From His Big House to the Big House
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 Brookvillemansions occupied by company founders, doctors, and movie producersMichael 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.' "
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.
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Stolen cars and car partsshuffled 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 ismagnificentit'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.
Astra had long been rumored in law enforcement circles to be involved in the stolen-car business, but now Petro and O'Hern had proof. "In this case, Astra's paperwork showed it sold to fictitious people, not LeBron and Reek, so they were basically part of the conspiracy covering up for these car thieves," Petro says. "We figured if they were doing it for these guys, they were doing it for other people as well."
The problem with nailing Astra in the past was that the ring purposely crossed jurisdictions. For instance, they might steal a car on Long Island, dismantle it in Brooklyn, obtain a phony title in Ohio, and sell it in New Jersey. To deal with the jurisdictional roadblocks, a federal, state, and local task force dubbed "Operation VIN City" was born, and Petro and O'Hern were federally deputized. In June 2003, the task force served a search warrant on Astra, seizing the records on about 5,000 cars the company sold over the past five years that turned out to be stolen or reassembled with stolen parts.
Much to their surprise, in some cases Pescatore actually kept both the original records and the doctored paperwork that made the stolen cars appear legitimate. In this case, there was no honor among thieves. "Mike didn't trust his workers," says Petro. "He had to account for every penny that was made fraudulently or legitimately." That didn't mean the thieves who worked for Pescatore weren't skilled at their jobs. One associate nicknamed "Johnny Benz" was so good with a Mercedes that a mechanic told Petro that the stolen cars he reassembled actually ran better than new.
Over the next 15 months, the lead detectives zigzagged across the country, from Minnesota to Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, Ohio, Connecticut, and Arkansas, 10 states in all, to bolster their case. They uncovered some ingenious schemes:
Astra bought damaged Toyota Camrys at a salvage auction and had thieves steal identical Camrys, mostly off dealership lots. The Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) tags were switched from the damaged cars to their identical stolen mates. Such a damaged car might cost them $1,500 at auction. Astra would sell it, claiming it was a lease return or bank repo, for $17,000 or so.
A severely damaged or theft-stripped motor vehicle has to pass an inspection when it's rebuilt. Since the Astra guys were rebuilding these autos using stolen auto parts for which they didn't have invoice numbers, they used an associate from Georgia to bribe a DMV worker there (she used the cash to satiate her addiction to male strippers) to provide titles for these vehicles, classifying them not as rebuilt but used. Rebuilt vehicles routinely fetch 20 percent to 30 percent less than used cars.
Two identical high-end cars would be stolen. The Astra guys would remove both VIN tags, strip one car, sell its stolen parts, and affix the VIN tag from the intact car onto the shell. They would abandon the frame in the street and wait for the sanitation department to recover it and cancel the stolen-car alert. Astra would then buy the frame back at auction and put the VIN tag back on the intact vehicle. "So they'd sell all the parts from the first car and have the other car, untouched with no alert on it," Petro says.
After buying a damaged car, Astra would lift its VIN plates and stickers (the latter are usually on the inside of the driver's door) and, together with the title, sell such "VIN kits" for $1,500 and up, depending on the make of the car, to thieves. The crooks would then steal an identical car, affix the VIN plate and stickers, and be good to go.
Astra sold more than 100 cars rebuilt with stolen parts that they illegally titled to a former Bronx neighbor of Edmonston'sit helped that the guy was dead.
Drug dealers would come in and buy flash cars for tens of thousands of dollars in cash, but Astra would supply paperwork showing such sales as below $10,000. Anything over that amount of cash requires the filing of a Currency Transaction Report, which might have led to some government types to ask the drug dealers where their money came from.
photo: US Attorney's Office
Edmonston and others equipped secret compartments known as "traps" into drug dealers' vehicles. But beware of such favors. In at least one instance, they secretly placed a GPS device in the car of a crew of Albanian criminals and tracked them, via computer, as they traveled from Texas to Florida to buy cocaine. The Astra guys then had associates break into the car. The original plan had been to get the money, but instead they hit them after the deal and had to settle for 30 kilos of cocaine, which they then sold.
