Nine months ago, Ron Vinci, a wealthy former car dealer, moved into a $4 million house at 101 Coconut Drive in Fort Lauderdale. Less than two weeks later, his body was found in the guest bedroom, mutilated and stuffed into a bag.
Today, the scene of his death is clean, tranquil even. A large window looks out onto a first-floor portico where electric fans turn slowly; light streams into the room through a pleated fabric window shade and illuminates the walls, the comforter, an empty patch of carpet alongside the bed.
Just outside the bedroom, through the powder room under the marble staircase, there's a secret door to a computer system that controls the lighting, the shades, and the music that's playing softly in another room. Beyond that is the bright, two-story foyer that opens onto a backyard framed by the wings of the U-shaped house. There's a pool and a hot tub off to the left.
Past the backyard is the New River, glittering, where Vinci kept his boats.
"Ron passed." That's what Vinci's gardener and handyman, Reynaldo Silva, was saying over and over. "Ron passed." His Brazilian accent, twisted by emotion, was harder than usual to understand over the phone.
Whatever, thought Spencer Gordon, a 64-year-old helicopter pilot who hung out with Vinci nearly every day. Ron passed out? That's what he's telling me? The man sure could drink; that was no secret. In fact, Gordon had been over on Coconut the previous night, watching TV with Vinci and another friend, 64-year-old Terry Leipsig. Vinci — who at 70 was wealthy enough that no one expected him to be healthy or wise — had been slinging back some Chinese food and his usual parade of drinks: gin with a splash of tonic. Leipsig later told police Vinci complained that the food, which Vinci's live-in girlfriend, Catherine Pileggi, had reheated, tasted bitter. Gordon and Leipsig left at 7:30 because Vinci was falling asleep on the couch. That was rare for him. Usually, drinking made him livelier.
After receiving Silva's call, Gordon headed over to meet the panicked gardener at Vinci's recently vacated house on Las Olas Isles that was in the process of being sold. It was late morning on June 28, 2011. Vinci had moved into the house on Coconut two weeks prior, and Silva was still taking care of both dwellings, doing maintenance and landscaping work. Leipsig joined them.
Silva was upset. They drove together in Gordon's car to Coconut Drive. Gordon punched in the code to open the gate and stopped behind a couple of workmen's trucks parked outside.
Pileggi answered the front door. She was 16 years younger than Vinci and a former Delta Airlines flight attendant. Ninety-odd pounds, with long, brown hair, she was the recluse to Vinci's extrovert, a shorts-and-sneakers woman who reportedly loved to watch true-crime dramas and was scared of the ocean.
According to a statement he later gave police, Gordon asked Pileggi, "Where's Ron?"
"He went out with a friend," she replied.
In the marble foyer, an electrician and a contractor were trying to fix the Crestron home-automation system hidden behind the powder room. The Crestron guy had been there every day for a week working on it, and Vinci usually hovered. Gordon's suspicions were raised. "He wouldn't have let the guy work on it without him," Gordon later explained.
And if Vinci were out seeing a friend, chances are Gordon — a constant presence in Vinci's life — would have known who it was. When he pressed Pileggi, she said Vinci was with "a friend from out of town," Gordon recalled.
As Pileggi alternately talked to the workers and made small talk with Gordon and Leipsig, Silva moved toward the back bedroom and frantically gestured toward it.
"There's a bag," he whispered when Pileggi's back was turned. "Ron's in the bag."
Gordon excused himself to use the toilet. Then he ventured farther down the hallway, into the bedroom, but didn't see anything and came back. "Behind the bed," Silva said.
Gordon went back and found a large, zipped duffel lying next to the window. Near it was an empty blue-gray plastic storage tub. He unzipped the bag quickly and felt... something human.
Shaken, he returned to the foyer. He told Silva and Leipsig to go back to the old house while he talked to Pileggi.
When they were alone, he confronted her, admitting he had felt something in the bag. She started to cry then.
"He's dead," Gordon recalled her saying. "He went down the stairs," she said five times. "I messed him up. I messed him up and put him in the bed."
