Catered to Death
Dressed in a black Brooks Brothers suit, Michael Pecora strode into Signature Grand in Davie on Tuesday, April 29, as calm and affable as ever. Following his usual routine, Pecora had driven alone from his million-dollar home in Weston to the Grand, a two-story, salmon-colored catering center, which, with its cloister façade, resembles a 19th-century Spanish mansion. The place was already buzzing with hundreds of eighth-graders on a field trip to the African Heritage Forum in the building's main ballroom. It's a cavernous space, long enough for an NFL quarterback to hurl the bomb if not for the dozen or so car-length chandeliers suspended above. Surrounding the ballroom is an elegant rabbit warren of smaller meeting rooms, all of which lead to a central windowless atrium with its own low-hung chandeliers and a water fountain.
Carrying his black nylon briefcase, the 51-year-old greeted several employees as he made his way to the administrative offices on the second floor. His 48-year-old wife, Arlene, who worked at the Signature but rarely commuted with her husband, had not arrived yet. A compact five-foot-five, Pecora possessed a full head of short black hair. Although he had a trim size-30 waist, Pecora -- whose bustling kitchens could pour out industrial quantities of chicken in wine sauce or potatoes au gratin -- had struggled since a young man to keep those few extra pounds off and was currently on the Atkins Diet. His countenance showed nothing of the recent feud with his long-time partner, Jerome Berlin, a prominent Democratic fundraiser. Nor did his expression betray his secret fear of Berlin -- a fear that Pecora and his wife had discussed the previous evening. No one saw in his eyes the violent solution Pecora had concocted. But then, he had always been a master at masking his emotions. As one long-time friend put it: "If the longest freight train in the world had come through his office at any time, he'd have said, "Oh my, look at the size of that train.' Never got rattled."
That supreme focus was at the heart of the catering empire he had built with the 60-year-old Berlin. First they had created Signature Gardens in Kendall in the 1980s, then Signature Grand in the 1990s -- South Florida's premier catering mecca, scene of numerous political fundraisers and celebrity parties over the years, with guests the likes of presidential hopeful George W. Bush, Bill McBride, Janet Reno, Elton John, and Jose Canseco, who got married there. The low-cost, high-efficiency operations were pulling in annual revenues of more than $10 million. Pecora and his close associates had perfected "kamikaze catering," by which banquet meals appeared before diners in a heartbeat. By constructing his catering halls to exacting specifications -- right down to the width of doors and circumference of tables -- each feast was orchestrated with a minimum of wasted time, equipment, and employees. Pecora had refined the Signature system so successfully that he planned to franchise it nationally.
Pecora's office was in the west wing of the building, right next to Berlin's and directly across from the office of the general manager, Samuel Mancuso. Pecora entered his office and was soon joined by Mancuso, who'd had Monday off. Pecora briefly mentioned his row yesterday with Berlin, who had fired Arlene Pecora for "fudging the numbers."
Miami Heat vs. Atlanta Hawks
TicketsSun., Oct. 1, 6:00pm
UberTailGate: Hard Rock Stadium Dolphins v Titans
TicketsSun., Oct. 8, 1:00pm
Miami Dolphins vs. Tennessee Titans
TicketsSun., Oct. 8, 1:00pm
Miami Heat vs. Charlotte Hornets
TicketsMon., Oct. 9, 7:30pm
Miami Heat vs. Washington Wizards
TicketsWed., Oct. 11, 7:30pm
Berlin arrived in the late morning. In many ways, the partners were as different as black and white. The elder partner stood five-foot-ten and was fair-skinned, with receding gray hair. Catering was Pecora's passion; for Berlin, it was strictly business. Pecora adroitly encouraged and cajoled the lowliest of the Grand's 150 employees; Berlin, while mixing easily among congressional power brokers and wealthy donors, was at times aloof or brusque with Signature employees, sometimes even wrathful. As one long-time employee told police: "Mr. Pecora and Mr. Berlin were exactly the opposite. Mr. Pecora treated everybody with respect, from the dish pushers to a guy mopping a floor. Mr. Berlin wouldn't give you the time of day, used people, controlled people out of fear and threats."
Once Berlin was settled in behind his desk, Pecora picked up his black briefcase. In it were two .38 caliber revolvers -- one that he'd owned since he was 21 -- and a .357 magnum. He strolled into Berlin's office, closed the door, and locked it. He pulled up a chair in front of the desk and sat down. No one heard the sound of an argument, of loud, angry voices. About 15 minutes later, Mancuso heard a deep crack. For a moment, he wasn't certain what it was, but he knew with a second bang that it was gunfire. Pecora had shot Berlin in the chest, once through the lung, once through the heart and lung. Either shot was enough to kill him.
The alarmed Mancuso called 911. Minutes later, there was another shot. According to investigators, Pecora had placed the murder weapon -- one of the .38s -- in his mouth and fired a bullet through his brain.
