A hedge-fund executive's fatal plunge from an escalator inside an upscale Atlantic City mall Sunday morning has been ruled an accident, authorities said.

James Vellanti, 42, of Clinton, Hunterdon County, N.J., is the second person in two years to die in a fall from an escalator at the Pier Shops at Caesar's, an oceanfront venue with several bars and restaurants on the third floor.

Police responded to a 9-1-1 call there at 12:01 a.m. Sunday and found Vellanti, a married father of three, unconscious on the first floor. Police Sgt. Monica McMenamin said that Vellanti had fallen 30 to 40 feet while riding between the second and third floor.

An autopsy conducted yesterday determined that Vellanti's death had been accidental, but how it happened remained unclear.

Ted Loya, a family friend who answered Vellanti's phone yesterday, said that he, Vellanti and about a half-dozen other men had traveled to the Atlantic City area for golf outings at the nearby Seaview Marriott and the Renault Winery. They were set to return home Sunday morning.

"He was a great father, a fantastic husband and an all-around great guy," he said.

Loya said that he had been with Vellanti but did not witness the accident, and declined to say where the men had been inside the Pier Shops.

McMenamin confirmed that there were surveillance cameras trained on the escalators but declined to say what, if anything, they captured.

According to his public profile on LinkedIn.com, Vellanti is the chief operating officer for JNF Asset Management LLC, in New York, and a West Chester University graduate.

Cherry Hill resident Lynn Clauss, who graduated with Vellanti from St. Mary's High School, in South Amboy, said that he was the "perfect guy."

"My heart hurts because he had so much to offer," she said.

In August 2008, Frank Gilbert Jr., of Galloway Township, Atlantic County, fell from an escalator at the Pier Shops after riding the handrail there.

His family could not be reached for comment yesterday.