By admin | Feb 28, 2011
When Phyllis Mizioch was gunned down in the kitchen of her upscale Phoenix home last summer, it marked the fourth time in 21 years that her husband or his best friend was listed as a beneficiary on a murder victim’s life-insurance policy.
No one has been charged in any of the slayings.
But homicide investigators have questioned Peter John Mizioch or his associate Edward Maciag in three of the cases, as well as the 1979 shotgun wounding of another man on whom Mizioch’s company held a policy, according to police reports and court records. Neither has any known criminal record.
A detective told one of the insurance carriers, Protective Life, that Mizioch is a possible suspect in his wife’s July 6 murder, according to a court filing by the company. Protective Life and another insurance company are trying to block the Valley construction contractor from receiving $4.5 million in death benefits, citing an Arizona law that bans a person responsible for murder from collecting insurance-policy proceeds.
In a sworn declaration filed last month in U.S. District Court, Mizioch, 70, said he “absolutely had no involvement” in his wife’s death. He declined an interview through his attorney, David W. Williams, who said suspicions about Mizioch are based solely on circumstantial information.
“There is a universe of other individuals who could have potentially been considered suspects,” Williams said.
All told, death benefits from the four homicides total nearly $8 million, with about $6.5 million assigned to Mizioch or his business.
An Arizona Republic investigation found that, except for Phyllis Mizioch, all the victims were covered by so-called “key man” insurance policies taken out in conjunction with their business dealings with her husband. Such insurance policies, common in the financial world to compensate businesses for losses from the death of a top employee, are purchased with consent of the insured person.
Peter Mizioch held three life-insurance policies on his wife, whom family members say was about to file for divorce. Relatives say the Miziochs, who had remarried after an earlier divorce, had been separated for about a year and were in an argument at Phyllis’ home the day she was shot. Relatives feared for their own safety and obtained a protective order against Mizioch. They testified in a Justice Court case for the protective order that Peter threatened to withhold money from Phyllis if she followed through with divorce plans.
Her murder, still under investigation, rekindled interest in the other murders, as well as the string of life-insurance policies, according to police files and court records.
On Aug. 3, Phoenix Detective Brian Hansen asked insurance agents worldwide to search their records for policies naming Mizioch as a beneficiary, according to a petition filed in federal court by Protective Life. The petition also says Phoenix police informed the company that Mizioch is “considered as a suspect in the decedent’s homicide.”
Sgt. Tommy Thompson, a Phoenix police spokesman, denied that Mizioch has been named a suspect in his wife’s murder. He declined to discuss the case.
Homicide detectives in some of the cases appear to be pooling information, looking for a breakthrough.
Gila County sheriff’s Deputy George Ratliff, who began investigating the murder of a Mizioch associate more than a decade ago, said he met with Phoenix police late in August to discuss common threads in the slayings.
Police reports obtained by The Republic indicate that there were no witnesses to the four slayings and one assault, and crime-scene investigators did not recover physical evidence implicating any known suspect. In most cases, detectives identified multiple people with motives.
The life-insurance policies with Mizioch, his company or Maciag as beneficiaries are a common thread linking the five cases that date back more than 30 years:
-In December 1979 in Phoenix, Oran B. Ingram was blasted in the back with a shotgun as he arrived home from work. According to the police report, Ingram, who survived severe wounds, told police he suspected Mizioch, his partner in a carpet company. Ingram told detectives that Mizioch stood to profit from a $200,000 life-insurance policy.
-In June 1989, Wayne M. “Mike” Snodgrass, 42, Mizioch’s partner in Southwest Specialty Co. Inc., was found shot in the head at the construction company’s Phoenix office. Mizioch was questioned in that case. According to police reports, a life-insurance policy for an unspecified sum was considered a possible lead.
-In September 1999, the bullet-riddled body of Paradise Valley entrepreneur Ronald J. Bianchi, 53, was found in the forest near Payson. Mizioch and Maciag filed lawsuits claiming that Bianchi and partner David Stark had defaulted on loans and owed upward of $2.3 million. One lawsuit tried to force insurance companies to pay death benefits from two policies worth a combined $1 million, both naming Maciag as beneficiary. New York Life attorney Daniel Beeks said the lawsuit regarding Bianchi’s death ended with a confidential settlement. “We were suspicious, which is why we took so long to pay the benefit,” he added.
-In May 2004, the body of Stark was discovered at a house in Detroit. The Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Office ruled that Stark, who was shot in the head, was a homicide victim. Mizioch’s friend and business associate, Maciag, was the named beneficiary for $1 million in life insurance. The policy was not contested.
-Last summer, Phyllis Mizioch was found on the floor of her kitchen. Her estranged husband is the named beneficiary on two life-insurance policies, with benefits totaling $4.5 million.
In his sworn statement, Peter Mizioch denied involvement in any of the shootings and said he was not in Arizona when two of the incidents occurred.
According to a fact book published by the American Council of Life Insurers, there were 291 million active life-insurance policies in the United States during 2009, with a total value over $18 trillion.
Gary Schuman, an insurance-company lawyer for 23 years, emphasized that policies are issued to people who are close to one another – spouses or business partners – and insurers require extensive medical checkups and personal information before writing significant policies. Because of that, he said, it is almost impossible to buy significant coverage for a person without his or her knowledge.
