always." Then, on March 12, Kenneth Bellando, who used to be an investment-banking analyst at JPMorgan in New York and was then working at Levy Capital Partners, was found dead outside his apartment on Manhattan's East Side after reportedly jumping from the sixth floor of the building. His brother, John, is a vice president at JPMorgan involved with assessing liquidity risk at the bank. Some of his e-mails were cited publicly in the report involving the so-called "London Whale" trading scandal.
One Wall Street blogger researched death notices over the last year and found no such trend among employees of Citigroup, whose headcount is similar to JPMorgan's. Yet other banks have experienced losses, including the suicide of William Broeksmit, a former top banker at Deutsche Bank in London, two days before Magee's. Then there is the tragic story of Jan Peter Schmittmann, the former chief executive officer of ABN Amro Netherlands, who took his life April 5 after killing his wife and a daughter.
Finally, there is the disturbing disappearance of David Bird, 55, a marathon runner and Wall Street Journal reporter who covered the commodities beat. Just after he and his wife had taken down the Christmas decorations on Jan. 11, Bird went for a walk outside his home in Long Hill Township, New Jersey, and hasn't been heard from since.
Bird, who had a liver transplant in 2004 and was required to take medication twice a day, did not take that medication with him, nor did he take his mobile phone, which he left at home to charge. "That's not the action of a guy who is abandoning the family," a family friend, Carolyn Buscarino, told me. "That's a guy who's going out for a quick walk." Buscarino told me the police had rejected the theory that began appearing online that Bird's disappearance might have something to do with his reporting on the commodities industry. "The detectives have done a physical search, but they also did an extensive background search and analysis of e-mails, text messages, the stuff that he reported for the Wall Street Journal, financial records, and there's absolutely no evidence that points to anything else but that he went for a walk and something happened, but what happened, nobody knows," she says.
The disappearance, sudden deaths and suicides are certainly odd. They are all either a stunning coincidence or just another painful reminder of how difficult life can be working in the high-stakes, high-pressure world of finance.
William D. Cohan, a former an investment banker at Lazard Freres, Merrill Lynch and JPMorgan Chase, is a Bloomberg View columnist.