In its heyday Miami Beach's opulent Fontainebleau Hotel, with its glittering Venetian chandeliers, shiny marble floors and sweeping ocean views, had the sort of appeal that attracted a steady cast of headliners. Frank Sinatra! Sammy Davis Jr.! Elvis Presley! But for Ben Novack Jr., who grew up in the hotel his father, Ben Novack Sr., built, it was simply home. "He didn't have siblings," says his cousin Meredith Fiel. "He had the Fontainebleau. The waiters. The waitresses. His nannies. That was his family."
While bankruptcy cost the Novacks ownership of the hotel in 1977, the family legacy lives on, though these days it's garnering headlines for a far more sordid reason: Murder. Almost a year to the day after the July 12, 2009, brutal death of Ben Jr., 53, his widow, Narcy Novack, was arrested in Fort Lauderdale and charged with orchestrating her husband's killing at the Hilton Rye Town in Rye Brook, N.Y., where he had traveled for business. In a federal indictment regarding Ben Jr.'s death, Narcy, 53, her brother Cristobal Veliz, 57, and two other men were charged with interstate domestic violence and stalking, which carry a maximum penalty of life in prison. In another grisly twist, authorities announced they now believe she plotted the death of Ben Jr.'s own mother, who died in April 2009, although Narcy has not been charged. And the prosecutor, during an August bond hearing for Narcy, alleged that there was a third murder plot against an unidentified witness; authorities did not say who was behind the plot.
Chilling details of Ben's murder read like a Stephen King novel. Narcy, a former stripper from Ecuador, allegedly ordered co-conspirator Joel Gonzalez and another man to gouge out her husband's eyes with a utility knife, according to federal officials, and then watched as they beat him to death with dumbbells. "She is evil," says Ben's aunt and Meredith's mother, Maxine Fiel, 87, of Narcy. "What was the motive? Money."
Millions. Ben Jr., who founded a successful events-planning company, has a Fort Lauderdale home worth $2.7 million. Then there are the riches from his father's estate-including a world-renowned Batman memorabilia collection-that flowed to Ben following the death of his mother, Bernice. Her own bloody demise, the medical examiner had been convinced, was the result of a series of accidental falls-that is, until Narcy's arrest. Now, says Sgt. Frank Sousa of the Fort Lauderdale Police Department, Bernice Novack's "case has been reclassified as a homicide." As yet, no charges have been brought, but earlier this month a prosecutor pointed the finger at Narcy, saying a witness recently said Narcy ordered two men to kill Bernice. Maxine Fiel says prior to her death, her sister was worried about her son. "My sister would call me and tell me things, but because she wanted to see her son, she tried to keep everything smooth," she says. "There were other things Narcy did that were unconscionable."
In 2002 Ben Jr. accused his wife of arranging a home break-in, during which he was beaten, handcuffed and robbed. She told police it was part of a sex game. Ben Jr. filed for divorce but later took his wife back. "It seemed like classic abused-victim behavior," says actor Kelsey Grammer, 55, a friend of Ben Jr.'s. "He was terrified of her."
Narcy has proclaimed herself innocent of her husband's murder. But her daughter from a different marriage, May Abad, 34, claimed through her attorney Stephen J. McDonald that her mother engineered Ben's killing for money. "There has been speculation that Ben had a girlfriend and was going to leave Narcy," says McDonald. Under Ben's will, "he left everything to Narcy."
Meredith Fiel prefers to recall happier times, when she was a kid visiting her cousin Ben at the grand hotel. "He was the prince of the Fontainebleau," she says. "Anything that Ben Jr. wanted, Ben Jr. got." Surely this was not what he had in mind at all.
- Reported by Nicole Weisensee Egan,
- Steve Helling.