U.S. common law and statutes in 42 states prohibit the receipt of life-insurance proceeds by a beneficiary responsible for murdering an insured person.
When an insurer anticipates that a death claim may be challenged because of allegations against the beneficiary, experts said, it is common for the company to ask a court to hold the money until issues are resolved.
Mizioch, a burly Boston-area native, spent nearly four decades building his Phoenix construction, waste-management and lending businesses. Known to friends as “Pete the Polack,” a reference to his heritage, he has worked with his brother Greg in the Phoenix construction industry since the 1970s. Together, they run a contracting firm that specializes in concrete, manhole covers and utility adjustments.
Maciag, a former police officer in Paradise Valley and Scottsdale from 1977 to 1981, is a licensed private investigator who works for Mizioch on business ventures.
In an interview with The Republic , Maciag, 59, a Michigan native who has teamed with Mizioch for nearly 15 years, said he was not involved in any of the shootings.
Maciag said he spoke with his boss after the Bianchi murder in 1999 because he was listed as the insurance beneficiary and feared investigators would make him a suspect. Maciag said that concern magnified when Stark was killed five years later. Stark’s life-insurance policy also named Maciag as a beneficiary.
Maciag said the key-man insurance policies are used by many businesses to protect their investments.
Although he was listed as a beneficiary, Maciag said, all death benefits went to Mizioch.
“I’ve never received one penny,” he said. “He’ll attest to that. Any of that money that came over in a check, I immediately signed over to him.”
Maciag acknowledged the crime sequence appears suspicious.
“If I was looking at it from the outside, it’s a great novel,” he said. “And it sure looks like some kind of huge conspiracy. But there’s some details that I’m aware of that explain it.”
He did not divulge those details.
Federal court records show Phyllis Mizioch’s life was insured for a total of $6 million under three policies issued by different companies: $1 million by Protective Life, $3.5 million by AXA-Equitable and $1.5 million by MetLife.Her children were beneficiaries of the MetLife policy and already have received death benefits of $500,000 each.
Protective Life and AXA-Equitable claimed in federal court filings that they cannot determine who should receive the money while police investigate Mizioch as a “potential suspect.”
Meanwhile, in Maricopa County Probate Court, survivors are at odds over Phyllis’ estate. Peter was named in the will as “personal representative,” charged with overseeing the assets, but that appointment is under challenge by Phyllis’ children, who also filed a wrongful-death claim in the federal court case.
Mark, Jimmy and Russell Montoya allege that on the morning of their mother’s death, Peter Mizioch called Mark Montoya and angrily complained about Phyllis’ demands before concluding, “Don’t judge me for what I am about to do,” according to the lawsuit.
On Oct. 14, Mizioch filed a countersuit against Protective Life and his three stepchildren. In it, he denies involvement in the death of his wife and asserts that he is entitled to insurance payouts unless his accusers can prove he “feloniously and intentionally killed Phyllis A. Mizioch.”
Mizioch noted that the Montoyas already have been paid $500,000 each as beneficiaries of the MetLife policy, which he had purchased on his wife “out of charitable love and support for his stepchildren,” according to court records.
In his declaration, Mizioch alleged that Mark Montoya had a key to his mother’s residence, was aware that her security system was inoperable and was having financial problems at the time of her death. After Phyllis was killed, he wrote, Montoya sought to collect not just $500,000 in death benefits but identical amounts assigned to his siblings.
“Mark stated that his mother wanted him to have all of the money from the policies,” Mizioch alleged. “Which I knew was false.”
Montoya said that his mother had previously offered to help with his financial problems and that he turned her down.
“My mom was my best friend,” he said. “She was everything to us.”
Montoya’s attorney, James LaGanke, said, “It is absolutely ridiculous to accuse Mark of having anything to do with the murder of his mother.”
In other court filings, Mizioch alleges that the Montoyas conspired to deprive him of benefits from his wife’s death by filing claims on that money after Protective Life submitted its court petition. He accuses the Montoyas and the insurer of bad faith, breach and contractual interference.
During a November hearing, another Mizioch attorney, Mark Lassiter, compared the intrigue to an Agatha Christie novel while arguing for a speedy judgment in favor of his client. “Right now, they have nothing but speculation and inference and unfounded accusations that he has in some way murdered his late wife,” Lassiter said.
Since Phyllis Mizioch was killed, the drama has played out in several courts but none of them criminal because no one has been charged in her death.
LaGanke, an attorney for the Montoyas in their wrongful-death claim, is seeking a jury trial in U.S. District Court. If he prevails, jurors could be asked to determine whether Mizioch is responsible for his wife’s death based on a preponderance of evidence, a lower burden than the criminal standard of beyond a reasonable doubt.
In Probate Court, family members are seeking to remove Mizioch as overseer of his wife’s estate. A sworn declaration by Mark Montoya says his mother’s $300,000 jewelry collection vanished after her death. It alleges that his stepfather “appears to have committed insurance fraud” by taking out a policy on Phyllis’ life while they were divorced. And it claims there have been “serial forgeries” of his mother’s signature on real-estate papers.
Maciag told The Republic that he and Mizioch are devastated by Phyllis’ death and by family accusations that they had something to do with it. “How stupid, with the other insurance claims, would it have been for Pete to do something like this?” Maciag asked.