Sex, power, money and blood: the Stern trial

Over the next ten days Geneva's Palais de Justice courtroom will be the stage for the highly mediatised trial Keystone

Four years after renowned French financier Edouard Stern was found shot dead in his Geneva home, the trial of the woman accused of his killing has opened in the city.

This content was published on June 10, 2009 - 08:32

The extraordinary story of one of the leading figures in the banking world and his lover, Cécile B, who has confessed to killing him in a crime of passion, has all the ingredients of a bestseller.

In fact, it has already resulted in two books about the investigation, a novel, a play and a film.

Stern's employees discovered their boss dead in his Geneva penthouse apartment on March 1, 2005. The 50-year-old was tied up and wearing a flesh-coloured S&M suit, and had been shot twice in the head and twice in the body with a handgun.

Among initial lines of investigation the police looked into the possible involvement of the Russian mafia, particularly after Stern's recent deals in eastern Europe and his reputation as a tough businessman.

But it didn't take too long for the police to identify the suspect: Cécile B., Stern's lover, who was arrested two weeks after the incident. During investigations she admitted to shooting him and three guns were later fished out of Lake Geneva, near the town of Montreux.

Well-connected banker

Stern was a high-flying financier, who was friends with France's political and business elite, including Nicolas Sarkozy, and who amassed a €600 million (SFr909.7 million) fortune through a series of often-brilliant business deals.

Stern joined the family firm, Bank Stern in Paris, in 1977 as administrator at the age of 22. He then immediately seized control of the business, which he sold in 1985.

He later joined the private investment bank Lazard, where he was once tipped to succeed his father-in-law, Michel David-Weill, as chairman.

But he quit the bank in 1997 to set up his own private equity firm, Investment Real Returns (IRR) Capital, in Geneva after reports of clashes with other partners and a dispute with David-Weill.

Stern met Cécile B., an artist 14 years his junior, at a dinner party in Paris in 2001 hosted by a mutual friend. She enjoyed sculpting, painting and writing poetry. They became lovers, while Cécile B. remained married to a therapist living in Switzerland.

According to her lawyer, Stern flew her on his private jet to exotic holiday destinations, including hunting trips in Africa.

"They lived a passionate, excessive relationship," the Stern family lawyer Marc Bonnant told swissinfo.ch.

Pushed to the limit

Although the identity of the murderer seems fairly certain, the motives remain unclear.

The defence claims Cécile B committed a crime of passion due to Stern's "moral harassment" between 2001 and 2004.

Her lawyer, Pascal Maurer, said the homicide was a result of a "difficult amorous relationship, psychological manipulation and harassment that little by little led to serious depression and distress".

During the final months the pair had been feuding over the promise of marriage and $1 million Stern had wired to his lover's bank account and subsequently froze.

"Stern pushed her to the limit; after promising her marriage and independence... he then withdrew the money without saying why," Maurer told swissinfo.

Her defence team said the French banker was a very charming, intelligent, cultured, funny man but had complicated relations with people, most probably because of an unhappy childhood based on domination, power and money.

"Cécile B. realised that he had been playing with her for ages and he had absolutely no intention of marrying her," said Maurer.

On the fateful evening of February 28, 2005 Stern allegedly uttered the words, "One million dollars is expensive for a whore", in the middle of a sex act between the couple. She shot him immediately afterwards.

Manipulative

But according to the Stern family lawyers, Cécile B. is a manipulative woman who was particularly interested in the banker's fortune.

At a court session earlier this year, Bonnant described the 40 year old as a "tart" hungry for money, who had attracted the fantasies of the 50-year-old man.

Stern became dependant on the "small blonde from the suburbs... of deviant sexuality", he said.

Concerning the dispute over the $1 million, Stern eventually paid Cécile B. as she assured him the sum was purely symbolic – a sign of their love - as they were getting married and she would pay it back. But when she didn't, Stern got angry and blocked the money, said the lawyer.

"When she got confirmation of this from the bank on February 28 she went to Geneva and killed him. If that's a crime of passion, the law is not the law," said Bonnant.

Over the next ten days the court will hear around 40 witnesses and the respective lawyers to try to decide who was manipulating whom in this complex, often tempestuous relationship.

Under Swiss law, a crime of passion implies a violent emotion or deep distress but where the circumstances are excusable.

"The jury will therefore have to consider whether in the same circumstances you or I would have experienced a situation of similar intensity that would've led to the same crime," said Bonnant.

Simon Bradley in Geneva, swissinfo.ch with agencies

Edouard Stern

Edouard Stern (October 18, 1954 – March 1, 2005) was a French banker who was born in Paris.

He graduated from the Ecole Supérieure des Sciences Economiques et Commerciales in Paris, and joined the family's private investment house, Banque Stern, in 1977 at the age of 22. He then immediately seized control of the family business.

He married Beatrice David-Weill in 1983, but they separated; they had three children.

A former senior director of the French private investment bank Lazard, he was once tipped to succeed his father-in-law, Michel David-Weill, as chairman. But he quit the bank in 1997 after reports of clashes with other partners and a dispute with David-Weill.

He was a partner at Lazard Frères before creating his own investment fund IRR Capital. In 2003 Stern filed a criminal complaint against the French company Rhodia and its directors in France, which sparked a criminal probe. In 2004 he filed two more lawsuits against Rhodia directors.

He was found dead in his Geneva flat on March 1. He was wearing a latex suit and had been shot four times.

The banker had a fortune estimated at €600 million (SFr909.7 million). He was ranked 38th in a list of France's richest citizens.

He was reportedly a black belt in karate and had a passion for game shooting and contemporary art.

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Cécile B.

Cécile B. was born in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, northwest of Paris, on March 20, 1969. In 1998 she married a therapist who lives in Switzerland.

Her father worked in advertising and her mother was a teacher for disabled students. She is an artist who taught herself how to draw and sculpt.

Cécile B. met Stern at a dinner party in Paris in 2001 hosted by a mutual friend. They became lovers.

On March 15, 2005 Cécile B. was arrested at her husband's home in Clarens, Switzerland and charged with murder after confessing to killing Stern.

For the past four years Cécile B. has been held at Champ Dollon prison in Geneva. In April 2008, suffering from serious depression, she tried to commit suicide. She has also spent time at Belle-Idée psychiatric clinic.

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