Leipsig returned, and the three of them went into the bedroom, and Gordon opened the bag again. Inside were scrunched-up plastic bags and sheets surrounding something heavy swaddled in a sleeping bag. The whole mess was covered with what looked like damp dirt. Smelling it, Gordon realized it was coffee grounds. Neither Vinci nor Pileggi drank coffee, as far as he knew. Then he thought he saw a hand and closed the bag.
"When the police come, what are you going to say?" Gordon asked Pileggi.
"I don't think they're going to believe it was an accident," he remembered her saying.
"Because there's a bullet hole in him."
Gordon stepped out to call 911. He sounded calm on the phone but had a hard time explaining things to the dispatcher. "We need a detective at 101 Coconut, Fort Lauderdale, please."
"OK, what's going on there, sir?"
"They had an accident."
"What color vehicles are involved?"
"There's no vehicles, ma'am. It's a person... a person fell down the stairs."
"OK, do they need paramedics?"
"So you just found him at the base of the stairs?"
"No, ma'am. It's a little more complicated than that."
Pileggi was a young heartbreaker: At 17, she was a contestant in the Miss Columbia County Cattleman Beauty Contest in rural Georgia. Don Zeh, who says he became her coworker and close friend a decade later and "would have liked to date her," remembers that "she had guys falling for her all over the place."
Pileggi came from a close-knit family in Grovetown, Georgia. Zeh, who says he and Pileggi met while working as lab technicians at a Veterans Administration hospital in Augusta, remembers her fondly. "She was a typical Southern girl," he says. "Beautiful smile, very, very attractive, an outgoing personality."
But the ponds and farms of her hometown must not have been enough for Pileggi, who found a way to fly to the far reaches of the country. In the 1980s, she left the VA hospital to become a flight attendant.
Somewhere out west, she would meet Ron Vinci, who had built several successful car dealerships. He started out with a little motorcycle shop by the water in San Diego, then turned Pacific Honda into one of the biggest dealerships in California, recalls J.P. Bo, who began working there in the 1980s and is now the senior salesman. "He hired me over the phone," says Bo. "I came in and started working the next day." In his new boss, Bo saw "a hell of a character, an interesting man, motivated, strong-willed."
Vinci was a couple of years out of a brief marriage to a woman named Pamela, who left him with his only son, Kerry. After the divorce, he spent his money on expensive toys.
An aviation enthusiast, Vinci used his new fortune to collect planes and helicopters as well as cars. He bought a hangar in Lake Havasu City, Arizona. "He'd fly the helicopter from his house to the dealership and land on the roof," recalls Bo. Bo says Vinci sold the dealership just a few years later, apparently earning a huge profit.
Pileggi, by contrast, worked for about $20,000 a year flying with Delta. She mixed drinks, buckled seat belts, and almost certainly knew the old flight-attendant trick of using spent coffee grounds to cover up foul smells. When she started dating Vinci sometime around 1990, they shuttled between San Diego and a house in Aspen. Pileggi loved skiing.
Ten years later, though, the relationship deteriorated. Pileggi moved back east and was spending time in Florida, hoping to meet someone new.
Duilio Corigliano, a retired insurance consultant who is now 72 and lives in St. Maarten, says he met Pileggi in April 2001 through a mutual friend who was dating her sister. "She seemed like the sweetest person I had ever met," he recalls. "Quiet as can be, never said anything, never ate much."
After Pileggi started dating Corigliano, she told him that Vinci had verbally abused her after drinking too much; she grew tired of it and cut off the relationship. She said that Vinci would make crude comments about fucking women over dinner with friends. He had also refused to marry Pileggi, who by now was in her mid-40s. "She was kind of sad because she had never been married before. Her family didn't believe she was ever going to get married," says Corigliano.
Corigliano was smitten, though, and asked her to be his wife. In May 2001, they wed in a five-minute ceremony at the courthouse on Miami Beach. "We were living in South Beach at the time," recalls Corigliano, who is 18 years older than Pileggi. "She was so easygoing. She never complained about anything. It was kind of like having a little pussycat."
He recalled one time when they flew to St. Maarten, but she wouldn't get in the water, and another time when she took a flying lesson but returned looking pale and frightened.