In Pecora's jacket breast pocket was a page-long typed note to his wife, dated the day before. "A long drawn-out lawsuit with an animal like Berlin would only ruin us and hurt all of our great employees and makes no sense to me," he wrote. "This way, you and our employees will be financially secure and won't have to deal with Berlin as a partner who would try to cheat you as he has everyone in his life."
As police swarmed the building and discovered the murder-suicide, news trickled out among the employees gathered downstairs. Many quickly concluded that it was Berlin who had shot Pecora -- not because Berlin was a violent man but because Pecora, according to everyone who knew him, was a man incapable of killing.
But unknown to most of the people who worked with him, the low-key, deferential Pecora was caught between two powerful forces -- forces that he could not reconcile. On the one hand, he was engaged in a long-term one-sided struggle for control of the direction of the company with his aggressive partner. On the other, he was contending with the expectations of his increasingly demanding wife, one of the most visible administrators of the catering operation and a frequent Berlin antagonist. Pecora was a people-pleaser, perhaps the most valued trait one can possess in the hospitality business. He went the extra five miles for customers, colleagues say, and his business was built on that principle. But Pecora's diffidence left him largely defenseless against the hard-charging Berlin. For years, company insiders say, Pecora had used a calm persistence to make his wishes felt, though more often than not, he had grudgingly given in to Berlin on personnel issues or business matters. Mrs. Pecora had no such qualms about confronting Berlin, and she frequently urged her husband to hold firm against his partner and "stand up for your wife."
The brooding, deceptively mild-mannered Pecora, it seemed, was forced to look for a resolution outside his own nature.
Michael Pecora wasn't your typical young college student. He had a vision. "Even back then, he was intense," recalls Andrew Juska, who attended hospitality-management classes with Pecora at Florida International University in the mid-1970s and eventually became one of his friend's top managers. "It was perfect or nothing. It was either done right or you didn't turn it in."
Juska worked with Pecora on a couple of major school projects, including planning and creating a small business that they named Wakeup Miami Coffee Co. "I remember being at his place and turning on the TV to watch Happy Days," Juska says. "He was incredulous: 'What are you doing? We're working.' I said, 'But this is the Fonz. '"
Pecora displayed the same single-mindedness on the job during and after college at Mada'n Kosher Foods, which specialized in kosher airline meals. "He was a very bright person," says Mada'n owner Sam Weiss, who took a fatherly interest in Pecora. "He was innovative. He didn't sit behind a desk and wait for people to give him something to do."
Few of his friends or associates knew that the affable Pecora had a license to carry a concealed firearm.
By 1978, Pecora had risen to vice president of operations. He and Michael Selig, who was executive chef at Mada'n, then founded their own catering business, Quality Food Systems. Pecora was 26 years old.
While working at Mada'n, Pecora had become acquainted with David Yablin, a salesman for a Miami restaurant supply company. Pecora approached him about buying equipment for the new company. Pecora's charisma and personal charm was such that he easily overcame the obstacle of being cash-strapped.
"I liked him -- very much. His personality, his drive," recalls Yablin, who was 15 years older than Pecora. "I think he had a lot of foresight for a young man. He was about $15,000 short of what he wanted to buy. I went to the owner of the company, who wouldn't extend him any credit, so I signed a personal note guaranteeing the $15,000." Yablin and Pecora became close friends, and Yablin supplied him with most of the equipment he was to need during the next 25 years.
Juska recalls: "As soon as he'd formed a company, Michael stopped by and said, 'I don't know where I'm going with it, but why don't you come along?' You had to figure he was going to be successful, and it definitely was going to be interesting." Working from a kitchen in downtown Miami, the men provided frozen kosher meals for hospitals and other institutions. Pecora landed a contract for the in-house catering at Temple Emanu-El in Miami Beach in the late 1970s. "He did a tasting for the board of directors," Juska says. "It was a very big deal. It was the premier kosher catering temple on the beach, probably Miami. It was gorgeous. We did some very, very high-end parties, as much as $100 a person -- which would be goodness knows how much now."
Pecora and Selig desired more, however, than just working out of someone else's kitchen or schlepping food and equipment around for the so-called gypsy catering. Even when they were just starting off, Pecora repeatedly assured Juska, with a look of visionary determination, that someday they wouldn't have to worry about foul-ups with catering equipment. "When you're an off-premise caterer, you've gotta lug all the dishes, pans, and whatever, and if you forget a salt and pepper shaker, you forgot it," he explained. "You don't have it."
The realization of that dream was Signature Gardens, a swanky, streamlined catering facility that opened in Kendall in 1985, a showily elegant place with a curved staircase of imported tile and skylight atria. "We had plenty of equipment to do the job right," Juska says. "It made us do the job better. Ask any caterer who was there: The hallways were at a width for a specific reason, because this was going there, etc. The layout of the kitchens was designed from a business standpoint but also from the catering standpoint. That's what Michael was an expert in."
