Michael Amon

An All-American Family Tragedy

Posted in Uncategorized by michaelamon on November 25, 2009


BY MICHAEL AMON
April 26, 2009 Sunday p. A3
Trusted by his colleagues, loved by his family, Bill Parente was the picture of respectability.

He wore conservative suits and drove a Mercedes sedan.

His law office on Lexington Avenue was decorated with more than a dozen photographs of his wife, Betty, and daughters, Stephanie, 19, and Catherine, 11, whom he talked about endlessly. He kept the books for a group of solo law practitioners who shared a suite of offices.

And a small group of friends who entrusted Parente with millions of dollars to invest in commercial bridge loans always received their quarterly payments on time.

People trusted him.

“What Bill said, I believed. Bill’s word was good enough for me,” said Manhattan attorney Jonathan Bachrach, who shared office space with Parente for 12 years but was not an investor.

But in mid-December, Parente’s trustworthy veneer began to crack.

Skittish over the Wall Street crisis and the Bernard Madoff scandal, some investors asked for their money back. Parente stalled. He issued checks but asked that they not be cashed.

“He would give me some story, he made various excuses,” said one investor, Bruce Montague, a Bayside attorney.

Finally, on April 16, Parente gave Montague and other investors the green light to cash their checks. They began bouncing Monday morning – up to $20 million all told, associates say – as Parente lay dead with his family in a suburban Maryland hotel room.

Police say Parente killed his wife and Catherine some time after breakfast. He then waited several hours for his other daughter to return to the room and killed her, too. He then went out, bought a set of knives and killed himself.

It was a stunning end for what a friend called “the all-American family,” a tragedy that no one has been able to explain. The only clue so far is William Parente’s financial problems, which the FBI is investigating.

‘My little miracles’

William and Betty Parente’s relationship had been tested by infertility and then her battle with breast cancer, challenges that friends said made them a stronger and more loving couple. Their children were the center of their world.

“I never knew a man to be more proud of his children than Bill was,” Bachrach said. “His girls were practically all he ever talked about.”

William Michael Parente grew up in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn, the only child of a New York State Police trooper, Willie Parente and his wife, Roccolyn. He was drawn to the study of law at an early age, said his cousin Jean Russo Grace of Coram. As children playing at their families’ shared Long Beach bungalow, Bill never got into trouble, she recalled.

“He always played by the rules,” Grace said.

But Willie Parente’s police wages weren’t enough to send his son to college, so Bill turned to his uncle, Anthony J. Russo, a top aide to then-U.S. Attorney Herbert Brownell. Russo paid Parente’s way through Brooklyn College and then Brooklyn Law School, Grace said.

As a law student in the early 1970s, Parente was introduced to Betty Mazzarella, a fellow Bay Ridge native. They dated for several years before marrying in 1977, Grace said.

They stayed in Bay Ridge, renting an apartment near their extended family. The couple planned to have a big family, friends and family said. But their attempts to conceive were unsuccessful for so long that Betty began to worry she may never have children. “They just kept trying and if it would happen, it was meant to be,” Grace said. “If they could have, they would have had 10 kids.”

Then, at the end of 1988, Betty became pregnant with Stephanie at the age of 39. Betty quit her job as a legal secretary, and Bill left a law partnership near Wall Street and moved into a solo practice in midtown.

It was at this time, says a close friend who spoke on condition of anonymity, that Bill Parente also began soliciting investments for bridge loans, primarily from other attorneys.

In 1997, Catherine was born. Betty was 47, and the pregnancy came as a shock, Grace said.

“Betty was so proud,” said Joanne Schulter, 42, of Staten Island, who photographed the Parente family for 18 years. “When she had Cat, it was such a miracle.”

That’s how she thought of her daughters, said Robert Krener, 64, who sold them their ranch-style home on First Street and lives next door.

“She called her girls, ‘My little miracles,'” Krener said.

Living well

To neighbors, friends and family, the Parentes seemed to be thriving.

His law practice and investment business furnished the family with a comfortable life: a well-appointed suburban home, a summer residence in the Hamptons, designer clothes for his daughters, two Mercedes-Benz cars, a $40,000 private college education for Stephanie.

Betty cared for the children, served on the PTA and volunteered at St. Joseph’s parish. She was gregarious and energetic, said friends who called her Betty Boop.

“This was the all-American family,” said attorney Michael Eidman, who worked in the same suite for 12 years with Parente.

At his Manhattan office on the Avenue of the Americas, fellow attorneys viewed Parente as a hardworking family man. He was unfailingly polite to his longtime secretary Lucille Gribbin and worked long though not excessive hours. He didn’t even curse, nor join others for drinks after work, Eidman said.

“He’s a guy who if there was a 9 o’clock meeting, he would be there at 9 o’clock,” Eidman said.

Keeping up with roots

The family worked hard to keep in touch with their Brooklyn roots. Krener said Betty returned to Bay Ridge often to pick up Italian pastries for holidays. They made an annual pilgrimage to the neighborhood around Thanksgiving to have portraits taken of the girls, who often wore matching designer outfits, Schulter said.

After the death of his father in 1994, Bill Parente often visited his mother, who went by Lee, in the Bay Ridge apartment where he had grown up. When she died a year ago at the age of 92, said Grace, “he took it very, very bad. He got very quiet.”

A banker of sorts

All this time, Parente was involved in what he told a small circle of friends and colleagues was the high-risk field of bridge loans. When construction projects needed funding as they awaited permit approval, he would provide the money at an interest rate of 15 percent, a typical rate for such a loan, said the close friend.

“He essentially worked as a bank,” the friend said, raising money from private investors to make loans.

“He seemed straightforward,” Montague said, adding: “It all seemed above board until he started to delay me.”

Montague said he got returns of 10 percent to 15 percent annually on the hundreds of thousands of dollars that he invested and he got checks regularly from a bank account.

When Montague said he wanted his money back in December, Parente took the news calmly but moved slowly. In late March, Parente sent Montague six checks totaling his current investment of $450,000, but asked him to not cash them.

Montague said he began to wonder if Parente was running a “Madoff-type” scam. On April 16, Montague got him on the phone. “I said, ‘Bill, I can’t wait anymore,'” Montague said. “He said ‘Go ahead, the money cleared, go ahead and deposit them.'”

The next day, Parente was on his way south with Betty and Catherine, to see Stephanie at Loyola College in Maryland. The Parentes often made the 215-mile car trip to pick her up and drop her off, Schulter said. Although she had her own car, they would bring her home so “they wouldn’t have to worry that she was driving on her own,” she said.

But this was a surprise trip to see Stephanie. They checked in to the Sheraton Hotel and settled in for the weekend.

On Tuesday morning, Montague got a phone call from a Chase bank. The two checks he had deposited bounced.

He said he called Parente and got voice mail and then called a friend of Parente’s, who had been getting calls from frantic investors all morning.

“There were checks bouncing all over the place,” said the friend, who tried to call Parente but found his voice mail was full. “No one could reach Bill.”

This story was reported by PERVAIZ SHALLWANI and staff writers MICHAEL AMON, MATTHEW CHAYES and ANDREW STRICKLER. It was written by AMON.

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