From His Big House to the Big House

Chop-shop king built his dream mansion. Then an interior decorator took him down.

When Suffolk County auto-theft detective Robert Petro first saw the hulking 14,431-square-foot mansion on Long Island's Gold Coast in February 2003, he recalls thinking, "Apparently crime pays."

Even by the grandiose standards of the neighboring homes on the tony cul-de-sac in Upper Brookville—mansions occupied by company founders, doctors, and movie producers—Michael Pescatore's estate stood out. Petro eventually took to calling it "Castle Grayskull," after the towering, ominous-looking lair of cartoon character He-Man. But for Pescatore, having spent "every day there, 15 hours a day" for years working on it, the home became his "American dream," says Joel Winograd, one of the cadre of high-priced attorneys who has worked for him. "Michael put his heart and soul in it."

If the mansion embodied the American Dream to Pescatore, it came to represent a mockery of that dream for law enforcement officials. "This house," Winograd concedes, "was like a sign for the government: 'Come and investigate Michael Pescatore.' "

Exterior Pescatore mansion in Brookville
photo: Ofer Wolberger
Exterior Pescatore mansion in Brookville

And when they did, they discovered Pescatore and his pals were running what was by the summer of 2003 the largest chop shop on the East Coast.

Stolen cars and car parts—shuffled and reshuffled in a bewildering array of clever schemes— enabled the young and rich Pescatore to travel extensively, ski the best resorts, eat at the finest restaurants, wear Armani suits, hold Knicks season tickets, and, of course, always drive nice cars. He multiplied his fortune by investing in shopping centers, strip malls, medical office buildings, apartments, and houses, amassing what Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Roslyn Mauskopf called a "real estate empire."

Above everything else, however, was his mansion. Within a year after construction began, the home's builder and Pescatore's close friend, Robert Reed, died of a heart attack, according to a former longtime girlfriend who spoke to the Voice on the condition of anonymity. So Pescatore took over the general contracting duties himself. In this role, no detail was too small.

"Michael felt he was the only person who could carry the torch and continue the vision that Mr. Reed had," says the former girlfriend, a self-described "Iraqi beauty." "The house ismagnificent—it's the most magnificent home ever. It is representative of Michael's tastes, Michael's passion, Michael's interest in art and architecture. It was done with so much attention and love. Every inch was thought out."

Pescatore's "office" was nothing like his opulent house. The chop shop was in a nondescript concrete building behind a corrugated sheet metal fence topped with razor wire on Morgan Avenue in Greenpoint. Cops and prosecutors eventually chopped up Pescatore's Brooklyn-based empire. But even though he was arrested first because of all the cars he stole and stripped, it was his obsession with his Long Island house that ultimately did him in. This rough-hewn king of car thieves, known for his strong-arm tactics, was brought to his knees by an interior decorator.

Michael Pescatore and Sanford "Stan" Edmonston started Astra Motor Cars on Morgan Avenue in 1987, when Pescatore was only 23. In just the last five years before the stolen-car ring was shut down, the government estimated it netted as much as $20 million. And Petro insists that even that $4 million-per-year clip is a "lowball figure." He says the total amount of money the Astra guys made over their entire 16-year run is "anyone's guess," adding, "They were just a moneymaking machine."

And what a well-oiled machine it was, fueled by an array of clever ploys.

Suffolk County District Attorney Office handout of Michael Pescatore
photo: Suffolk County District Attorney's Office

Some of those schemes were so smooth that they caught the eye of cops. In December 2002, a longtime informant tipped off Petro and his partner, Bill O'Hern, about a couple of better-than-average car thieves, Freddy LeBron and Tommy Reek. The detectives were told the pair was behind three stripped, high-end vehicles that were about to be part of a public auction. When the detectives took a look at the vehicles, it was apparent something was up. In the usual strip jobs, wires are cut and Sawzall reciprocating power saws are used haphazardly to dismantle the vehicles as quickly as possible. But these vehicles were "surgically stripped," Petro says. "Everything was unclipped instead of cut, unscrewed instead of ripped out. It looked like someone wanted to put them back together again."

The detectives discovered that the thieves had stolen a Chevrolet Avalanche luxury truck and a Cadillac DeVille DTS from dealer lots and a Mercedes-Benz S500 from the valet parking lot of an upscale Italian restaurant. They carefully stripped the cars in Reek's garage in Massapequa, loaded the frames into a covered trailer, and dumped them along Route 110 in Farmingdale and Amityville. The men then called 911 themselves to report the abandoned hulks.

In the case of the Avalanche, the men even followed the tow truck that hauled it away and paid a few bucks to the guys in the garage to shrink-wrap the hulk in plastic to protect it. Following the trail, Petro and O'Hern found that all three of Reek and LeBron's frames were bought at auction by the same salvage company: Astra Motor Cars in Brooklyn. Astra sold the frames to Reek and LeBron, providing titles with made-up names. Reek and LeBron then reassembled the vehicles using the original parts they had removed earlier. The detectives later found out why Reek had taken such special care of the Avalanche: He was using it as his personal vehicle.

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