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Lay's death clouds outcome of Enron case

With the sudden death of former Enron CEO Kenneth Lay Wednesday, the scandal that engulfed the company took a stunning new turn.  By CNBC's Scott Cohn.
/ Source: CNBC

With the sudden death of former Enron CEO Kenneth Lay Wednesday, the scandal that engulfed the company took a stunning new turn.

Lay became a living symbol of corporate corruption. And in the end, that may be what killed him. Found guilty May 25th on ten criminal counts, Lay was determined to clear his name.

“I firmly believe I am innocent of the charges against me, as I have said from day one,” he told reporters shortly after the verdict was announced.

His was a classic American success story -- gone completely wrong. The son of a Baptist preacher in rural Missouri, Lay built Enron into the seventh biggest U.S. corporation, refusing to the bitter end to admit his company was about to fail.

"The underlying fundamentals of our businesses are very strong. Indeed, the strongest they've ever been,” Lay said in Oct., 2001.

He had risen to the pinnacle of power, not just in business, but in politics as a confidante -- and benefactor -- of the Bush family.

In Enron's home of Houston, where he was once revered, Lay was considered a potential candidate for mayor. Now, reviled by many, talk radio callers have been burning up the Houston airwaves. One recent caller insisted the reports of Lay’s death were false, and that he had fled the country with money accumulated during his Enron career.

But authorities in Aspen, Colo., where he was staying at a family vacation home confirmed his death. A family pastor says Lay's "heart simply gave out."

Lay had poured everything into his defense during his four month trial, trying not just to vindicate himself, he said, but also the company he built.

“I can't look back,” he told reporters on May 1st. “It's interesting, those that are questioning me, they've had four years to dissect it. But from my standpoint, I made decisions all along the way based on the information I had at the time."

Lay dies with his mission unfulfilled -- and the Enron case now thrown up in the air. Prosecutors had just filed a motion to recover some $43 million dollars from Lay. Now, they may not be able to.

“It's actually going to be a very interesting issue because typically, the death of a defendant stops all proceedings,” said attorney Kent Schaffer.

In fact, under the law, since he was never sentenced, Lay was never, technically, convicted. But the jury verdict remains.

And Kenneth Lee Lay, 64, dies a broken man.