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Mortician kills self at Falls casino table

NIAGARA FALLS -- A 45-year-old businessman walked into the Seneca Niagara Casino on Thursday morning, went directly to a blackjack table and shot himself in the chest.

Michael A. Pellegrino, a funeral director who lives in Getzville, was rushed to Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center, where he died about an hour later, at 11:46 a.m.

Pellegrino was owner of the Perna-Pellegrino funeral homes in Buffalo and Amherst.

His death was related to a failed relationship with a female dealer who works at the casino, according to various sources associated with the incident.

Pellegrino was married to Constance Turner Pellegrino, daughter of retired funeral director Frank Turner. The couple split up some time ago, and Pellegrino began his relationship with the casino worker, according to those who know the couple.

A member of the family had no comment when called at home.

At about 10:30 a.m. Thursday, Pellegrino walked onto the gambling floor in a wing of the expanded casino, which opened along with the 26-story hotel in late 2005.

State police would not confirm the name of the suicide victim but said the man sat down at a blackjack table in front of a female blackjack dealer. Authorities could not say whether it was the woman Pellegrino had been seeing.

Trooper Rebecca M. Gibbons, a State Police spokeswoman, said that the man was not playing blackjack and that no other players were at the table when he stood up and took a 9 mm handgun from under his coat and shot himself.

No one else was wounded in the incident.

On-site paramedics rushed to the man's aid, casino spokesman Philip J. Pantano said, and the man was still alive when taken by ambulance to Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center.

The gambling wing, just off the lobby of the hotel, was closed to patrons for three hours, but gambling continued everywhere else in the casino.

The size of the crowd was described as moderate at that hour.

"This is the first incident of this type that we've had in the five years since the casino opened," Pantano said.

Signs prohibiting firearms are posted throughout the casino, he said, but there are no security checkpoints or metal detectors.

"This is an open facility," Pantano said. "Entering the casino is not unlike entering a mall or shopping plaza."

The casino complex has had one other suicide, a 55-year-old Florida man who jumped off the fifth floor of the casino parking ramp in June 2006. City police said that case, too, was unrelated to gambling and that the man had personal and emotional problems.

Pellegrino's death shocked local funeral directors.

"He was a gentleman," said D. Lawrence Ginnane, who owns the funeral home bearing his name in Kenmore.

Ginnane described Pellegrino as "always upbeat." He said Pellegrino worked hard in the funeral business and was very committed to his duties.

"This is a tragedy," he said.

Pellegrino was president of the Erie-Niagara Funeral Directors Association, which represents about 80 directors in the two counties.

His associates described him as businesslike and said he had been elected to head the regional association six months ago.

"He was a very balanced individual, who did everything he could to offer the finest in funeral services," said Patrick C. Reddington, who owns Reddington Funeral Home in South Buffalo. "I was completely shocked when I heard of this incident."

Michael and Constance Pellegrino waged a three-year, $350,000 legal battle over zoning before they were finally able to build their new funeral home at 1667-1671 Maple Road in Amherst about four years ago.

The Pellegrinos, who at the time operated Perna Funeral Home on Hertel Avenue in Buffalo, began planning in 1998 to build the second funeral home near Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital. At one point in the process, opponents of the project were seeking a hearing before the state's highest court, which was unusual for a zoning case that had been decided by a 5-0 vote in a lower appeals court, according to Jeffrey D. Palumbo, Pellegrino's lawyer.

The shooting death raised concerns among other gamblers afterward but did not keep many away from the tables and slot machines.

Jack and Judy Fitzgerald, a retired Wheatfield couple, said they had no idea that a shooting had occurred a couple of hours before they decided to visit the casino for an afternoon of gambling.

There were very few customers in the gambling room at the time, Pantano said, and he did not know whether any of them witnessed the shooting.

Pantano said that other dealers, slot machine attendants and cocktail servers were on the floor at the time and that several of them might have gone home shortly afterward.

He said counselors were called to the hotel and would stay on site for as long as they were needed.

News Staff Reporters Thomas J. Dolan and Gail Franklin contributed to this report.

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