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Collecting wrongful-death judgments from murderers is a niche practice with few paydays. Donald Caminiti went to trial in 2000 and won a $750,000 award against the killer of a 7-year old girl. Three years later, the estate received the first and last payment: $286.05 from the inmate’s paltry prison account. Caminiti, like most lawyers who represent victims in civil suits against killers, knew from the outset that his work would be a form of pro bono. “I did it for a friend to help bring about some closure,” says Caminiti, of Hackensack’s Breslin & Breslin. “Normally the convict who commits the crime is without resources,” says Kenneth Javerbaum, of Springfield’s Javerbaum, Wurgaft, Hicks & Zarin. There are times, though, when the heirs of murder victims and the contingency lawyers they hire receive more than psychic rewards. Javerbaum is one of them. He said on Wednesday that he received $154,000 from a secretly held brokerage account of a state prison inmate found liable for $9.5 million to the family of a Rahway policeman killed in 1958. Defendant Robert Zarinsky had been acquitted of the murder, and the victim’s children said after the civil award last August that the long-awaited knowledge of how their father died and who was responsible – not the award – was the most satisfying element of the outcome. As it turned out, some of the $9.5 million was collectible. Javerbaum says the family will receive about $85,000 after his legal fee and costs are deducted under the contingency agreement with the widow, Elizabeth Bernoskie of Elizabeth. In 1999, Zarinsky was serving a life sentence for the murder of a teenage girl 30 years earlier when his sister disclosed to authorities that he also was guilty of the 1958 shooting of Officer Charles Bernoskie during a botched burglary at a car dealership. Zarinsky was acquitted in the murder case for lack of evidence in 2001, but a civil jury in Union County Superior Court found him liable after 90 minutes of deliberation. At first, it looked like attempts to collect any of the $9.5 million judgment would merely add to Javerbaum’s expenses. In November, he obtained a discovery order from Superior Court Judge Thomas Lyons that required Zarinsky to divulge any assets he owned, but the defendant declined to cooperate. When Javerbaum, a paralegal and a court stenographer went to Trenton State Prison on Nov. 25, Zarinsky refused to discuss assets, claiming he hadn’t had time to confer with his newly retained lawyer, Clifford Kuhn Jr., who heads a firm in Edison. Javerbaum left the prison unsatisfied, but he says he had two pieces of information that made Zarinsky’s cooperation not totally necessary. First, evidence in the criminal and civil cases showed that Zarinsky had inherited a house from his mother, so Javerbaum knew the defendant probably had assets. But Javerbaum didn’t know what had happened to the money. Second, he says Zarinsky’s sister, who testified against her brother at the trial, gave him Zarinsky’s Social Security number. Javerbaum gave it to the Spartan Detective Agency Inc. in Union, which used a network of databases to discover that Zarinsky had a brokerage account with T. Rowe Price Associates Inc. of Baltimore. Javerbaum levied on the account, the account was redeemed and on Feb. 6, Lyons ordered the broker to give Javerbaum the proceeds, $154,033. Javerbaum says he’s not done. Zarinsky’s name appears on the state Treasury Department Web site that lists the names of people to whom unclaimed property is being held. The database doesn’t say how much the property is worth, but Javerbaum says he has levied on the account and is waiting to see if it’s more than a nominal amount. Much of the unclaimed property on the list are small amounts left in savings and checking accounts, but Javerbaum is hoping he will get lucky again and strike a larger lode. He says he learned about the property from a Kenilworth woman who scans the list regularly as a hobby. She read an article in The Star-Ledger of Feb. 18 about the judgment against Zarinsky and typed his name into the Treasury Department search engine on her home computer. Nothing came up. But then she typed in “Robert Zarinski” and an entry for someone of that name at Zarinsky’s last known address in Linden popped up. His name had been misspelled on the database. Lyons has ordered Zarinsky to respond to written discovery questions, and an examination of the defendant’s income tax returns is also in the offing, Javerbaum says. Zarinsky’s lawyer, Kuhn, did not return a call last week, but Javerbaum says the defense is appealing the $9.5 million award. He says Kuhn filed a motion to stop the transfer of funds from T. Rowe Price on grounds they might be dissipated if Zarinsky wins the appeal. Javerbaum says the completion of the transfer makes the motion moot. Javerbaum says that the money is not as important to his