By now, what happened to 87-year-old singing coach Barbara Maier Gustern seems clear enough. While waiting for a cab on March 10, she was suddenly shoved from behind, fell to the curb, and was brought bleeding to her building, where she was lucid enough to tell a friend that a stranger had pushed her “as hard as she had ever been hit in her life.” Five days later, she died from the head injury she suffered. What remains a mystery is why the main suspect, Lauren Pazienza, a 26-year-old woman living in Astoria, allegedly did it. For the next two weeks after the incident, prosecutors say she deleted all her social media profiles, even her wedding registry; stashed her phone at her aunt’s house; and successfully evaded arrest.
After investigators traced her to her parents’ Long Island home on Tuesday, Pazienza stepped off a life track that might seem familiar to many New Yorkers — growing up on Long Island; attending college in the city; getting a job in marketing; getting engaged to be married — and turned herself in to police. In court, she was charged with manslaughter in the death of Gustern and immediately became a media sensation, a high-profile suspect with an even higher-profile lawyer, Arthur Aidala, a radio host and Fox News contributor who has represented Harvey Weinstein and Roger Ailes.
The hazy picture of Pazienza that has emerged is of someone who grew up comfortably middle-class and was on the road to a comfortable, ordinary life. Her lawyer has even used her background to tell the judge that the DA is specifically targeting her for her privilege and “overcharging” her, in contrast to other types of suspects. Her family has rallied around her, which included her father telling police that she was not at their Port Jefferson home, even though an anonymous tip had led them there, prosecutors said. Her lawyer believes that her family and relatives will be able to come up with the $500,000 cash bail set by the judge to free her from Rikers, where she is currently being held. “We’re just going to take it one step at a time,” he said. “This has all just been a total nightmare for her family.”
Growing up in the well-to-do villages of Suffolk County, Pazienza seemed to have access to the proverbial North Shore life. Her father, Daniel Pazienza, runs a family-owned, third-generation cesspool-service company in nearby Holtsville. She went to Ward Melville High School in Setauket, a top school that is ranked nationally, and the remaining traces of her social-media accounts include Tumblr photo displays of her living the high life or at least aspiring to it: posing alongside a silver convertible sports car; lounging on a pool chaise with palm trees in the background. Her LinkedIn profile (now deleted) listed common activities like being a summer-school camp counselor in Stony Brook and volunteering at a local nature preserve.
She then attended the Fashion Institute of Technology, where she graduated with a marketing degree in 2017. “I always thought she was nice enough to strike up a conversation with, and we chatted often when we crossed paths at school,” said one FIT classmate who has not spoken to her since graduation. “I would never have seen it coming.” Other classmates were less surprised, according to a Daily Mail article that surfaced college video clips of Pazienza appearing to mock deaf people. The story quotes an anonymous classmate who calls Pazienza “the poster child for white privilege,” enabled by parents “who got her out of everything,” and added that she was “pure trouble.” Another told the outlet, “I can totally see that if she was having a bad day and somebody was in front of her, walking too slow, she would push them.”
Between her choice of college major and the work history detailed in a cached version of her LinkedIn page, Pazienza evidently had no interest in joining the family business. Instead, she appears to have primarily worked in marketing at a number of luxury-goods and beverage companies, most recently as a marketing and events coordinator for the high-end French furniture maker Roche Bobois in New York. The company told reporters that she resigned in December, and her lawyer said she left “of her own volition to move on to bigger and better things.” She also traveled a circuit of society events, and a few of those nights out live on some social pages still.
At the Shore Towers apartments on the Astoria waterfront, where she reportedly lives with her fiancé, a one-bedroom condominium currently sells for about $600,000 and has access to a balcony, an indoor pool, tennis courts, and a gym. Some of her neighbors at the beige 402-unit, doorman building told the New York Post about her penchant for confrontation. “There was always an issue with her and someone in the building,” one said. Another told the New York Daily News “she’s had friction with people in the building” and was always complaining to the management about something.
Pazienza’s alleged tendency toward open conflict was even reported by people from an earlier stage of her life: A former elementary-school classmate claims that Pazienza bullied them at their school on Long Island in the second grade.
On Friday, March 25, she appears in court for her second hearing.