“I Feel It’s the First Step for Justice”: Lauren Pazienza, Whose Shove Allegedly Killed a Beloved Vocal Coach, Is Ordered to Jail

When Lauren Pazienza passed the news cameras on her way into Manhattan Supreme Court on Tuesday morning, most of the questions surrounding her case remained. Her arraignment on charges of manslaughter and assault came two months after the jarring attack of which she had been accused, and in its immediate aftermath, the alleged crime, seemingly random and unprovoked, had become a tabloid and local TV news favorite.

On March 10, Barbara Maier Gustern, an 87-year-old vocal coach, was walking near her Manhattan apartment around 8:30 p.m., according to prosecutors. They have claimed that a woman crossed the street, called Gustern a “bitch,” and forcefully shoved her to the ground. Five days later, Gustern died from head injuries.

Gustern’s devotees and students included Blondie’s Debbie Harry alongside Broadway singers and cabaret stars, and recollections of her solicitude, warmth, and acumen poured out over social media and in the press. Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna put it plainly to The New York Times last month: “Without her, I would have been done.”

According to prosecutors, Pazienza, a 26-year-old who recently worked as a marketing and events coordinator for a furniture company, turned herself in nearly two weeks later, after police received an anonymous tip that led them to her parents’ home in Long Island. She appeared in court and was released days later on $500,000 bail.

On Tuesday, Pazienza was in court for the first time since her release to plead not guilty. On this occasion, the judge remanded her without bail. At the end of the hearing, guards handcuffed Pazienza and escorted her out of the courtroom.

The case captured the attention that it has in part because of its specifics. In March, prosecutors said that Pazienza spent almost half an hour in the area after shoving Gustern, a period during which she got into a fight with her fiancé and watched the ambulance arrive. In the following days, she allegedly deleted her social media accounts and wedding registry, left her phone with her aunt, and fled her apartment in Queens to stay with her parents. On Tuesday, assistant district attorney Justin McNabney said that, according to Pazienza’s fiancé, Naveen Pereira, the two had been drinking wine at Chelsea art galleries the day of the shove, and Pazienza had later thrown some food on him after a park employee told her that she couldn’t eat there. Later that night, Pereira went on, Pazienza revealed to him what had happened after she stormed off—that she shoved someone who “might’ve said something to her, but [she] wasn’t sure.”

On the other hand, discussions of crime and policing in New York City had recently reached beyond political talking points to a place of cultural suffusion. As the COVID-19 crisis has subsided, and the city has returned to something resembling its pre-pandemic life, its crime rates, while still deeply depressed compared to the much-invoked bad old days of the ’80s and ’90s, have been a mainstay of national conversation. In the last few weeks, Eric Adams wore a tuxedo reading “End Gun Violence” to the Met Gala, and Trevor Noah used his podium at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner to poke at The New York Times’ use of police accounts in its reporting. The particulars of Gustern’s alleged killing have presented a new note for the tabloids to hit. The alleged assailant was white and, as her lawyer would later tell reporters, had grown up in a “middle-class New York suburban environment.” Pereira’s recollection, as recounted on Tuesday, was the closest anyone had gotten to a motive.

Without ready-made narratives about race and class that typically attend such debates about criminal justice, some observers seemed to opt for a more primal explanation about a collapsing social order: Pazienza just snapped. The tabloids combed Pazienza’s past and her Tumblr page for clues. One neighbor in her Astoria apartment building told the New York Post that tenants had gotten in the habit of avoiding her and her “simmering rage.” The Daily Mail found a video clip that seemed to show her mocking deaf people, and quoted a former college friend from the Fashion Institute of Technology describing her as a “poster child for white privilege” bulwarked by parents “who got her out of everything.” Fox News went back further, finding an elementary school classmate who said Pazienza bullied them in second grade. Her former employer, the French furniture company Roche Bobois, said that she had stopped working there in December. Perhaps most puzzlingly, in March, the Chicago Tribune editorial board linked the attack to Will Smith slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars. “We point out this shove, which became a horrible crime, not to say that it is unique,” they wrote. “Random attacks of all kinds are a terrifying reality of urban life.”

All together, the accumulating accounts of Pazienza’s life led to one interpretation that this was a case of malevolent privilege—or as a few tabloids dubbed her, the “cesspool socialite.” That was the preferred nomenclature for both the Post and the Mail, although it didn’t hang on much more than a stray photo of Pazienza on the society website Guest of a Guest and the knowledge that she attended a party for Avenue magazine in 2015. The Post described her in one story as a “fiery redhead” before reiterating that she has “flowing, red hair”; the Mail, in its description of her father, Daniel, as a “cesspool mogul,” noted that the website for his third-generation draining company says that it was voted number one in price and service in Suffolk County for a few years running.

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