client as is the finding of liability. “The main value to her was that a wrong – the acquittal in the criminal case – was righted.” And for Elizabeth Bernoskie, the satisfaction of getting the money is less than the satisfaction of knowing that Zarinsky is losing it, Javerbaum says. Equitable Tolling It became possible to pursue convicted murderers years after their crimes in 2000 when the Legislature amended N.J.S.A. 2A:31-3 to cancel the two-year statute of limitations on wrongful-death claims in cases against people convicted of murder and aggravated manslaughter. Because Zarinsky was acquitted, the statute did not apply to him, but an appeals court ruled that equitable considerations, including the fact that a suspect in Bernoskie’s killing wasn’t identified for more than 40 years, allowed the tolling of the statute. In most cases, though, the killers are found guilty and the 2000 amendment, known as Joan’s Law, included a provision for retroactivity. That permitted a wrongful-death action against Joseph McGowan, a teacher convicted of the 1973 murder of 7-year-old Joan D’Alessandro of Hillsdale, for whose family Caminiti recovered $286.05. The rest of McGowan’s money went to pay for his legal fees. Before his appointment as chairman of the state Victims of Crime Compensation Board, Richard Pompelio had a family firm in Sparta that represented the families of murder victims, and his wife Ann is still handling such cases. “I’ve gotten judgments against murderers,” Pompelio says. Has he collected on any of them? “No,” he says. Last September, acting on evidence presented by Ann Pompelio, a judge found civil defendants liable for $17 million to the families of pizza deliverymen Giorgio Gallara and Jeremy Giordano, who were murdered in Franklin by Thomas Koskovich and Jayson Vreeland. Three business defendants, a gun shop Koskovich burglarized to get the murder weapons and two of the shop’s burglar alarm services, paid an undisclosed sum to settle the judgment but Pompelio says there were no assets among the killers to even bother pursuing. “We named them as defendants but we didn’t get a penny out of them,” Richard Pompelio says. The comparable case receiving the most publicity now is the one against Thomas Trantino, who was paroled in 2002 after serving 38 years in prison for the murder of two Lodi police officers. The families of victims Peter Voto and Gary Tedesco, who lobbied for years to keep Trantino from being paroled, are seeking damages from him, and the case is shaping up as the first full-scale challenge to the constitutionality of Joan’s Law. Trantino’s lawyer, Jeffrey Fogel, a Nutley practitioner and legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, says the retroactivity provision of the law disregards 100 years of jurisprudence. The appeals courts have declined to hear his interlocutory arguments for dismissal. Plaintiffs’ lawyers Michael Lubin, a partner in Paramus’ Gallo, Geffner & Fenster, and John Piserchia, who has a firm in West Orange, say they don’t believe Trantino has much money. His chance of earning any was diminished last November when he was re-arrested on charges of beating his girlfriend, and now he faces revocation of his parole. “To our knowledge he doesn’t have anything,” says Piserchia, who represents the Votos. “Our hope is to have a trial and have a jury assess damages so that if he ever comes into money he will not benefit from it,” Piserchia says. Lubin says Trantino is a potential moneymaker from the sale of a book or film about his story or from any other writings Trantino might sell. “I don’t know if this is going to turn out to be pro bono,” Lubin says. “You really don’t know until the end if it’s possible that Mr. Trantino has money.” Under state law, discovery on a defendant’s assets isn’t allowed until after a judgment is obtained, he says. He says his firm took the case because it has had a long association with the Tedescos. “There are a lot of lawyers in the state of New Jersey who are in it not just to handle cases for money but to establish a principle and achieve a result that is not translatable into dollars.” Not all civil lawyers for murder victims go away empty-handed. On Thursday, Joseph Rem Jr. and Myron Milch, who have firms in Hackensack, said they had just received the final installment of a $4 million-plus interest judgment they won in 1995 against William Engel, a millionaire glass manufacturer convicted in the contract killing of his wife. Engel declared bankruptcy, and his wife’s two children, having won the judgment, became the largest creditors in the bankruptcy. Milch says that because of the insolvency, he and the bankruptcy lawyer for the children, David Nicolette, Jr. of Hackensack’s Nicolette & Perkins, had no need to undertake the elaborate asset search Javerbaum needed. The court-appointed bankruptcy trustee performed that task.

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