The well-known owner of a popular Midtown gay club was found strangled in his apartment, cops said Friday.
A roommate found the body of 54-year-old Savyon Zabar on a bed in their fourth-floor apartment on W. 81st St. near Amsterdam Ave. on the Upper West Side about 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, police said. On Friday, police declared his death a homicide.
Zabar, who owned and managed the now-defunct popular Latin gay club Escuelita, died from strangulation and heavy internal bleeding, according to police sources.
His roommate was being questioned by police Friday morning. Nobody has been charged.
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Friends of Zabar, who called him “Big Ben” because he weighed about 400 pounds, were stunned by his murder.
“He was a star,” said Christopher Lynn, Zabar’s lawyer and the former commissioner of the city Taxi & Limousine Commission. “Everybody is in a state of shock. We have the best police force in the world. They are going to get the person who did this.”
Lynn said Zabar developed a friendship with Lynn’s teenage daughter, even throwing parties for her and her friends at the club.
Fernando Munizaga, 35, of New Jersey, who once worked for Zabar at Escuelita, said Zabar was a giant in the city’s nightlife world and active in gay rights causes.
“He got me started in the gay scene in management,” he said. “He helped me find my voice.”
“He was a huge figure in the gay community,” he said. “He gave us a voice. He gave us opportunity. He gave a platform to the gay Latin community.”
Zabar had a larger-than-life personality and was a demanding boss, friends said.
“He was funny and outgoing,” Munizaga said. “He was always pushing harder so that you could recognize how far you could go. He wanted you to find your best quality.
Zabar's neighbor, Vinnie de Angelis, 61, a nursing attendant who's been living in the building since 1976, was shocked to hear of Zabar's death.
He said he spoke to Zabar in the elevator just last week.
"I never thought it would be the last time," he said, clutching a Catholic rosary. "He was a very sweet guy."
He described Zabar as an eccentric man with a taste for the finer things who always had a car service pick him up outside their building — along with an ever-present entourage of good-looking buff young men who de Angelis said lived, traveled, and worked with Zabar.
"He had a whole posse of handsome young guys, mostly Latinos,” he said. “Really handsome guys, well built, lots of tattoos. They were crashing there (in Zabar's apartment).”
Zabar had been robbed twice in the past but detectives do not believe robbery was a motive in his death, sources said.
In September 2012, a man pistol whipped Zabar on the street and stole $8,000 in cash, his iPhone and miscellaneous papers from him. Nobody was ever arrested for the crime.
In March 2015, a burglar knocked on Zabar’s door and forced his way in at gunpoint when Zabar answered, sources said.
The crook slammed Zabar repeatedly in the back of the head with a silver gun and demanded to know where he kept his money, sources said. Zabar told him the security code to his safe and the robber got away with $4,700 in cash.
Cops later arrested 26-year-old Anthony Siciliano and he was sentenced to a three-year stint in prison.
He was released in June but violated parole and was sent back to prison. He is due for release again in August.
In 2012, Zabar was involved in a bitter struggle with the state Liquor Authority over Escuelita’s liquor license.
The authority tried to take the club’s license after its previous manager punched a patron in the face.
Zabar said bias against gays, Hispanics and blacks played a role in the struggle to keep the license.
“Minorities are no longer welcome on W. 39th St., as they do not fit into the gentrification plans of the city,” Zabar said in 2012.
Escuelita survived that challenge but shut down in February after 49 years in business.Send a Letter to the Editor