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Casino suicide victim was heavy gambler Funeral director deep in debt, friends say

She's the blackjack dealer and mistress of funeral director Michael A. Pellegrino, the woman said to have so tormented Pellegrino by ending their affair that he took out a gun and killed himself before her and nearby patrons Thursday morning at the Seneca Niagara Casino.

But in an interview with The Buffalo News, the distraught woman said she and Pellegrino had been seeing each other for the past four years. She said they planned to marry once his divorce was final.

"We had a stupid argument," she said of the dispute. "But nothing, nothing," she said before breaking down. "He was going to marry me."

Pellegrino, 45, of Amherst, left behind no known note before he killed himself, so the true reason for his suicide may never be known. But he left plenty of signs that his seemingly perfect life as a rising star in the local funeral industry was coming unraveled.

Friends say he was heavily in debt from the costly legal battle he and his wife, Constance, fought to build an expensive new funeral home on Maple Road in Amherst. His wife filed for divorce last October, according to court records, a move apparently prompted by her learning of his affair with the blackjack dealer.

And Pellegrino was a heavy gambler at the casino's blackjack tables, one who lost so much money he was given the casino's highest perk: free use of one of the largest suites in the casino's new four-star hotel.

"He was one of the big spenders," said a source familiar with the casino's policy for high rollers. "A big loser. When you get comped to a center suite, you're not talking about a bit player."

A casino spokesman declined to discuss Pellegrino's gambling losses, but the source said only those who lose $10,000 to $20,000 at a time at the tables enjoy that kind of perk.

Asked why she thought he took his own life, the blackjack dealer said it was not because she had broken off their relationship.

"I know he owed a lot of money," she said. "He was a very proud man."

Asked if she thought he had a gambling problem, she seemed to ignore the question and wept.

"He came to see me almost every day at work, we had coffee," she said, sobbing. "He lived with me."

Pellegrino's very public death came mid-morning Thursday, police said, after he and the blackjack dealer had argued briefly and he had left the casino.

Pellegrino had no way of knowing it, but as he re-entered the casino, television crews were setting up outside for an unrelated news conference about a casino promotion. It guaranteed almost instant coverage of the shooting.

Witnesses said Pellegrino walked directly to the blackjack dealer's table, where the two were alone. They each spoke before Pellegrino pulled out a 9 mm handgun and fatally shot himself in the chest.

The dealer, a 38-year-old divorcee who lives in Niagara Falls and asked that her name not be used, said Pellegrino's suicide had nothing to do with their argument.

"He was a beautiful man," she said. "People wait a lifetime for the love that we had. And I found it and I lost it."

A spokesman for the Perna Pellegrino Funeral Home said the family would have no comment on Pellegrino's death or the statements of the blackjack dealer.

For hundreds of local families, Pellegrino was the handsome man in the conservative dark suit who expertly guided them through one of life's most trying moments.

Charlotte Morgante said Pellegrino helped her so much after the death of her son 10 years ago that she contacted The News from Las Vegas after hearing of his suicide.

"He was the individual that brought me comfort that my son was being taken care of with warmth and love," she said in an e-mail and later phone interview.

Morgante said Pellegrino led the funeral procession past places important to her son's life, a gesture she said meant so much to her and her family.

Pellegrino and his wife bought her father Frank Perna's funeral business on Hertel Avenue in 1997, according to county records. Later that same year, Pellegrino joined the board of the Buffalo-Niagara Funeral Directors Association.

As their business grew, he and his wife bought an expensive piece of land on Maple Road across from Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital to build a new Perna Pellegrino Funeral Home.

But neighbors objected, the issue bounced between the Planning Board and Town Council, and the Pellegrinos found themselves fighting two lawsuits. He claimed at the time that a competitor was funding his opponents.

The funeral home was eventually built, but six-figure legal bills and debt from the expensive new building, friends said, began taking their toll.

To outsiders, Pellegrino remained, as most funeral directors are, the calm in the storm that swirled around him.

His fellow funeral directors thought so much of him that they elected him secretary of their 135-member association, then second vice president, and last year, elected him president. He was still serving in that position when he died Thursday.

But he also was spending a lot of time at the Seneca casino in Niagara Falls. A casino source said that once it became clear that the blackjack dealer and Pellegrino were seeing each other, he was forbidden from gambling at her table.

Philip J. Pantano, a casino spokesman, said the casino frowns upon customers fraternizing with dealers, and confirmed that when it does happen, the casino takes steps to make sure the customer does not play at that dealer's table.

Pantano said that Pellegrino was a regular bettor at the casino but declined to discuss how much Pellegrino wagered.

He also said the casino has more than adequate security and it does not intend to start screening patrons with metal detectors.

"It was a personal issue that unfortunately boiled over in our facility," Pantano said. "It could have just as easily happened anywhere else, it just happened to have happened here."

The blackjack dealer Pellegrino was seeing said the two of them spent last weekend at the opening of the new Seneca Allegany Casino and hotel. "We had a beautiful weekend," she said.

Niagara Bureau Reporter Bill Michelmore contributed to this story.

e-mail: mbeebe@buffnews.com

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