A former Port Jefferson resident faces a manslaughter charge in connection with the Manhattan assault on a beloved 87-year-old voice coach who was shoved to the ground and later died of her injuries, authorities said Tuesday.
Lauren Pazienza, 26, who police said lived on Old Homestead Road in Port Jefferson before moving to Astoria, surrendered with her attorney late Monday to NYPD detectives at the 10th Precinct in Manhattan, according to officials. She was charged with first-degree manslaughter and two counts of second-degree assault stemming from the March 10 attack on Barbara Gustern, officials said. Pazienza, who police said had no criminal record, made no statements after her arrest.
At her arraignment Tuesday in Manhattan, Judge Michael Gaffey set bail for Pazienza at $500,000 cash or a $1 million bond secured by property, according to a spokesperson for the Manhattan District Attorney's Office. Prosecutors had wanted Pazienza held without bail, the spokeswoman added. Pazienza's defense attorney, Arthur Aidala, said he expected Pazienza to post bail "very soon," possibly by Wednesday.
According to a criminal complaint filed in the case, a witness identified Pazienza as the person who crossed West 28th Street in Manhattan about 8:30 p.m. and pushed Gustern to the pavement, causing a severe head injury. A witness told investigators that before Gustern lost consciousness, she said her assailant approached, called her a derogatory name and then shoved her, the complaint stated.
Gustern, a famed voice coach who taught the likes of singer Debbie Harry and, reportedly, members of the 2019 cast of “Oklahoma,” died March 15 of her injuries, according to police. The only significant leads were video images of the alleged assailant that depicted a woman with long, curly dark hair and dressed in a dark coat.
The attack shocked many in the city's theatrical and music community where Gustern had a long career as voice teacher. She was, in fact, walking to nearby Joe’s Pub to see a cabaret performance of a voice student at the time of the attack, friends said. Gursten had also been working on her own cabaret performance at another locale.
While a motive for the attack remained unclear, prosecutors said in court that Pazienza and a man they didn't name but identified as her fiance were seen afterward on video engaged in a physical altercation. Pazienza then, according to prosecutors, watched as an ambulance came to the scene to aid Gustern. About a half-hour later, Pazienza and the man entered the Penn Station subway station for a trip back to Astoria where the couple lived, prosecutors said.
On the day Gustern died, NYPD Chief of Detectives James Essig called the attack “unprovoked and senseless.” The crime was “a disgusting and disgraceful offense committed against a vulnerable, elderly female who was doing nothing but walking down the streets of New York City,” Essig added.
After police put out video images and wanted posters depicting Pazienza, she tried to avoid capture by deleting her social media accounts, including a wedding website for her June nuptials, prosecutors said in court. On March 16, the day after Gustern died, Pazienza traveled to Port Jefferson to hide at her parents' home, prosecutors said.
An anonymous tip alerted detectives she was there, according to prosecutors. On Monday, detectives visited the home but Pazienza’s father said his daughter wasn't there and denied them entrance, according to prosecutors.
The Pazienza family did not immediately return a call requesting comment. Aidala called them "a regular family."
On Tuesday, Gustern’s grandson AJ Gustern, who is acting as a spokesperson for the family, told Newsday he was troubled by the fact that Pazienza took so long to hire a lawyer before turning herself in.
“It has given me some sense of closure but opened up a whole Pandora’s box [of emotions].” he said.
Internet records show that Pazienza graduated from Ward Melville High School in 2013. A copy of her resume noted that she received a bachelor's degree from the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan. According to her resume, Pazienza went to work for the high-end French furniture company Roche Bobois as an event planner. Company officials told Newsday she left the company in December.
Additional internet records noted that Pazienza lived at the Old Homestead Road address, but also showed residences in Astoria, Queens. Neighbors in Port Jefferson said the family kept to themselves.
“I heard the story and it's a shock,” neighbor Walter Hurney said. “I know the family. They are good people.”
With John Asbury, Matthew Chayes, Cecilia Dowd and Keldy Ortiz