"Whatever you need, just let me know and I'll take care of it," Corigliano says he told Pileggi. But after a couple of happy months together, he says, he was bothered by her periodic requests for money. "She became demanding, and she wanted this and that, so much a month, and she said that's what her friends would get from their boyfriends," he recalls. "In this quiet little mouse, there was a sudden change."
He says Pileggi asked him for $4,000 to $5,000 per month and said she was sending money to her sister, who had a problem with cocaine. He says that he gave her money for flying lessons and that she claimed to have lost the check.
Just months after they married, he told her, "Look, we moved too fast, and it's better to end this before it goes any further."
Court filings for the divorce list his net worth, including self-employed income, as $4,565,300 and hers as $8,000. Since they had never shared assets, the divorce was simple. Corigliano says they even laughed together about it. But afterwards, he says, "I remember her sitting there on the sofa in our condominium, saying, 'What's the point of living? Things never work out. There's just no point.' "
They parted ways, with Corigliano keeping his money and Pileggi unmarried once again. But the millionaire consultant doesn't regret his short-lived marriage. "It cost me $200 to get married and $300 to get divorced," he says. "That's not a big mistake."
Some time in the early '00s, one of Vinci's millionaire buddies, Tom Gonzales, who owns various marine- and aircraft-related businesses and flew recreationally with Vinci, urged him to move to Florida for its weather and low taxes. Vinci took that advice and, in 2005, purchased a $1.5 million Fifth Avenue "Tower Suite" on the 41st floor of the chic Las Olas River House condo in downtown Fort Lauderdale. And apparently, he soon reunited with Pileggi.
That same year, Corigliano moved in to the River House as well. He was surprised to discover that Pileggi was living 30 floors above him — with Vinci again.
"For her to go back to this guy who had verbally abused her... My God, that's got to be sad, to go back to the guy you couldn't stand," says Corigliano.
According to cell phone records, around 1 a.m. on June 28, Reynaldo Silva's phone rang. The caller ID showed Vinci's number, so Silva expected his boss, but the voice on the line was Pileggi's. According to a statement Silva gave police, she told him to rent a U-Haul truck later that morning and bring it to Coconut Drive. He agreed and went to bed.
He heard another call at 2:09 but didn't get up. A text from Vinci's number came through, telling him to forget about bringing the truck but to come in the morning. He later said he never read that message because he wasn't comfortable with the text function on his flip phone. But he didn't rent a truck. He arrived at the house around 8:30.
He told police he found Pileggi in the kitchen, crying. "Ron passed," she said. She led him to the back bedroom. She showed him the bag. She said he had fallen down the stairs.
And then, Silva recalled, she told him Ron had always wanted to be buried at sea. She asked Silva to help load Vinci's body onto his 80-foot yacht, Captain Ron, and take it out to open water. Around noon the day before, Pileggi had purchased $200 worth of diving weights at Brownie's YachtDiver in Fort Lauderdale. She told the clerk that Vinci needed new equipment and described how much he weighed, paying from his store account.
Silva told police that he was in shock as Pileggi asked for his help, so he stalled for time. He walked down to the boat and started its engines. Vinci usually piloted the thing from a remote-control unit, but Silva had driven it before. Pileggi followed him helplessly, holding the boat's thick instruction manual.
Silva pumped the throttle back and forth, then stopped. He told Pileggi that they'd need something to move the body, a container. He wanted to get out of there, tell somebody. His sole employer was stuffed in a bag, and his sort-of employer couldn't be trusted. He told Pileggi he needed to get a dolly from the other house. That's when he got the hell out and got Gordon on the phone.
Pileggi, meanwhile, went to the Home Depot on Sunrise Boulevard and bought a 45-gallon plastic bin with a lid. She checked out at 10:31 a.m. and got back to the house before Vinci's friends, whom Silva had summoned, arrived.
After Gordon saw the body and dialed 911, he called a lawyer friend and found an attorney for Pileggi, Sam Fields of Fort Lauderdale. She conferred with Fields briefly on the phone, then, according to Gordon's statement, moved the plastic tub from the bedroom into the garage before police arrived.
