New York Times

March 5, 2003

Accountant Accused of Hiring Hit Men to Kill His Divorce Lawyer

New York Times

FREEHOLD, N.J., March 4 One day last June, two powerfully built men, both with shaved heads, arrived at the office of a divorce lawyer near here. One said he owned a nightclub in Los Angeles called Sex, Money and Murder, and needed an emergency meeting for legal help with a child custody issue.

His tale turned out to be a ruse, yet the name of the nightclub and the mention of child custody had a certain aptness. The two men, law enforcement officials here say, had been hired to kill the lawyer over a custody fight, and two hours after meeting him they ran him down with a Jeep in his office parking lot in Red Bank. The lawyer, Peter Paras, suffered a broken vertebra, a broken pelvis and several broken ribs.

The man the police say was the mastermind of the plot, Nicholas A. Lucarella, a 50-year-old accountant from Valley Cottage, N.Y., was ordered held today in $2.5 million bail on charges of attempted murder, murder conspiracy and aggravated assault. Mr. Lucarella pleaded not guilty during an appearance in State Superior Court here.

Afterward, John Kaye, the Monmouth County prosecutor, said the plot was rooted in revenge.

On June 7, two weeks before Mr. Paras was run over, he represented Mr. Lucarella in a custody fight between the accountant and his former wife, Ann Marie. Mr. Lucarella wanted sole custody of their three sons, a 10-year-old and 7-year-old twins. But he lost the court fight. Soon afterward, Mr. Lucarella began casting about in North Jersey to hire someone to harm Mr. Paras, Mr. Kaye said.

Mr. Lucarella's arrest on Monday ended an eight-month investigation, Mr. Kaye said. Early in the inquiry, he said, Mr. Lucarella was on detectives' list of suspects as a disgruntled client of Mr. Paras. But, the prosecutor said, it took months to develop evidence to link Mr. Lucarella to the men who had run down the lawyer.

"We knew from the start they didn't know this lawyer and would have no personal motive to do this," Mr. Kaye said. "Solving this was like an adventure, full of Runyonesque characters, some on the fringes of organized crime, some not."

The investigation focused on Passaic County, where Mr. Lucarella had an accounting office, and Bergen County, where the girlfriend of one of the two suspected hit men lived, Mr. Kaye said. He declined to discuss the evidence that he said linked Mr. Lucarella to the two other men charged in the case, Vancleve Ashley, 33, and Raimaine York, 31, both of Passaic. The prosecutor said he did not know how much the suspects were paid.

Mr. Ashley was arrested in a Las Vegas casino on July 1. He was implicated after witnesses in the parking lot took down the license plate number of the Jeep, Mr. Kaye said. The vehicle was traced to Mr. Ashley's girlfriend, Tina DeStefano, 37, of Saddle Brook, Mr. Kaye said.

Mr. York was arrested a week after Mr. Paras was struck. Both have been charged with attempted murder and conspiracy. Mr. Ashley is being held in $2 million bail and Mr. York is free on $200,000 bail.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company.