New Haven Register

    

04/08/2007

Slain Hamden lawyer led complex life

Ann DeMatteo , Assistant Metro Editor

 

 

HAMDEN — Arthur Vignola still doesn’t know what really happened 11 days ago in Colombia when his eldest son, attorney Robert Marshall Vignola, was shot and killed, and his Colombian wife wounded, apparently by an assassin’s bullets.

The whole situation makes him angry and sad, at the same time.

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“I don’t know much about what happened,” said Arthur Vignola, one of Hamden’s longtime farmers. “I’m mad because it shouldn’t have happened. If he stayed here or she stayed here with him it would have never happened.”

Arthur Vignola, 90, was married to the same woman, Millie Pascarella Vignola, for 52 years before she passed away 14 years ago due to Alzheimer’s. He doesn’t believe in divorce, but their son, adopted from a New Haven orphanage at 4½, was on his fourth wife.

And it was that fourth marriage, most believe, that led to his death. Robert Vignola, 51, was buried last week in the South American city of Cali, Colombia. A memorial Mass will be celebrated for him at 10 a.m. Thursday at the Church of the Ascension in Hamden.

Close friends of Robert Vignola, who have been in touch with his current wife, Beatriz Ramos Vasquez Vignola, an attorney in Cali, Colombia, say that Vignola was unexpectedly caught by bullets meant for her. She is recuperating from bullet wounds to the shoulder.

“He got shot six times protecting her,” Arthur Vignola said.

“It’s so tragic. We are all heartbroken and we want to know the truth,” said lifelong friend Paul Berzinis of Hamden. “But we don’t know who to contact or how to contact anybody to find the truth. How do you find the truth in a foreign country where life is cheap?”

Friends said Robert Vignola and his wife were riding to the airport in their new car on the night of March 29 when they were struck by a hail of bullets that came from two men riding a motorcycle.

The car had tinted windows, and the motorcyclists couldn’t see who was in the car, according to Dan Dannenhoffer, Robert Vignola’s friend and business associate.

Dannenhoffer, who spoke to Beatriz Vignola by telephone a few days ago, said Beatriz Vignola’s uncle is running for governor of the region surrounding Cali and he is considered a conservative. She has been working on his campaign. Other friends said that her father is also an elected official trying to rid the area of drugs. Cali, home to Colombia’s dominant cocaine cartel in the 1990s, remains among the country’s most violent major cities. His father and friends said Robert Vignola was never involved in drugs in his life.

Cali’s police chief, Gen. Alberto Moore, could not be reached for comment, but told the Associated Press after the shooting that police didn’t know why he was killed, but they had ruled out robbery. Moore said the shooting could have been because of debts he owed others after the casino he owned went bankrupt, and that he had financial problems.

But people here said that’s unequivocally not the case.

Dannenhoffer said when people here think casino, they think Foxwoods, but the casino was “more like a coffee shop with 25 to 30 slot machines. He tried to make a go of it for a couple of years. As far as I know he ended up selling the machines and everyone got paid. Down there, he’s an American and the Colombian government may not want to admit it was a political killing.”

“He had no money problems. Looking at the bills on his desk, everything is current. There are no collection notices. I was helping to go through his house and there’s nothing extravagant,” said Dannenhoffer, who shared an office with him in Wallingford, American Heritage Mortgage Co.

Robert and Beatriz Vignola married in 2003 after meeting when he was having trouble resolving a governmental administrative agency problem that was affecting one of his business ventures, according to their Web site [web site no longer active].  Shortly after marrying, they founded “Retire in Colombia,” a consulting service for individuals seeking to live, retire or conduct business in the country.

While Robert Vignola owned a home on First Street in Hamden, he would visit Colombia three or four times a year and stay for several weeks at a time.

Berzinis said Robert and Beatriz Vignola owned several condominiums in Cali and also owned property on a nearby island.

“He was an entrepreneur. He did a lot of different things,” Berzinis said.

Robert Vignola was primarily a lawyer who sold real estate and mortgages. After graduating from Hamden High School in 1973, he attended Western Connecticut State College for two years on a music scholarship and also spent a couple of years on the road, playing in bands. He studied criminal justice at the University of New Haven, graduating in 1981, then got a law degree from Oklahoma City University School of Law. At one point, he lived in Nashville and represented artists and also came out with his own CD, “Unconditional Love.”

One of the Robert Vignola’s ventures was a Web site [web site no longer active], which claimed to assist hundreds of men in search for “the Latin women of their dreams.” The site has been shut down.

Berzinis said Robert Vignola rarely talked about the Web site and was of the attitude that if it made money, fine.

In addition to offering contact with Cali women pictured in bikinis in its photo gallery for 15 euros ($20) each, the Web site promoted vacation packages to Cali, including a “private tour” accompanied by Robert Vignola for 450 euros ($600) per day, plus airfare. The site also promoted the sale of a book written by Robert Vignola, “Secrets of Romancing Latin Women.”

Friends, including his first wife, Lisa Dziuba of Hamden, said that Robert Vignola fell in love with Colombia in 1989 when he and Dziuba were married and adopted their son from Colombia. As a result of adopting Aaron, now 17, Robert Vignola helped others adopt children from Colombia.

“He bragged about Colombia. The cost of living was cheap,” Arthur Vignola said.

While many describe Robert Vignola as a generous, caring friend, a good musician and athlete, and a man with drive and entrepreneurial spirit, there was another side.

He was arrested for overstating his net worth on bank applications in the late 1980s and served two years in jail. But he paid fines and eventually was allowed to practice law again, friends said.

In the early 2000s, Robert Vignola’s mortgage business —American Heritage — shared office space in Hamden with mortgage broker Keith Turner of Mulberrry Mortgage. Turner said Vignola was running the Colombian dating service out of the office, something that was distracting to him and his clients. Turner also said he questioned some of Robert Vignola’s business practices and didn’t like the way he treated women.

Turner has a lawsuit pending against Dannenhoffer, Robert Vignola and a Wallingford police detective, Anthony DeMaio, alleging that they conspired to further the economic interests of Dannenhoffer and Vignola and interfered with Turner’s contractual relationship with Mulberry Mortgage in 2004. The suit, filed by New Haven attorney John R. Williams, alleges that DeMaio “falsely and maliciously represented to the Connecticut Banking Department that the plaintiff had closed three loans” for Mulberry that were the “property” of American Heritage, and “thereby caused the Connecticut Banking Department to send a threatening letter regarding Turner to the president of Mulberry.

Arthur Vignola said his son took care of his mother during her illness and took care of him during his three bouts with cancer. “He took me for treatments last summer. This year I had a hernia operation and he came back from Colombia.”

Dziuba said Robert Vignola was a good father to their son. “The past two years, they had a really close relationship. He got him interested in music,” she said. Three weeks ago, Vignola showed them Soho in New York.

“Bob was a very considerate person. He was well-mannered. His parents brought him up the right way. Bob would help you and he never expected anything in return,” she said, adding that it will be difficult for her and Aaron to live without him.

“This is a big loss for us. There’s a hole in our life,” she said.

Dziuba said Beatriz Vignola called her last week because “she wanted to see how we were and was worried about Bob’s son. She knew how important Aaron was to Bob.”

“I was proud of his talents. He was a very talented boy, too talented for his own good,” Arthur Vignola said.

According to longtime friend Vincent Cimino, “Bob was one of those people who always had a smile for you and a sparkle in his eye. He will be missed.”