The one-time titan of finance confessed he had "paid investors with money that wasn't there." A year after Madoff's scheme collapsed — with headlines of $50 billion in losses — investigators and investors are still struggling to measure the full scope and impact of the largest securities fraud in history.
The scandal has already resulted in more aggressive enforcement and stiffer sentences for white-collar crime, and tougher regulations from the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Investigators are looking at other possible suspects — including Madoff's closest family — in the massive fraud that sent the 71-year-old mastermind to prison for life, stripped his family of their earnings and wiped out the life savings of thousands of investors.
Losing everything in the Ponzi scheme is "not a nightmare I'm going to wake up from," one investor, Sharon Lissauer, said in a recent interview.
"I wish I could wake up and turn the clocks back and have my money back," the Manhattan model said. "It's been a year but it seems like a lifetime."
After an intense investigation, authorities still can't account for all the money investors claim they lost, although some went to pay off other investors and to support his lavish lifestyle.
The epic swindle so far has resulted in a 150-year sentence for Madoff and the arrests of four underlings. A court order stripped Madoff's wife, Ruth, of most of her wealth, forcing her to move out of the couple's Manhattan penthouse. The family's mansions, yachts and clothes have been auctioned off to repay investors.
There's been enough material for a half dozen books to be published based on a now-familiar story: How Madoff rose to prominence in the 1980s as both a middleman between the buyers and sellers of stock and as an adviser to thousands of investors, many Jews like himself and Jewish charities; helped launch Nasdaq, the first electronic stock exchange; became so respected that he advised the SEC on the system; and lived a lavish lifestyle to rival some of his wealthy clients.
But behind the scenes at Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities, in a separate office kept under lock and key, Madoff was secretly using cash from new investors to pay returns to old ones.
Authorities say that over the years, an old IBM computer cranked out fictional monthly statements showing steady double-digit returns, even during market downturns. As of late 2008, the statements claimed investor accounts totaled $65 billion, much of it phantom wealth because no securities were ever bought or sold.
Even after a year, authorities say the size of Madoff's theft — and what investors can expect to get back — remains murky.
Attorney Stephen A. Weiss, who together with a team of lawyers represents more than 100 Madoff investors, said he believes most will recover only a small portion of their losses.
"I believe it could be over 10 percent," he said. "I would find 25 percent is probably an unrealistic goal."
A court-appointed trustee is still trying to recover Madoff's assets — sometimes by suing hedge funds and other large investors who came out ahead — and divvying up proceeds to victims.
A trustee, Irving Picard, said he had identified $21.2 billion in real losses in about 2,300 customer accounts, but only located about $1.5 billion in assets.
Madoff pleaded in March to securities fraud and other charges, saying he was "deeply sorry and ashamed." He was led off to jail in handcuffs to scattered courtroom applause from angry investors.
"To this day, he deeply regrets what he did," Madoff's attorney Ira Sorkin said Thursday. Sorkin made no excuses for his client, but said that Madoff isn't evil.
"It's something he got into that he couldn't get out of," Sorkin said.
Madoff's sentencing in June ended his own legal saga. But authorities and experts say the fallout continues.
Federal prosecutors and the FBI, always skeptical of Madoff's claim that he acted alone, have not ruled out charges against members of Madoff's family and longtime associates.
"This case is not over," said David Cardona, head of the New York FBI office's criminal division. "The FBI continues to cover every lead."
Still on the list of potential suspects is Madoff's brother, Peter, an instrumental player in building Madoff's investment firm, and sons Andrew and Mark, who worked for their father in a trading operation and turned him in. They have never spoken publicly about the case, but have denied wrongdoing through their lawyers.
It appears Ruth Madoff, though scorned by burned investors, will likely escape criminal prosecution because she wasn't directly involved in the business.
"I think most of my clients would find it highly improbable that both she and the kids didn't know," Weiss said.
Prosecutors say they're relying heavily on information supplied by Madoff's chief financial officer, Frank DiPascali, who in a guilty plea earlier this year said that "I knew, Bernie Madoff knew and other people knew" about the fraud. His cooperation led to the recent arrests of two of the firm's computer programmers.
On the regulatory side, the Madoff case will be viewed historically as "the SEC's 9/11," said Chris Steskel, a former federal prosecutor. "It will be a lot more aggressive and proactive for the next several years — pounce first and ask questions later."
He said the scheme escaped suspicion in part because it was so audacious.
"When you do these kinds of fraud investigations, you're looking for fraud at the margins," he said. "You're not looking for 100 percent fraud."
In an interview with the inspector general of the SEC in June, Madoff himself described how examiners failed to follow an obvious paper trail — especially records from a central depository for stocks — during a 2006 audit.
"If you're looking at a Ponzi scheme, it's the first thing you do," he said.
Later, when finally asked for his account number at the depository, "I thought it was the end game," he said. "Monday morning they'll call (the depository) and this will be over. ... And it never happened."
He said he thought, "After all this, I got away lucky." But he said he also knew it was just "a matter of time. ... That was the nightmare I lived with."
Richard Scheff, a white-collar defense attorney and former assistant secretary for law enforcement for the Treasury Department, said he's also seen higher jail terms imposed on white-collar defendants since Madoff's sentence. But that won't end fraud, he said.
"As long as there's greed, people will always try to get away with something," he said. "There are schemes being hatched right now."