Catered to Death

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

As upset as Berlin was on Friday, the blowup apparently did not weigh heavily on him during the weekend. He had dinner with Bret at Shula's II in Miami Lakes on Sunday evening, and they discussed many topics -- but not Arlene Pecora. He spoke at length about his growing interest in Orthodox Judaism during the past five years. He talked about his family and about how pleased he was that his son lived so close to him.

The weekend respite wasn't enough to defuse Berlin's rage, however, and on Monday, the dispute quickly metastasized, sending shock waves through the main office. Soon after Pye arrived at work that morning, April 28, the day before the murder-suicide, Pecora called her into his office and informed her that Berlin wanted Arlene fired. Pecora told her he planned to hire an attorney. He also spoke privately in his office with receptionist Jacqueline Major, asking her if she'd seen any problems between employees and Arlene on Friday. She hadn't.

A short time later, Pecora met with Berlin in his office for about an hour and a half. Suddenly, Berlin stormed out of the office with a stack of memos, with a pained Pecora following behind. Berlin handed a memo to Major: "Jacque, Arlene Pecora is terminated." Major looked at Pecora in disbelief. He shook his head, as if instructing her to ignore it. Addressed to all management and administrative personnel, the memo stated that Arlene Pecora no longer worked for the Signature companies. "Please contact me immediately if she attempts to tell you what to do or how to do it." He walked to Pye's office, handed her a memo, and told her to discontinue her salary, benefits, and telephone. Berlin posted memos near offices on both administrative floors.

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

He entered Arlene's office "in a rage" with one of his memos, she told police, and screamed, "You're fired and, if I see you in here again, I'll drag you out myself and sue you!"

Twenty minutes later, Pecora asked Pye to come to his office. Arlene was there when she arrived. He again said that he was going to contact an attorney. Pye asked, "'Wouldn't it be better that maybe Arlene stayed away for a little while and you guys try to straighten this out?' He said he [didn't] want to straighten it out."

Later that afternoon, Pecora gathered a group of top employees in his office. He appeared calm. He told them that he didn't know why Berlin had "snapped," offering that perhaps the diabetic Berlin's insulin levels were off. He tried to keep things light, according to one employee in the room. Pecora said: "I don't quite understand; we're both equal partners. How can he fire my wife? Does that mean that if he fired her, I can rehire her?"

He then asked if anyone was afraid. "Should we be?" asked someone. Again Pecora joked, saying that he hadn't seen Berlin hit anyone in about six years.

Later that afternoon, Berlin called McCutcheon at home, since she had called in sick. Berlin asked her where the partnership agreements were kept. She told him where she believed they were stored. He wouldn't tell her why he was looking for them.

About 4 p.m., Michael Pecora called Carl Sachs, a New Jersey consultant to the catering trade. The two had become acquainted at several conferences. Pecora asked if Sachs had had any experience in brokering the sale of a catering business as large as the Signature companies. "My first reaction was to wonder why he was asking," Sachs recalls. "I thought he was going to refer me to someone else." He was surprised when Pecora told him that he was interested in selling his own company. When Sachs asked why, Pecora responded, "Well, you know, we're having partner problems."

Sachs adds: "I'd known Michael a number of years, and he sounded exactly the way he'd always sounded. He didn't sound distressed or wrought up." Sachs e-mailed him later that day with some basic information about what such a sale would involve. He didn't get a response.

Co-workers had called McCutcheon throughout the day to update her. She left a message for Pecora, and about 4:30, he called her. There were plenty of people who would buy him out of the company, he told her.

It was time for drastic measures. The Pecoras had evidently concluded that things had gotten so out of hand that they had to get out of the business. At home that evening, they discussed dissolving the partnership. Both were afraid to go into work on Tuesday, Arlene told police later. They decided they'd go, but only during the morning, since Berlin often came in late.

Sometime during the night, Michael Pecora settled upon his own solution.

Puzzlingly, Pecora's widow blames the tragedy not on personality or business differences but on the Colorado condo. She told police that "Berlin had been harassing Michael about turning over the ski property to him and his fiancée, Marna." Berlin then threatened he would fire and humiliate Arlene. She denied that the two men were having any business disagreements.

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