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."

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.

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Wyatt Olson
Contact: Wyatt Olson