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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Woman threw tantrum before fatally pushing voice coach, prosecutors say

Lauren Pazienza was arraigned in Manhattan Supreme Court on Tuesday.

By Jonah E. Bromwich

A 26-year-old woman accused of fatally shoving a beloved Broadway singing coach pleaded not guilty to manslaughter and assault charges earlier this week even as prosecutors described a pre-wedding celebration that devolved into a bizarre and deadly fit.

The woman, Lauren Pazienza, was celebrating with her fiance on the night of March 10, exactly 100 days before their planned June wedding, shortly before she shoved the coach, Barbara Maier Gustern, 87, in an act that would ultimately kill her.

The prosecutors, from the Manhattan district attorney’s office, said Pazienza had several glasses of wine and, after visiting a number of art galleries, took a meal purchased from a food cart into Manhattan’s Chelsea Park, a block from where the assault would then take place.

When a Parks Department employee told Pazienza that she would have to leave the park because it was closing soon, she grew irate and shouted and cursed at him. She then turned and, for reasons unexplained, “threw her food on to her fiance and stormed out of the park,” said one of the prosecutors, Justin McNabney.

The fiance, Naveen Pereira, told prosecutors that afterward he had headed toward the subway, planning to return to their shared apartment in Astoria. Pazienza, meanwhile, made her way down 28th Street and spotted Gustern.

Pazienza, who is 5-foot-7, ran across the street, called the 4-foot-11 Gustern a “bitch” and pushed her, prosecutors said, causing her to hit her head either on the cement or a metal fence nearby.

Gustern, bleeding profusely from the head, ran into a friend shortly afterward and told her that she had never been hit harder in her life. An ambulance was called to take her to Bellevue Hospital and by the time she arrived, she was unconscious. Five days later, she died from her injuries.

After the attack, Pazienza called Pereira and asked him to meet. When they reunited nearby, prosecutors said, she did not mention it and started to argue with him, accusing him of ruining her night. He did not engage with her, and the two eventually headed back to Astoria — though not before Pazienza watched the ambulance arrive at Gustern’s apartment building to take her away.

Before the couple went to bed, Pazienza turned to Pereira and told him she had pushed someone, prosecutors said. When he asked why, Pazienza said that the person “might have said something to her” but that she wasn’t sure.

Two days later, Pazienza saw that the assault had been covered in the press and grew nervous, her fiance told officials. She showed him an article about it and later confessed to a cousin.

Then she fled to her parents’ house on Long Island, where she deleted her social media accounts and took down her wedding website. She stopped using her cellphone, leaving it at her aunt’s house, prosecutors said.

The following week, after the police visited her parents’ house, Pazienza, who had been hiding at her aunt’s, turned herself in.

After unspooling those details Tuesday, McNabney called for Pazienza to be held without bail, arguing that she was a threat to others and a flight risk.

If convicted, Pazienza could face up to 25 years in prison. McNabney said that his office was recommending a 15-year sentence.

“We now know from the substance of the defendant’s confession and the victim’s own description of the incident that this was an intentional act,” he said. “There is no evidence whatsoever to support any inference that this was accidental or merely reckless.”

Her lawyers, John Esposito and John Leventhal, argued that Pazienza had demonstrated that she would not flee by appearing in court, and said that the $500,000 bail set by a different judge this year and paid by her friends and family was more than enough to ensure her return to court.

Esposito also argued that the manslaughter charge was a “stretch,” adding that Pazienza was “receiving counseling and addressing various issues.”

But the judge, Felicia A. Mennin, was not convinced, and ordered Pazienza to be held without bail.

Upon that order, a friend and student of Gustern’s who was sitting in the courtroom, Morgan Jenness, banged her fist on a court bench in approval. Outside the courtroom after, Jenness, 65, said that the order represented a “first step to justice.”

Gustern was a well-known and well-respected vocal coach who had worked with Debbie Harry, the lead singer of Blondie, and Broadway singers, including the cast of the 2019 revival of “Oklahoma.”

Jenness said that she had begun taking voice lessons from the coach about five years ago, and that Gustern, even at 87, had more energy than any of her students. She loved life, Jenness said, and “would never have said anything nasty to anyone.”

“The fact that someone ran across the street to push her because they had to take it out on somebody is sad,” she said. “I doubt that she thought that she would kill her, but there are consequences. You can’t just have temper tantrums because the world doesn’t go your way.”

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