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Cheat gets 30 years to ponder his crimes

Saying dance teacher Michael Pasquarelli was merciless in cheating the elderly, a judge has no mercy for him, either.

By JACOB H. FRIES
Published July 8, 2006


[Times photo: Scott Keeler]
Former dance studio owner Michael Pasquarelli, center, was sentenced Friday to 30 years in prison. Pasquarelli tricked 30 customers into signing 328 different sales contracts totalling $3.5-million, according to investigators.

The $257,000 dance (1/27/02)

AVOIDING DANCE STUDIO SCAMS
Florida's Dance Studio Act requires ballroom dance studios to register annually with the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Dance studios that have been in business less than three years and demand advance payment of more than $250, or those that enter into installment contracts, also must post a bond with the state.
Consumer protection officials recommend that prospective dance students:
  • Never sign a blank contract.
  • Always get a receipt.
  • Be cautious when signing up for expensive travel and competition packages.
  • Check for a studio's registration certificate. It must be displayed prominently in the studio.
  • Always get a written contract for an agreement that entails a commitment of more than seven days. A clause in the law allows a customer to cancel a policy within three days of signing.
  • To learn more about the state's dance studio law, check online at www.800helpfla.com/dance.html.
    To file a complaint, go to www.800helpfla.com/ccform.html.

  • LARGO - Before issuing her sentence, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Linda R. Allan had something to say about Michael Pasquarelli and the way he "delighted" in bilking elderly customers who visited his dance studio.

    Allan didn't hold back.

    "Anyone so lacking in conscience cannot be trusted in this society," she said of Pasquarelli. "Insatiable, wicked greed leaves remarkably ugly footprints."

    On Friday, after a morning of legal sparring and watching several of his elderly victims cry in her courtroom, Allan sentenced Pasquarelli, 50, to the maximum 30 years in prison for violating the Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, also known as RICO.

    In a separate proceeding, the judge sentenced one of Pasquarelli's employees at Dance Place in Safety Harbor, David B. "Vic" Andrews, to serve 10 years. She said she would have liked to give him more.

    The men had shown their victims no mercy - swindling customers out of thousands of dollars at a time - so they deserved none for themselves now, Allan said. Reading notes that she took during the trial make her queasy, she said.

    "Mr. Pasquarelli and his enterprise selected society's most vulnerable members as its victims," she said.

    Jean D. Bredberg, 85, was one of them. At Pasquarelli's trial in March, Bredberg testified how his staff had pressured her to sign a barrage of contracts totalling $29,000. On Friday, she came to see justice done.

    So did Cheryl Smeed. Her mother, Marguerite, now 81 and suffering from dementia, spent $271,000 in only a few months in 2002. Smeed said her mother, when confronted, denied she had spent so much and believed she and Pasquarelli were going to marry. Smeed's intervention only angered her mother, she told the court.

    "It was almost as if she had been brainwashed," she said.

    State officials closed Dance Place, at 550 Main St. in Safety Harbor, in June 2002, saying it used coercive, high-pressure sales tactics to sell costly dance lessons and vacation packages to mostly elderly clients.

    Their investigation into Pasquarelli was triggered by a St. Petersburg Times story about a 75-year-old Palm Harbor widow who spent $257,000 at the dance studio in December 2001. The widow told the Times how Pasquarelli and Andrews had pressured her into signing multiple confusing contracts.

    During a multiagency investigation leading up to the arrests, investigators reviewed the files of 30 students at three of Pasquarelli's studios. Those 30 customers had been talked into signing 328 different sales contracts totalling $3.5-million, according to investigators.

    Court records listed at least five students who spent $100,000 on dance lessons and five who spent $20,000 or more.

    At trial, several former instructors at Dance Place described sales techniques, such as "past is black, future is rosy," in which instructors delved into students' lives to find out about divorces, spouses' deaths and other painful experiences that could be used to exert emotional pressure on the customers.

    They told of "stacking" hours, essentially selling students new packages when they already had purchased far more than they could ever use in a year; of shunning customers who did not buy new, expensive contracts; and of underteaching students so they would get bored and buy new dance packages.

    In his defense, Pasquarelli's attorneys tried to portray him as a businessman who used aggressive sales practices common to any car dealership. They argued students were willing and competent, and by and large enjoyed themselves.

    The jury concluded that Pasquarelli's business included one scheme to defraud, three incidences of theft and two cases of exploitation of the elderly. Taken together, those elements supported the racketeering conviction.

    Before sentencing on Friday, Pasquarelli acknowledged in court for the first time that he was sorry. Flanked by his lawyers, he read from a brief statement, saying the testimony of one of his victims during the trial had made him realize he had erred.

    "I am truly sorry for my conduct and arrogant behavior," he said. "I would like the opportunity to make restitution to the students and society in general."

    During sentencing Friday, Allan dismissed Pasquarelli's apology and suggestion he would pay back his victims. She said that he had shown no remorse and that she believed he would return to his old ways if released. "Mr. Pasquarelli has not demonstrated an ability to make an honest living," she said.

    Mabel Connolly, 79, of Clearwater, would not say how much she spent at the studio, but said she knows she'll never get a penny back. She went to the courthouse on Friday, stood at a lectern and tried to describe some of the ways her life has changed.

    At her age, she has to climb on her own roof to clean the gutters because she can't afford to pay anyone to do it for her. She has 20 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren, but can't buy them treats. "That's what grandmothers are for," she said, her voice faltering.

    After Pasquarelli was sentenced and escorted from the courtroom, Andrews, 77, entered in jail scrubs. He pleaded guilty last May to the racketeering charges in exchange for a sentence that would not exceed 10 years in prison.

    Andrews is a two-time offender. In 1995, he was convicted of preying on elderly dance club patrons at Aragon World Dance Studio in Port Richey. Pasquarelli, who worked there, testified at Andrews' trial.

    Prosecutors said that when Pasquarelli's studio in Oldsmar began to fail, he brought in Andrews to establish the same illegal tactics he had used in Pasco County to a new studio in Safety Harbor.

    Andrews said Friday he was devastated by what he had done and now was a man of God, ministering to inmates in jail. He cried several times during his speech and asked for leniency.

    Allan, as with Pasquarelli, questioned Andrews' sincerity and then imposed the maximum sentence.

    Jacob H. Fries can be reached at 727 445-4156 or jfries@sptimes.com

    [Last modified July 9, 2006, 09:05:28]


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