HOUSTON – He was a man, after all — not just some abstract symbol of corporate thievery and vanished investor billions. Kenneth Lay, founder of Enron Corp., was also a grandfather to 12, a husband to the woman who sobbed at his side on the day of his conviction.
And yet his sudden death early Wednesday in Colorado — his pastor said Lay's heart "simply gave out" — deprives the thousands of victims of the Enron debacle the satisfaction they said they would feel at his spending perhaps decades in prison, reflecting on his crimes.
The Enron founder's death, three months before he was to be sentenced, left many grappling with difficult questions of forgiveness, retribution and the meaning of justice itself. On Internet blogs, some went so far as to suggest the death was conveniently timed.
There was this, for example, from a poster to a forum on the Web site of Lay's hometown paper, the Houston Chronicle: "The only sad ending to this story is that Ken Lay will never see a day in prison."
And then, minutes later, this more sympathetic response: "He is a man with extensive family and friends that needed to be notified, and all this while the family is dealing with the news. The man is gone from this world — if he's to be judged in an afterlife, so be it."
The prosecutors who won the devastating conviction against Lay declined comment Wednesday, and a statement from a family spokeswoman gave little more detail than saying Lay had died in the early morning hours in Aspen, Colo., where he vacationed. His pastor in Houston said the 64-year-old Lay died of a heart attack.
To say the least, it was an unexpected twist in the saga of the Enron founder, a once high-flying Houston civic leader who was convicted May 25 of fraud and conspiracy. And it left some victims scratching their heads about just what to make of the news. Some, speaking in religious terms, suggested Lay was now facing a different kind of justice.
"I hate this happened. I personally wanted to see him go to jail. But maybe this is God's way of having justice done," said Charles Prestwood, a former pipeline operator who retired from Enron in 2000 and later lost $1.3 million in retirement savings.
Prestwood said he already had heard talk of parties being thrown by ex-Enroners to celebrate Lay's death. He strongly objected.
"I wouldn't wish death on nobody," said Prestwood, 67. Of Lay and his former associates, he said, "They caused me to have financial debt, but at least my old heart's still ticking."
Others were less forgiving.
"He got off easy," said a blunt Sherri Saunders, who worked for Enron and its predecessor company for 24 years before she was laid off in 2001 and lost $1 million in retirement savings.
"To those of us who lost everything, we still have to struggle every day," Saunders said, adding that she had taken comfort in knowing that "if he was going to die, he was going to die in prison."
The sentiment was perhaps not a surprise, particularly given the near-bloodlust that the public seemed to feel toward Lay and his colleagues after Enron went belly-up in 2001.
"It was evident during the trial that the great portion of the public, particularly in Houston, had an almost insatiable demand for retribution," said John Coffee, a Columbia University law professor.
Lay himself, of course, always cast himself as the victim of an historic injustice, prosecuted simply because the company he built had failed — failed honestly, he insisted, far from its reputation as a fraud-infested house of cards.
He had portrayed the case as a witch hunt, a prosecutorial "wave of terror." And on the day he was convicted, appearing upbeat outside the courthouse, he, too, wrapped himself in a religious justice.
"I firmly believe I'm innocent of the charges against me," Lay said that day. "We believe that God in fact is in control and indeed he does work all things for good for those who love the lord."