Police took control of Vinci's body and held it for the medical examiner to inspect. In addition to the plastic bags and fitted sheet in the sleeping bag, authorities would find a black plastic bag around Vinci's legs, paper towels covering his mouth, a brown cardboard paper-towel roll, clear plastic, and a couple of towels. Blue painter's tape was found on his stomach. There were five stab wounds on his torso and a bullet wound in his head. When police rolled back the comforter on the bed, they found "multiple sections of the mattress (pillowtop) cut out." Parts of the mattress, stained red, were later found in the trunk of a car in the garage, with other red-stained items: sweatpants, a small woman's shirt, and inside-out rubber gloves.
Pileggi appeared with Fields at the police station but did not give a statement. The case had not yet been ruled a homicide, and she was released without charges. She returned to the River House condo. According to friends of the couple, that had become her home. While Vinci resided at the house on Las Olas Isles, she mostly stayed in the penthouse. But when he bought the new house on Coconut Drive a few weeks before he died, he wanted to sell his Las Olas house and the condo as well. Vinci's friends say that didn't make Pileggi happy. She liked the condo.
It was a matter of days before somebody recommended Bruce Udolf, one of the best-known defense attorneys in town, to represent Pileggi (Udolf will not say who is paying for her defense). A former federal prosecutor, Udolf had helped Ken Starr dig up dirt on Bill Clinton ("With a Bullet," New Times, August 21, 2008) before running unsuccessfully for sheriff and then settling into private practice. On July 5, once a warrant had been served for the homicide case, he drove Pileggi to the Fort Lauderdale police station, where she turned herself in.
Despite having tens of millions of dollars at his disposal, Vinci enjoyed a cheap good time. He, Gordon, Leipsig, and other buddies were regulars at $1 Taco Tuesdays at the Treasure Trove bar on Fort Lauderdale beach, where dogs wander the tile floor and shirts are optional. He'd go up A1A to Exit 66 nightclub, a raucous spring-break hangout, and act the life of the party despite his 70 years. Gordon recalls that he'd pick the biggest guy in the bar and shout, "You wanna fight?" just for a laugh. One of his former boat pilots remembers him joking with a restaurant server, "You're a waiter? Yeah, my son's a waiter too. He's waiting for me to die." With women, he looked but didn't touch. "You know I've got a dead dick," Gordon remembers him saying gleefully to strangers.
Pileggi lived on the periphery of this raunchy-joke lifestyle. Vinci's friends visited his house on Las Olas Isles nearly every day, calling it the "clubhouse." Pileggi spoke with them but remained withdrawn and quiet, sometimes spending hours watching TV crime dramas. This put her at the mercy of Vinci's domineering nature: Friends recall him commanding her and others to "Make me a drink." Pileggi often fulfilled these requests, though she didn't drink much herself.
"You'd have nothing without me," friends remember Vinci telling her, once he'd had a few.
The couple took frequent boat and air trips to the Caribbean islands, where their divergent personalities became apparent. According to police, Pileggi's journals (which are being held as evidence) mention her fear of the ocean and Vinci's efforts to help her conquer it. Police statements describe a time by the beach when Vinci went out on a dinghy to catch lobsters, but she stayed behind, looking beneath the water through a little periscope, afraid to immerse herself.
"She always wanted to get in the water, but she was always scared," recalled Aaron Brown, who worked for Vinci as a boat pilot between Florida and the Caribbean. "Ron would... basically set the day up, [and tell me] 'You're gonna take her diving; you're gonna make her get in the water.' " Police say she wrote about one incident when she felt like she was drowning and grabbed Brown's body for support, pushing him under in a panic.
If she resented Vinci for pushing her into strange situations, it can't have helped that on December 20, 2009, one of her sisters, Angela Pileggi Silverstein, died during one of Vinci's boating vacations.
According to a ship's registry and police reports, Pileggi, Vinci, and Silverstein arrived in St. Lucia and tied up Vinci's yacht in the Rodney Bay Marina. Silverstein rode off with Shane Christopher, a marina employee, on mopeds. Later, they all met for a party at the marina, but around 10 p.m., Vinci and Pileggi retired to the yacht after Vinci said he'd had too much to drink. Early in the morning, Christopher brought Silverstein back, sick and incoherent; he later told police that she started convulsing. He summoned Pileggi, who tried to perform CPR on her younger sister, to no avail. An ambulance was not available, so they hailed a taxi and went to the hospital, where Silverstein was pronounced dead of "cardi-respiratory arrest" due to "acute intoxication."