Pecora and Selig formed a partnership named Deux Michel (two Michaels) in 1982, but it lacked capital. Enter Jerry Berlin.
Neal Sonnett, a Miami attorney and lifelong friend to Berlin, recalls that Berlin had met Pecora as a customer. "Jerry ran a lot of functions," Sonnett says. "He did a lot of fundraising receptions, entertained at his house for political affairs. I think he looked at it as a business opportunity -- not the catering business particularly but the catering-hall business. He saw a need for a first-class high-class venue for parties and bar mitzvahs. He had the business expertise, and Mike had the catering expertise. It was a pretty good team. He envisioned a chain of Signature Gardens -- or that kind of business."
One long-time Signature employee told Davie detectives that the two hooked up because "one was knowledgeable about the catering industry" and "the other was knowledgeable about how to raise money." In the past two decades, Jerry Berlin built a reputation among Democrats as the king of fundraising. In a eulogy at his funeral, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle said, "In spite of the fact that he raised more money for me than anyone else, not once did he ever come to me and ask me for a favor legislatively."
One of Berlin's first forays into electoral politics was on behalf of his boyhood chum, Neal Sonnett, who now practices law in Miami. The two had attended Miami Beach High School, where, Sonnett recalls, they acted and sang together in school plays. Berlin went on to get an accounting degree at the University of Florida and then completed law school in 1968.
"I don't recall him being political in high school," Sonnett says. But after he completed his education, a business associate introduced him to several people active in politics. He became chairman of the Dade County Zoning Appeals Board in 1971 and was soon drawn into campaign work. In 1972, Sonnett, then a federal prosecutor in Miami, was pressed by Democrats into the race for Florida's attorney general. He in turn inducted Berlin as his campaign treasurer.
Sonnet lost, but Berlin's interest and prominence in politics grew in the coming years. "He had a desire to see things better, to see government improve," Sonnett says. "A very deep-seated desire. He believed that he needed to be active in the democratic process. We thought very much alike on that."
Berlin's political ideas began to gel over the years. "I think you'd call him a moderate to liberal Democrat," Sonnett says. "He believed in the core values of the Democratic Party. I don't know that I'd point out one issue as opposed to another, but if he had one area he worked on a lot, it was his love for Israel and protection of Israel. He ran organized trips to Israel that many senators and congressmen went on over the years."
Berlin possessed the traits one would expect in a successful fundraiser. "Upbeat, gregarious, charming," Sonnett says. "He was very bright. He got along with people. He talked to people, conversed with them easily. He moved very well through crowds. He remembered people's names."
One Washington, D.C.-based fundraising consultant who worked with Berlin for more than 15 years says: "Members liked working with Jerry because there was no quid pro quo. He was a good fundraiser because he was able to sell passion for whatever the candidate or cause. Jerry's sincerity was his greatest asset."
At the peak of Berlin's fundraising, however, the federal government indicted him in August 1990 on charges of conspiracy and fraud. The ten-count indictment accused Berlin and Anthony Labozzetta, a New York lawyer, of squeezing the owners of Tampa-based GIC Government Securities Inc. for $200,000 in political payoffs to banking regulators.
"For a while, he had to kind of drop out of things he enjoyed doing," says Sonnett, who represented Berlin in court. "A man under indictment is not a very effective fundraiser for people in the United States Senate."
After a four-week trial a year later, a jury acquitted both men after a four-hour deliberation. "I think he had some bitterness over the circumstances over the indictment, which I thought and he thought was politically motivated and very unfair," Sonnett says. "This was a case in which he was truly innocent and unfairly charged. He never should have been charged. He had to go through an emotionally wrenching experience of defending himself.
"I think it gave him a very healthy respect for the justice system and how it works and how susceptible it can be to abuses. But I didn't detect any longstanding bitterness or any change in his attitude or personality. The mark of Jerry is that he was welcomed back into the halls of the Senate and House after it was over because I think most people were aware that he was truly innocent and that the verdict was correct."
Although there were other investors in Signature Gardens, Michael Pecora and Jerry Berlin had gained equal controlling interest in the catering center as it was just getting off the ground in 1985. Michael Selig had been squeezed out, although the partnership's name remained Deux Michel. Bad blood had developed among the three, claims one source. Perhaps the older and more hard-nosed Berlin had pushed for his removal, much as he would one day demand the same of Arlene Pecora. (Selig died in 2000.)
With the opening of Signature Grand in 1997, Berlin and Pecora were equal decision-makers over two bustling catering facilities and their subsidiaries. Many of their decisions were made in private, but top employees at Signature had plenty of opportunities to witness how the two men worked together.
