Catered to Death

A hard-charging wheeler-dealer, a catering perfectionist, and a bitterly dissatisfied wife -- it was a lethal mix

The conclusive answer as to why Pecora felt driven to kill his partner died, of course, with him. The two people who probably understand best, Berlin's son, Bret, and Arlene Pecora, aren't talking for now. Statements by the two to police, however, do shed light on the mindset of the two men.

Berlin apparently confided often in his only son, who in late 2001 had joined the company for management grooming. By early 2002, the assertive, five-foot-three Arlene Pecora was assuming a greater part the company's sales and marketing. She and Berlin shared an office.

Miami Herald
Michael Pecora (left) and Jerome Berlin built a catering empire in  South Florida, but a feud over a condo  and Arlene Pecora's role at the  company led to bad blood
Miami Herald
Michael Pecora (left) and Jerome Berlin built a catering empire in South Florida, but a feud over a condo and Arlene Pecora's role at the company led to bad blood

Berlin informed police that his father "had a lot of differences, professional, personal, and otherwise," with Arlene. They argued frequently, which distressed Michael Pecora. He asked Bret to help mediate between the two.

Bret had little success in doing so. "[S]he believed... that she was in charge of the sales department and believed that everybody who had anything to do with sales had to go through her first," Bret told police. "She also believed -- and wanted everyone to treat her as if -- she were an equal owner. Jerry believed otherwise. He looked at things as if, 'This is my company. I'm the partner. I own half of it. And people work for me.' And so, if he wanted to talk to somebody or give any corporate directives, that he was entitled to do so as an owner of the company and as a manager of the company and as a general partner of the company. Arlene did not approve Jerry talking to anyone without getting her permission first. Generally, she wanted to be treated as an equal, and he did not treat her as an equal. He treated her as an employee."

Arlene Pecora's role in management had been contentious in the past. One former manager claimed in a lawsuit related to a demand for severance pay that he was "required to devote an unreasonable amount of time resolving personnel concerns, persuading the staff from resigning due to the abrasive behavior of the acting director of catering [Arlene] and remedying problems caused by the acting director of catering."

Regardless of what Berlin thought, Michael Pecora considered his wife more than an employee. In a 1998 deposition, he explained: "Arlene is a limited partner and an owner of Signature Grand, and as my wife, I would not say that she reported to me as much as she helped run the company, design the building, and was an adviser to me. So we consulted on everything."

Still, Arlene Pecora's position was also problematic for her husband, and Bret Berlin became a bystander to arguments between the couple. "Usually when they argued, it was Arlene being unhappy with her husband at the way he wouldn't stand up for her in front of Jerry," he told police. Pecora never raised his voice, he said, but his wife would shout at him, "How can you let him push you around? How can you let him walk over you? You know, you're half owner of this company. You gotta stand up for yourself, and you gotta stand up for me."

In the end, however, it appears that something barely related to the Signature operation was to transform Pecora from ambitious businessman to cold-blooded executioner: a condominium the company owned in Breckenridge, Colorado, that the partners used for ski vacations. The young Berlin had overheard the Pecoras bicker over the property. The business partners planned to buy a second condo there, but Arlene argued with her husband that it would be preferable to buy a second condo in Paris. The company ended up owning a second condo -- as Berlin had demanded, in Colorado.

In December 2002, Bret began working at Signature Gardens in Kendall, about 40 miles away. His father, however, routinely confided in him about the Davie operation. Sometime during the winter of 2003, Berlin told his son that he was going to fire Arlene Pecora. Near the end of March 2003, shortly before leaving for a vacation at the Colorado ski condo, the elder Berlin informed him that he actually had fired her. "That's when he advised me not to go to the Grand," Bret told police. "It was very weird. He said, 'This is not a good place for a Berlin. '"

Jerry Berlin and his fiancée, Marna Winter, left for Colorado in early April and returned on April 21. The schism between Arlene and Jerry escalated quickly and came to a head near the end of the workday on Friday, April 25. Deanna McCutcheon, the 38-year-old executive assistant to the two partners, and Dianne Pye, the comptroller, overheard Berlin on the phone with Michael Pecora, who'd had the day off. Berlin pounded on his desk and demanded angrily that Pecora himself fire his wife, mentioning the Colorado imbroglio and complaints by employees against Arlene. Berlin was screaming into the phone, McCutcheon told police. Berlin said that "if Pecora could not wear the pants in the family and take care of this situation, then they would have to dissolve the partnership -- or something like that -- and he would take care of it, and he slammed the phone down and hung up." The rancor between the two men had broken shockingly into the open in a way that it never had before, several employees said.

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