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NYC Socialite Accused Of Fatally Shoving Elderly Voice Teacher Pleads Not Guilty

Prosecutors say Lauren Pazienza admitted to having several glasses of wine, verbally assaulting a park employee and her fiancé and then allegedly pushing Barbara Gustern, who died as a result of the fall. 

By Jax Miller
A personal photo of Barbara Maier Gustern

A judge denied bail for the New York-area socialite accused of shoving a beloved elderly woman to her death earlier this year.

Lauren Pazienza, 26, pleaded not guilty to charges related to the death of Broadway singing coach Barbera Gustern, 87, according to the New York Times. The defendant was denied bail after prosecutors argued she was a flight risk and a danger to others during Tuesday’s arraignment at the Manhattan Supreme Court.

The seemingly unprovoked attack happened in a Chelsea neighborhood on March 10, when Pazienza allegedly crossed West 28th street near 8th Avenue, called Gustern a “bitch” and pushed the 90-pound victim with such force that Gustern fell to the pavement and injured her head, as previously reported.

The victim was still conscious after the fall and ran into a friend while bleeding profusely from her head, according to the New York Times.

The friend helped Gustern into the lobby of the voice coach's nearby apartment building and waited for police to arrive, according to NBC New York. The victim allegedly told responders that the shove was “as hard as she had ever been hit in her life,” prosecutors said.

Gustern lost consciousness in the ambulance on the way to the hospital and died as a result of her injuries five days later.

Prosecutors say that before the deadly push, Pazienza and her fiancé, Naveen Pereira, were celebrating a night on the town 100 days ahead of their planned June wedding, according to the New York Times. Pazienza allegedly told detectives that she had several glasses of wine that evening, per ABC New York.

Pazienza and Pereira had visited a few art galleries before grabbing takeout and heading to Chelsea Park — the east end of which is on 9th Avenue between 27th and 28th Streets — when, according to prosecutors, Pazienza verbally attacked a Parks Department employee after he informed her that the park would soon be closing.

Prosecutor Justin McNabney of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office claimed that Pazienza then “threw her food onto her fiancé and stormed out of the park,” according to the New York Times.

The pair left separately shortly before Gustern was pushed to the ground about a block away, according to prosecutors. The fiancé was headed back to the couple’s shared Astoria, Queens, apartment when Pazienza called him and asked him to return to the park.

When Pereira returned, Pazienza accused him of ruining her night, according to prosecutors, but she made no mention of the attack to him, even though the pair remained near the scene until the ambulance came to take Gustern away, according to the New York Times.

NBC News reported that surveillance video showed Pazienza in the area for almost half an hour after the attack.

The couple took the subway back to Queens and returned to their apartment about 90 minutes later.

Later that night, the defendant allegedly confessed to her fiancé that she had pushed Gustern, adding that the victim “might have done something to her,” the New York Times reported.

After news of Gustern’s attack surfaced, Pereira told detectives that his fiancée showed him news articles about the attack and was nervous. Pazienza allegedly confessed to a cousin and then fled to her family’s Long Island home, as previously reported. While there, she allegedly deleted her social media accounts, as well as her and Pereira’s wedding website, prosecutors said Tuesday; she left her cell phone at an aunt's home.

Pazienza — whom some have characterized as “spoiled” and “privileged”— surrendered on March 22 after a tip led authorities to her parents' Port Jefferson home. According to the New York Times, the suspect had been hiding at her aunt’s house when police visited.

Her mother posted Pazienza's $500,000 cash bail days after her arrest, as previously reported.

Lauren Pazienza as she gets arrested

Pazienza’s attorney, Arthur Aidala, had tried to dispel claims that his client was a product of privilege, adding that Pazienza has since received psychiatric help and counseling since the night of the attack, according to NBC New York.

Aidala also claims the evidence against his client just isn’t strong.

“Whether it was a push, whether it was a shove, whether it was a kick, or whether someone tripped,” said Aidala. “The evidence isn’t very solid on that at all.”

Prosecutor McNabney disagreed.

“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,” said prosecutor McNabney, according to the New York Times. “There is no evidence whatsoever to support any inference that this was accidental or merely reckless.”

Pazienza is charged with manslaughter and assault. If convicted, she faces up to 25 years behind bars.

Gustern was widely known for her accolades as a fixture on the Broadway scene, having performed in the New York City Opera and the Greenwich Symphony, as previously reported. Her clients included Blondie lead singer Debbie Harry.

Gustern's former student Morgan Jenness spoke to reporters after the judge denied Pazienza’s bail.

“She ran across the street to push an elderly woman for no reason, because she was having a temper tantrum, and pushed her so hard that she hit her head and bled out and died,” said Jenness, according to ABC New York. “And I’m sorry for her. I’m sorry for her parents. But what she did needs to have consequences.”

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