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Billionaire's Nurse Charged

It was business as usual Tuesday at the Monaco branch of the Republic National Bank of New York underneath the gutted shell of a penthouse where billionaire banker Edmond Safra died last week in an arson attack.

But one day after American nurse Ted Maher was charged with starting the blaze, mystery still surrounded events leading up to the Lebanese-born financier's death in the luxury seaside building.

Did Safra really refuse to leave a locked bathroom where he then suffocated despite pleas by his wife and firemen that he should come out?

And how did Maher, 41, described as mentally unstable, penetrate the inner circle of a powerful banker who was so concerned about his safety that he routinely recruited his bodyguards from Israel's elite security services?

"It's true that everyone still has many questions, the prosecutor, too," said Alexander Bruggmann, a spokesman for the Republic Bank in Geneva, Switzerland. "But it's now a police matter."

On Tuesday, police and prosecutors would not comment on the case. After a flurry of news conferences, Monaco reverted to official silence.

The nurse, Ted Maher, 41, first claimed that two hooded men had burst into the penthouse before dawn Friday, attacked him, then set the deadly blaze. He was being treated at hospital for two stab wounds.

But on Monday with no evidence to support his version and police patience dwindling Maher, who was just about to be released from the hospital, confessed to inventing the whole scenario.

There had been no break-in, Maher said. He stabbed himself, and then started the fire that killed Safra and another American nurse, Viviane Torrent, who was also found dead in the bathroom.

Maher said he didn't want to kill Safra: instead he was convinced he would emerge the hero who rushed his employer to safety in a bathroom while fending off the attackers. He set the fire to make the scene even more dramatic, he told investigators.

He was charged with arson, jailed, and faces a life term.

Despite the confession, the investigation is only just beginning and it could be months if not longer before the many questions are answered.

Monaco officials say Safra refused to come out of the bathroom, which he had locked, even though it was filling with smoke and firemen and his wife were telling him it was safe to come out.

Investigators say the banker was paralyzed by fear that intruders were at the door.

But a source with detailed knowledge of the case said that version was "totally untrue." Safra had called police twice while coughing in the smoke-filled bathroom and begged them to get him out, the source said.

An investigator in the Monaco prosecutor's office said Safra did call police once to alert them to a break-in, but denied the fire had already started.

Secondly, could the firefighters have acted more quickly to extinguish the fire, which started ia paper-filled wastebasket and devastated the whole top floor?

Monaco's prosecutor acknowledged Saturday that firefighters struggled to locate Safra at first, unaware that there was a bathroom by his bedroom.

Finally, it remained unclear how Maher, who investigators said was mentally unstable and prone to taking large doses of sedatives, could have got through security vetting.

Security was not something Safra took lightly.

His penthouse overlooking the Mediterranean was fortress-like, with bulletproof doors and windows. Surveillance cameras were posted inside and outside the building.

Reports have said Safra's security chief, absent at the time of the attack, was Israeli-trained and that the banker had been protected by former Israeli security agents since 1985.

Prosecutors said security was so tight at the penthouse that confident Safra had instructed his chief guard to remain at his other residence: a high-walled villa on the Cote d'Azur, once used as a summer home by Belgian royalty.

©1999 CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report