From His Big House to the Big House

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

Ricupero is the IRS's asset forfeiture coordinator in New York, but he sounds more like property broker than tax cop as he explains on a recent tour of the home that the front doors are 15 feet high and made of mahogany and that, shades of Michelangelo, there's a ceiling fresco of a woman and a cloud and an angel. Ricupero says family members told him Pescatore saw the image on the label of a bottle of Italian wine and was so enamored of it that he had it reproduced.

The house can gulp down 100 to 150 gallons of fuel oil in a single day. Its annual property taxes are close to $70,000. Between mortgage, utilities, taxes, landscaping, and upkeep, the agent says, the house easily costs about $250,000 a year to run.

And at one point, Ricupero says, the inside was lavishly furnished. That's where midtown interior decorator Michael Simon came in.

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

Michael Simon is "a virtual encyclopedia of French decorative arts," according to House & Garden magazine. He's a member of the Interior Design Committee for the hoity-toity annual Palm Beach Fair, which Art & Antiques magazine calls "perhaps the most exclusive and luxurious art and antiques fair in the United States."

Simon's own website says his "passion for the 18th century is apparent to all who view his work." But he seems to handle himself pretty well with 21st-century crooks like Mike Pescatore.

Going for the best, Pescatore hired Simon to decorate his dream house. It was agreed he would get a 10-percent commission on all materials bought to decorate the home. Simon declined to speak to the Voice for this story, but a prosecutor close to the case says the interior decorator was expected to make more than $100,000 for the job because Pescatore assured him he was going to spend more than $1 million decorating.

Pescatore gave Simon a $50,000 retainer, and soon Pescatore, his girlfriend, and Simon were off to Italy, looking for fabric in Florence before heading north to stone quarries. There were also other furniture-hunting jaunts around Europe. Despite all the travel, Pescatore and Simon apparently didn't become tight pals. These were work trips common among the wealthy.

"While Pescatore was an extremely wealthy guy, you could see they didn't have a lot in common," the prosecutor says. "Michael Simon is this sophisticated, well-educated person, and Pescatore is a fairly rough type of guy who made his money in the junkyard and through crime."

Their working relationship unraveled when Simon accused Pescatore of buying wallpaper and other materials behind his back to avoid paying the commission. Simon quit in a huff and told Pescatore he was keeping the $50,000 retainer.

A short time later, Simon received a call from someone posing as a potential client. A meeting was set up at the bar of the chichi Royalton Hotel on West 44th Street. Instead of a jet-setter looking to redecorate a showplace house, the "client" was Byron Christopher Chavis, all six foot two, 220 muscle-bound pounds of him. The feds say Pescatore sent Chavis, a city correction officer who had become friendly with Pescatore after buying a car at Astra and whom the chop-shop king facetiously referred to as his "accountant," to get his money back.

Accompanied by another large body-builder type, Chavis told Simon, "Now we know what you look like," and said he'd better pay Pescatore back the $50,000 or else. When Simon tried to get up to leave, Chavis pushed him back into his chair.

This interior decorator wasn't going to be intimidated. Simon immediately filed a police report. Several days later Chavis confronted him outside his office and punched him in his chest, saying, "That's for going to the police." Chavis told Simon that the next time it would be a bullet instead of a punch.

Simon pressed on. Chavis was arrested and eventually became a government witness against Pescatore for trying to extort the interior decorator. Other allegations of extortion also surfaced at the trial, one involving Simon strong-arming real estate developer Ted Doukas, who owned a building in which Pescatore's former girlfriend rented a cosmetics shop.

In February 2006, Pescatore was convicted of extorting Simon and attempting to extort Dou kas. The jury acquitted him of similar charges involving a landscaper and fence maker.

Prosecutors, looking to avoid an extended, expensive, and complex trial in the chop-shop case, offered Pescatore a plea bargain. Pescatore, already facing up to 15 years for the extortion conviction, was offered an 11-year sentence for both cases. He's imprisoned now, awaiting sentencing.

Part of the deal also calls for him to pay $12.5 million in restitution. Interestingly, he wasn't made to turn over his entire empire. He got to keep the Baybridge Commons shopping center in Bayside, which is worth millions, and some other properties. Part of the reason for that, said another prosecutor, who also spoke to the Voice on the condition of anonymity, was that Pescatore did a skillful job of camouflaging his ownership.

"When you look at all these properties, some of them are held in corporate names; others are held either in his name or jointly with others," the prosecutor said. "When you look at the range of properties that he had an interest in, it was not always apparent on the surface that he was the interested party."

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