The investigation seemingly could have stretched on forever, Petro says, and detectives could have gone globalthere was an export angle involving stolen cars being shipped to Iceland and Nigeriabut ultimately the decision was made not to pursue that lead. By then the task force had more than enough to make a case. On September 9, 2004, the hammer came down. Pescatore, Edmonston, and 10 others were named in an 83-count indictment charging operation of a chop shop, mail fraud, conspiracy to traffic stolen motor vehicles and parts, tampering with VINs, and money laundering.
Born in a working-class Queens neighborhood, Mike Pescatore, a first-generation American, went to well-regarded St. Francis Prep and was first in his family to graduate from college, earning a business degree from C.W. Post. His father works as an electrician, but Petro says Pasquale Pescatore also once ran an automobile salvage company in Jamaica in the 1980s with Edmonston as a partner, which was probably how Michael got involved in the car business. (The father did not return calls left at his job and, through his lawyer, Pescatore declined to comment.)
The vowel at the end of his name and occasional boasts of mob connections notwithstanding, prosecutors and law enforcement officers say that despite the millions Pescatore was hauling in, they never connected the Astra ring to the Mafia. (If true, it says a lot about the sorry state of the mob today.)
In fact, Pescatore had never been arrested until the chop-shop case, and by then he was nearly 40.
Petro says he found the chop-shop king "arrogant" in person and uncovered examples of the kind of cruelty and venality associated with mobsters. If a competitor outbid him at an auction, Pescatore was known to pry the VIN tag off the dashboard, reducing the car's value considerably. Once, according to Petro, Pescatore was overseeing the redecoration of a store he owned when someone walked in and asked what happened to the man who ran the store. Lying, Pescatore said, "Didn't you hear? The man has cancer." Then Pescatore asked the man if he'd like to make a donation to a fund set up for the supposedly stricken man. After the visitor contributed $100 and left, a smiling Pescatore turned to his workers and boasted that he just made lunch money.
It's not known whether they laughed or frowned. But Pescatore's workers in the chop-shop ring complained that he didn't pay or treat them particularly well, says Petro, and nearly every one of them cooperated in the investigation against him.
Pescatore's former girlfriend disputes that portrayal, saying he is even-tempered and reserved almost to the point of being shy.
"He wasn't a big mouth," she says. "He wasn't a show-off at all. He was a very low-key kind of guy."
The ex, who described herself in an e-mail as a five-foot-eight "Iraqi beauty" and an "international makeup artist turned NYC power broker" (she's in real estate), takes credit for transforming Pescatore, when she met him in 1991, from "tacky" to "an 'It' guy." She described him as six feet tall, handsome, with wavy dark hair, and a cross in looks between Sylvester Stallone and comedian Paul Reiser. He'd wear Banana Republic during the day and Armani for a night out on the town.
Pescatore collected and raced cars, taking his vintage Ferraris down to the Cavallino Classic in Palm Beach or upstate to the Watkins Glen raceway or over to the Lime Rock track in Connecticut. He also loved to ski. Above all, she says, she knew him as a "great family man, very, very loyal and loving of his family." He has a 14-year-old daughter from a first marriage and two children, five and three, with his current girlfriend.
The ex insists she's no longer bitter about their split, which ended badly in 2000. But she wants it known that a week after breaking up with Pescatore, she met "a fabulously gorgeous Latin heartthrob" who is an actor and one of the top fitness trainers in the city. "For all the ladies out there who think that a multi-millionaire who can't see past his own reflection is the way to go, think again," she says. "I wouldn't pass up my man for three of those mansions!"