By several accounts, Vinci had passed Silverstein a few of his antidepressant pills in a benevolent gesture. A friend told police Vinci once said Pileggi "blames me 100 percent" for the sister's death.
Vinci was cavalier about his health. In recent years, friends say, he would swallow handfuls of prescription pills — friends recall Valium, Wellbutrin, maybe others — to help him relax. He'd eat anything without discrimination.
In early 2011, he ended up in Broward General Medical Center for a few days with intestinal problems. It appeared that his hard-drinking life was taking a toll on him. But he also mentioned that his meals had tasted funny for a while. His buddy Leipsig joked that maybe Pileggi was poisoning his food.
Vinci laughed it off. But after that, he started asking other people to make his drinks. The night before his death, he mentioned to Leipsig that his passport and one of his guns were missing.
Gordon recalls Vinci saying occasionally that he was getting on in years and thinking about other women. But it appears that he never cheated on Pileggi. Although their own relationship had dried up — not only did they sleep in separate beds but in separate buildings — he never let her go. Toward the end, though, he tried.
Ten days before the murder, Gordon says, he flew with Vinci, Pileggi, and Tom Gonzales' boat captain to the Bahamas. They left Vinci and the boat captain on the island, and Gordon flew back alone with Pileggi.
Gordon says Vinci wanted to see other women but didn't have the heart to leave Pileggi — so he asked Gordon to break up with her as a proxy. As Gordon piloted the Sirius airplane back over the Atlantic, he told Pileggi of Vinci's offer: Vinci would pay her a million dollars and let her stay at the condo until he sold it, but he wanted to end the relationship.
Gordon says she told him, "I'm not interested," and they dropped the subject for the rest of the flight.
The Crestron system finally seems to be working. On a Monday afternoon in March, Gordon opened the front door, then turned to the control panel to find a pop radio station for his teenaged daughters, who, like his wife, were dressed in poolside attire. He was still coming to the house four or five times a week — just as he did before his friend Vinci died. He settled down behind the large, wooden desk in Vinci's office, where he took a call about selling the house on behalf of Vinci's son. Outside a back window, a young woman in an orange bikini drifted past on a paddleboard. "That's why I like this place," said Gordon, gesturing in her direction.
The medical examiner has ruled Vinci's death a homicide, citing the bullet and stab wounds — rather than blunt trauma from a fall down the stairs — as the cause. Neighbors across the street reported hearing gunshots on the evening in question a couple of hours before Silva got the call to bring a U-Haul. Police say they found a gun with Pileggi's fingerprints on the magazine along with bloody items in the trunk of a Bentley in the garage. The gun matched the bullet that had wounded Vinci.
Yet, as Pileggi's case moves toward a trial, details are not as conclusive as they might seem. How would Pileggi have wrapped Vinci's 200-pound body in plastic, put it in a bag, and moved it to the back bedroom alone? A woman who had been walking her dog past the house around 5 o'clock on the morning of the incident told police she saw a white pickup truck with a small trailer pull into the driveway, a detail that no one else has mentioned.
Kerry Vinci, who works in the construction industry in San Diego, would not comment for this article, nor would a probate attorney handling Vinci's estate. Without their input, it's hard to predict what will become of the fortune Ron Vinci built out of that first motorcycle shop in San Diego. Although Pileggi mentioned to friends that Vinci had finally trusted her to open a joint bank account, he never gave any indication to his friends that he had provided for her in his will.
While Gordon's daughters played in the backyard, several people identifying themselves as Vinci's friends hung around the kitchen island, talking about how they missed Vinci's presence. One woman claims to have heard Vinci's ghost slamming doors.
Asked if they thought it was strange to continue visiting in his absence, they demurred. "This is the clubhouse," said Gordon. "Ron's old house used to be the clubhouse, and this is the new one." He offered a reporter a drink from the fridge, which he still kept stocked with beer. Last week, Gordon says, the house was finally sold.