Colorful Rogue or Charming Villain: Pete Zamarello (1928-2014)

Peter G. Zamarello, 1928-2014

Peter G. Zamarello, 1928-2014

There are people who really liked Pete Zamarello. His family and friends thought he was charming, generous and amusing.

The group that liked him does not include the financial institutions (the ones who survived an encounter with him), municipal planning and zoning officials, the I.R.S. or the hordes of creditors he defrauded. Or WC.

In the Alaska real estate crash of 1984-1986, Zamarello helped kill half a dozen financial institutions, bankrupted construction companies and their suppliers and ended up in bankruptcy himself.

It wasn’t his fault, he claimed. At various times he blamed the government, his critics and the lenders who “forced him to take out loans.” Right. Those evil lenders just shoved the money at him. In his 1986 bankruptcy, there was a great deal of inexplicably missing money, and strong rumors from multiple sources he had sent his wife, Patricia, back to his native Greece with a suitcase containing $20 million in cash.

When questioned about the missing $20 million under oath, Zamarello said, “Twenty million dollars won’t even fit in a suitcase. I know. I’ve tried it. It’s hard to get $1 million into a suitcase.”

That testimony captured the essence of Pete Zamarello. He’d never admit that he smuggled $20 million out of the country. But he couldn’t resist implying that he’d tried. It wasn’t until you thought about it that you realized he hadn’t really answered the question.

At one point, Zamarello had assembled a real estate empire with a paper value of $150 million, composed of tacky strip malls – many still standing in Anchorage, Wasilla and Fairbanks today – and trailer courts. Over-valued and under-constructed, Zamarello characteristically blamed the banks who financed him for all of the problems. He said he detested bankers, “I’d rather be a pimp in a purple hat with a feather.” Again, the characteristic use of deflecting humor and insult, with as many implied meanings as you’d care to find. He was betrayed, as well, by his refusal to recognize that what went up would, sooner or later, come crashing down.

The mess he created took almost nine years to clean up. His chicanery contributed to the failure of First Interstate Bank, United Bank Alaska, Alaska Mutual Bank, a couple of credit unions and more – 44% of Alaska’s financial institutions, in all. No, Zamarello wasn’t the only cause, but his was the largest non-residential element. When the camel is staggering under a serious load of bad loans, Zamarello was often the infamous straw that broke the camel’s back.

And now he’s dead, joining those banks and businesses he killed and helped kill. WC hopes you’ll forgive him for failing to mourn. It’s not worth a specil trip, but the day will come when WC will visit Pete Zamarello’s grave. Just to make sure he’s stayed dead.