It was a remarkably smooth fit -- at least in the beginning. "When they had a meeting and they were discussing how they were going to run the business, whatever way they ended up agreeing on, that's how it went," says Juska, who was a top manager from 1985 until late 2001. "You couldn't play one against the other. If anybody thinks that you could buddy up to Jerry and go against Michael, that's crap and that's wrong. They talked about everything."
The business relationship didn't, however, spill over into a friendship. One Signature Grand employee, who asked not to be named, says that the two men treated each other with respect but also kept a distance between them. "They never socialized, really," the employee says. "Only when they had to be together on certain occasions, like our New Year's Eve bashes -- but they had separate tables. I mean, Berlin was a Democrat. Pecora was a Republican. [Berlin] really wasn't a part of the business business. As far as the financial end of it, he was, but as far as the social end and how we did our sales, he was interested in the money. Pecora was involved in the daily things."
Pecora, however, routinely acquiesced to Berlin's will to avoid arguments. In an interview with police soon after the murder-suicide, Lloyd Stanton, the company's chief engineer of 11 years, said: "Mr. Pecora and Mr. Berlin typically treat[ed] one another with mutual respect -- even though I think Mr. Pecora had to bite his tongue [when he believed Berlin was wrong]. If Jerry was right, Jerry was right, so why disagree and cause an argument?" Instead, according to Stanton, Pecora would try to "circumvent" his initial capitulation by verbally nudging his partner. "[Pecora] was the broken record, never raised his voice, but he just kept, in his diplomatic way, wearing [Berlin] down until he got his way," Stanton said.
Whatever the differences between the two, they possessed one mutual trait that served as the hallmark of the Signature brand: perfectionism. Although they manifested the attribute in vastly different ways, it resulted in high employee turnover, several lawsuits, and a catering operation that was the envy of the industry. Paradoxically, it also played a role in the final fatal rift between them.
"Michael Pecora was a genius," declares a former Signature Grand employee who was involved in sales and marketing and asked not to be named. "You have to understand the mass market that he was going after. Michael used to laugh that he'd be the McDonalds of the catering business. His labor costs, food costs, preparation costs -- he kept everything low. He had it down to a true science."
Pecora's exactitude, however, could be exasperating. For example, he frequently drilled receptionists by making calls from his office and posing as a would-be customer. "He would get on the telephone -- and I still laugh about it -- and he would make all these fake calls as if to pose questions to people," former employee Richard Schoenherr said in a deposition as part of a civil lawsuit. He said Pecora had unrealistic expectations for his employees. "He did say to me a couple of times in person, 'Richard, why is it that everybody else seems to appear so stupid?'"
If Pecora was eccentric in his perfectionism, Berlin could be downright scathing -- behavior that undoubtedly got under Pecora's skin over the years. "He was a screamer," a Signature Grand employee says of Berlin. "If he didn't like what you did or said... we lost more receptionists because of him. With Pecora, you could make a mistake, but with Berlin, forget it. He could become a maniac, literally screaming at you."
Mancuso, general manager of the Grand, told police that he had been stunned by Berlin's management style. For example, Mancuso said, a new receptionist didn't follow protocol in answering a phone call for Berlin once. "Are you an idiot?" Berlin screamed over the phone to her. "Don't you know what you're doing? You have instructions right in front of you. What's the matter with you?" Then he hung up and told Mancuso: "I want her fired right now. I want her off the property. I don't want to ever take another call from her."
Juska says he was frequently on the receiving end of Berlin's brutal criticism, which sometimes took place in front of other employees. Occasionally, Berlin would apologize for his behavior a few days later. "But if something had perturbed him that I'd done, I wasn't getting out of that," Juska says. "That was a tough part of working there, but it was a consistent part."
Even some outside the business had witnessed Berlin's darker side. "I've been in his presence when he went crazy," restaurant supplier Yablin says. "I saw him fire a young girl because she didn't say, 'Sir.' As far as a boss is concerned, I think everybody was scared of him. That's my personal observation."
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.
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.
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.
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.
In a statement taken at her home about two weeks later, on May 15, she said Berlin had been upset that she'd stayed at the Colorado condominium, though she didn't specify on what date. "She had cleared one of the closets and when Mr. Berlin had found out, he had become very upset," according to the police report.
The future of the Signature companies is anything but clear. Berlin's estate is now in dispute. His fiancée, Winter, filed an objection with the court to prevent Bret Berlin's appointment as personal representative to the estate. Rebecca Fischer, who was Berlin's friend and the trustee for funds set aside for Bret and his half-sister, Ashley Berlin, has sued the siblings for replacing Fischer with other trustees.
Meanwhile, Bret Berlin and Arlene Pecora have officially taken the reins of Signature. Morale is low, one employee says, adding, "We don't know who's at the helm."
Get the Things to Do Newsletter
Find out about upcoming events and special offers happening in South Florida.