Why do we dote on every detail of the Petters scandal? The Germans have a word for it -- schadenfreude, which means "ha ha!," more or less. Happiness over another's misfortune is usually an unattractive emotion, unless they really had it coming. This fellow was like someone who hijacks the air-trafffic controller frequencies and directs all the planes to land on his roof.

Still, you have to stand in awe. It takes a certain kind of personality to live with the pressure of maintaining the deceptions laid out in the charges. Most of us would throw up every morning. We'd have sheet-soaking dreams of being chased down ever-narrowing tunnels by a 900-foot Jack Webb. But if you have the mind to craft these schemes, I suppose you have the disposition to zip-a-dee-doo-dah through the day, figuring you'll slip out the back when the feds are in the waiting room and slip off to an island where book-cooking crooks can retire in peace and comfort. Ponzi Cove, or something. One of those Gilligan places that's off the map. You're tempted to do a Google search for "secret master criminal retirement lairs," but you invested in one of those a few years back and it turned out to be a scam. Man, you hope they threw the book at those guys.

If the scam weren't enough, the gambling is the big rotten cherry on the bag of flaming dog-offal. I think we'd have six molecules of sympathy if a guy hoovered money out of investors and diverted a small amount to a clean-water project in the Sudan, but reportedly this guy lost $10 million in Vegas. How, I'd love to know. Perhaps in the back rooms of Sin City there's a special slot machine made entirely of gold and diamonds, with a handle so well-balanced and finely oiled it's like shaking hands with Satan's press agent. Special attendants smooth your gambling hand with emollients while showgirls pour caviar down your pants, and a guy in dark glasses opens up a case containing half a cigarette once smoked by Frank Sinatra. It's a million a pull. OK, the first six pulls don't go well. But you're due for a streak.

There has to be -- I mean, there absolutely has to be - a moment when you're standing at the window of your comped room at the hotel, wishing you hadn't added a $10 million Vegas debt to all your other problems. And you're hungry, too. You look at the basket of nuts on the dresser. They're $10 a box. They'll comp the room, but they still have you by the legumes if you get hungry. Well, you're not going to spend $10 on peanuts. This is where you draw the line.

Mr. Petters' difficulties couldn't have come at a worse time. (I'm sure he's feeling bad, but when this sort of fellow tears up in an arraignment you wonder how he smuggled in the onion slices to stuff in his shirt cuffs.)

No, he didn't crash Wall Street; they were perfectly capable of making great hash of the international banking system without a piker from flyover land. But he's become the local poster boy for The Money Crooks. In boom times we hate these guys. Now we're all staring down the tunnel of the long big bust, and it's dark. We would like some flaming skulls on pikes to illuminate the way.

At the end of the '20s a local businessman went to jail for securities fraud. Like Petters, he'd enjoyed a fine reputation right up until the moment that the checks bounced higher than the skyscraper that bore his name. It still does, of course; Wilbur Foshay's tower is now a swank hotel.

Too bad Petters never built a skyscraper and stuck his name on the side. It may have taken half a century, but all would have been forgiven.

Ask the people drinking in the elegant Foshay bars now: Any word for the old folks Wilbur bilked to build this place?

Sure. Thanks, Grandpa! This place rocks.

jlileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858 More daily at www.startribune.com/buzz