No reflection on Pescatore, but the Upper Brookville of years past, the old-money era when the village boasted a country club for its butlers, wouldn't have even let him visit. By the time he was looking for a spot to build, however, new-money couples like has-been actress Pia Zadora and her then husband Meshulam Riklis had already softened up the snooty town. They bought the mammoth Iselin Estate property, played with it for a few years, and then sold it and its 110 acres to a developer who cut it up into 16 lots, creating Chestnut Hill Estates in 1989. In September 1996, Michael Pescatore paid $500,000 for one of the more desirable lots, abutting Planting Fields Arboretum.
For many in the village, the house Pescatore built over the next three years was the worst of the worst of the village's new super-sized Mc Mansions. "It just looks huge," says one village official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "I call it the Miami Beach Hotel."
Actually, according to IRS Special Agent John Ricupero, the house was supposedly modeled after a famous Palm Beach mansion. It wound up with such extras as dual wrap-around staircases, an elevator, fireplaces everywhere, two family rooms, an indoor pool with sliding roof, a kitchen with three dishwashers and another in a pantry just in case, two attached four-car garages, and a gazebo called the "Temple of Love." And, oh yes, the estate is surrounded by an eight-foot-high wrought-iron fence.
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.
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."
In any event, the forfeiture case is still going on against some of Pescatore's corporations. Not so his house, which the government insisted, before any deal was struck, that he hand over to be sold at public auction.
"The government demanded the house as part of the forfeiture," says his attorney Joel Winograd, "and Mike gave them a pound of his flesh."
The array of luxury vehicles amassed in front of 34 Chestnut Hill Drive on March 22 would have made the Astra guys drool. The Mercedeses, Range Rovers, BMWs, plus a Rolls Royceall brand newhad ferried the super-rich to Upper Brookville to bid on Michael Pescatore's dream house.
But the cars were safe because the Astra crew was off the streets. And after only a couple of minutes, the auction turned into a two-man contest in which Manhattan real estate developer Frederick Rudd outbid Lasik surgery king Dr. Ken Moadel.
Rudd, 52, bought the mansion for $8.3 million. "To buy a house for 8.3 that is worth, at least in my view, 12, is a great bargain," he says. An official at the company hired to sell Pescatore's mansion had said that the house's nefarious backstory might actually be a selling point, making for a good tale for cocktail parties. Rudd says that wasn't a factor for him, adding, "I was actually a little bit nervous about that." In any case, he says he'll hang on to his Manhattan condo and use the Upper Brookville house for weekends and whenever he can get away.
The 52-year-old Rudd says he can tell from the details that the house had been the previous owner's passion. But there's still work to do. Part of the basement is still unfinished, he says, and the house needs a new lighting system, a new sound system, and, of course, furniture. (Pescatore got to keep his furnishings.) Rudd estimates it'll cost him at least $1 million before the mansion is where he wants it.
"One shouldn't think at 8.3 it's done. It's not done," Rudd says. "There's quite a bit of deferred maintenance on the house that needs to be repaired and upgraded. So it will become my obsession, I guess to some extent, to restore the house to what it was supposed to be."
Whatever that is. The real question is what Michael Pescatore was supposed to be. His ex-girlfriend, the self-described "Iraqi beauty," contends that Pescatore didn't know about the stolen cars, having long ago turned over the day-to-day operation to his partners to concentrate on his real estate interests. (Prosecutors and cops strongly refute that assertion.) If he were a crook, she says, would Governor George Pataki have attended a fundraiser at Pescatore's home during his 2002 re-election campaign? (Police found pictures of Pataki with Pescatore and many of his co-defendants at that party during one search warrant, Petro confirms.)
Instead, she thinks Pescatore was brought down by others' jealousy of his money, his lifestyle, and his house, which, she adds, is not a "19th-century French-style mansion," as some "morons" in the media have referred to it. Clearly, it's modeled after the work of influential 16th-century Italian architect Andrea Palladio. How does she know? "I was the artistic visionary behind the whole damn thing," she says via e-mail. "MP couldn't design his way out of a paper bag."
Turned out he didn't know much about interior decorators, either.