Ronnie Polaneczky: Pen to paper: Will Madoff make him rich?

Kenneth "K.C." White (above) found his calling while doing time at North Carolina's Butner Federal Correctional Complex (left). His artwork - murals on the prison walls, as well as portraits - brought him to the attention of fellow inmate and famed Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff, who sat for this portrait, and signed it.
Kenneth "K.C." White (above) found his calling while doing time at North Carolina's Butner Federal Correctional Complex (left). His artwork - murals on the prison walls, as well as portraits - brought him to the attention of fellow inmate and famed Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff, who sat for this portrait, and signed it.
Posted: September 16, 2009

KENNETH CALVIN "K.C." White has good feelings about the Butner Federal Correctional Complex, in Butner, N.C., from which he was released last month.

K.C. earned his GED at Butner. Kicked his addictions. Found ways to express his phenomenal artistic talent.

And - this is key - he befriended Bernard Madoff at Butner.

K.C. hopes that his meeting with the notorious convicted Ponzi schemer will give him what he needs most as he tries to establish a new life in Philly, 400 miles from the prison where he met Madoff: cash.

K.C., a self-trained artist, sketched Madoff's portrait at Butner, then had him sign and date it.

K.C. is convinced that the right buyer will pay good coin for the black-and-white sketch that he penciled, because the date that Madoff wrote next to his autograph - Aug. 12, 2009 - indicates that the piece was created in jail.

K.C.'s name for the portrait?

"I call it 'F--- My Victims,' because Bernie is not very remorseful. He told me, 'I made them millions of dollars. I'm doing 150 years. F--- my victims.' "

Madoff's attorney, Ira Sorkin, doubts that Madoff would ever utter such words.

Says Sorkin: "At all times, he expressed deep and sincere remorse, both publicly and privately, for everyone who he put through" the Ponzi scheme that ballooned into the largest investment fraud - victims lost billions of dollars - ever committed by a single person.

Since Madoff himself wasn't available for an interview, and because the federal Bureau of Prisons wouldn't comment on anything Madoff-related other than to confirm that he's at the Butner complex, this story is K.C.'s alone.

But, oh, what a tale.

Back in 2003, K.C., now 55, was frantic. He'd been living in Philly and collecting disability because of coronary artery disease, but his payments were suddenly discontinued.

He didn't know that he could appeal the denial. Penniless, he muttered to himself, "I'm gonna have to rob a bank."

Which is something any of us might threaten to do, in jest, when money's tight, right?

K.C. actually did it.

He pretended to have a weapon in his pocket when he passed a holdup note to a Sovereign Bank teller at 31st and Market in April 2003. He darted out the door with $457. The next month, he tried the same thing at a PNC bank up the block. But the teller tripped an alarm, and K.C. bolted, empty-handed.

After an acquaintance dimed him out, K.C. was convicted in federal court of bank robbery and attempted bank robbery. He wound up at Butner and lucked into a nice routine when an administrator agreed to let him paint a small mural on the wall of his unit's medical clinic.

People liked it so much, K.C. was asked to paint murals all over Butner - the gym, dental clinic, cafeteria, even an administrator's office.

The images range from renditions of Rodin's famed "Thinker" sculpture to colorful landscapes and images of athletes in motion.

"He painted the murals himself," says Andrea Harris, a case manager in Butner's Georgia Tech unit (the prison's units are named after universities), where K.C. lived. "He did a beautiful job."

K.C. also drew portraits of fellow inmates and perfected the art of drawing reproductions from photographs. His graphite renderings of Barack Obama, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King and Tupac Shakur are shaded so precisely, some look like digital prints.

Relieved of worries about where to sleep or find his next meal, his art "got good at Butner," K.C. says proudly, "because I got a break."

He needs one more. And he's hoping Madoff will give it to him.

Madoff was sentenced in June to 150 years in prison. That's what brought him to Butner, where his sentence began just as K.C.'s was winding down. K.C. says that the two men met while standing in line to receive medication.

"He said, 'You're the guy who does the art around here?' " recalls K.C.. "I was a celebrity. Everyone knew me."

It was then, K.C. alleges, that Madoff uttered his "F--- my victims" line, and asked him to sketch his portrait, which he hoped to send to his wife, Ruth Madoff, back home in New York.

K.C. says that he sketched Madoff in the Georgia Tech Unit's paint-supply room, and that the sitting took no longer than 20 minutes; he filled in details later.

"He asked me to make his hair darker," K.C. says of Madoff's shock of white hair. He says that he also put Madoff in a suit and tie, instead of Butner's tan inmate uniform, "out of respect."

But he did nothing to alter Madoff's thin-lipped mouth, which, he says, had an "I got you" expression.

Madoff at first balked but then agreed to sign and date the sketch, K.C. said.

After that, K.C. avoided Madoff, who he says passes time with convicted Colombo crime-family boss Carmine Persico, also at Butner ("I have no idea who Mr. Madoff associates with in prison," Madoff attorney Sorkin told me yesterday).

"I didn't want to give him the sketch," says K.C. "I wanted to put it on eBay."

But could it fetch any bidders?

"It might," says George Lowry, of New York's Swann Auction Galleries, a high-end auction house that "wouldn't touch" a piece like K.C.'s.

"There can be a market for anything that is weird and has a good backstory. It could do extremely well on eBay."

K.C. was released from Butner on Aug. 31 and is staying at a men's shelter in West Philly, which he's anxious to leave.

He's broke, has no family and is relying on the kindness of new acquaintances to get by.

He knows that he could make a decent living sketching portraits and painting murals, if he could just get settled into his own place and establish a routine as healthy and productive as the one he had at Butner.

He needs some start-up money. The portrait could help with that. Trouble is, he doesn't have a permanent address or bank account, so he can't even set up an eBay auction.

He's getting desperate, and, he says, "I don't want to rob another bank."

E-mail polaner@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2217. For recent columns:

http://go.philly.com/polaneczky. Read Ronnie's blog at http://go.philly.com/ronnieblog.

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