St. Petersburg Times

The word of one witness put Michael Mordenti ON DEATH ROW
What the jurors didn't know could kill him.
Mar 14, 2004
CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD

Michael Mordenti
Michael Mordenti

Homicide detectives surprised Gail Mordenti at her Largo home early that morning, hoping to catch her bleary and off-balance.

They had an unsolved murder on their hands, an especially cruel one. Thelma Royston, a 54-year-old woman who raised paint horses, had been found riddled with bullets and stab wounds in the dirt of her Odessa horse barn.

Now, nine months later, the investigation pointed to Gail Mordenti, a cash-strapped, twice-divorced, 40-year-old car dealer whose blue eyes lingered in men's minds. And on March 8, 1990, as detectives drove her to Tampa for questioning, she looked ashen, petrified.

"What would happen to me," she said nervously, "if I tell you what happened?"

A prosecutor cut the deal: If she named names, she would get a pass.

So she admitted that she had set up the murder, at the insistence of the victim's husband. She said she had personally ferried $17,000 from the husband to the hit man, who kicked back some cash to her.

And she told detectives the hit man's name.

It was Michael, she said. My ex-husband.

No other evidence linked Michael Mordenti, a St. Petersburg used car dealer, to the crime. Detectives had no eyewitnesses, no fingerprints, no DNA samples, no hair fibers implicating him. Before Gail Mordenti gave her statement, a detective would say, her ex- husband had not even been a suspect.

In the end, she would walk away, free and clear, from the murder she orchestrated. And her word would send Michael Mordenti to Florida's death row.

In the 13 years that Mordenti has awaited execution, however, his case has left a troubling legacy. There is the former superstar prosecutor who misrepresented or concealed crucial evidence and has been excoriated for misconduct in other cases. There is the novice defense attorney who has admitted to critical blunders in Mordenti's trial and has since left the practice of law. And there is the star witness' datebook, never shown to jurors, which casts doubt on the state's official version of events.

The Florida Supreme Court is now deciding whether Mordenti deserves a new trial. At a hearing March 5, at least two justices expressed grave doubts about a case that hinges entirely on the word of an unpunished accomplice to murder. There's no telling when the court will rule.

"Don't we have a substantial problem?" Chief Justice Harry Lee Anstead asked the state's attorneys.

If Mordenti, now 62, is an innocent man on death row, a startling confluence of bad lawyering and bad luck sent him there. If he's guilty, some of those same legal missteps may soon set a killer free.

A marriage, a murder

The marriage of Larry and Thelma Royston lasted 19 years. By summer 1989, it was long sour. Both wanted out.

They shared a home at High Acres Paint Horse Farm on Gunn Highway, in northwest Hillsborough County, but they led separate lives.

Charming and soft-spoken, Larry Royston was a serial adulterer who disappeared on frequent ski trips. To his lovers, he wove a well- rehearsed tale designed to elicit pity: His wife was a lesbian who would "take him to the cleaners" in a divorce.

Over the years, Thelma Royston had forgiven her husband his infidelities. But in mid 1989, she broke down in tears and told a friend that she didn't love him anymore, that she wouldn't let him touch her for fear of AIDS.

Still, she was scared to start over at 54. Her life revolved around horses. People spoke of how she doted on them. She went to shows with her paint horse, Pretty Dee Bar, or her husband's stallion, High Inflation. She immersed herself in the daily routine of the 10-acre ranch, waking before dawn to feed the horses.

Nights, before heading to bed, she checked to make sure the light was on in the horse barn.

Late on June 7, 1989, the light went off.

When Larry Royston brought this to his wife's attention, she and her 74-year-old mother, Isabel Regar, walked out into the mist to investigate.

A man's voice came from the darkness. "Is anyone home?"

Carrying a flashlight, Thelma Royston walked down the 300-foot dirt driveway toward the voice. She called back to her mother, "It's okay, Mom." She explained that a man had come to talk about Bubba, a horse she had for sale. Regar saw her daughter go into the barn with the man.

About 20 minutes passed before the Doberman, Dixie, began barking.

Regar went outside to check. She found her daughter dead on the barn floor. There were four bullet wounds and five stab wounds to her head and upper torso. "An overkill situation," a Hillsborough sheriff's deputy would call it.

An immediate suspect

Detectives would find no signs of rape, robbery or burglary, pointing to some other motive. Larry Royston vaulted to the top of the suspect list.

His reaction to the murder seemed strangely cold, his responses to simple questions cagey. He had insurance on his wife. The killing pointed to inside knowledge. Who would have known to extinguish the barn light to lure her outside?

The morning after the murder, Royston asked a question that chilled Sherri Loeffelholz, his wife's daughter from a prior relationship: Did anybody know about our trouble as a couple?

No, Loeffelholz said.

I think it's best to keep it quiet, he said.

Detectives soon learned that the Roystons had skimmed $300,000 in profits from their Clearwater air-conditioning business and hidden the money from the IRS. Thelma Royston had made copies of the invoices, planning to use them against her husband in a divorce.

Investigators also heard about Larry Royston's numerous affairs, and about what they called his "obsession" with murdering his wife.

He broached the subject of having her killed, it seemed, with anyone he trusted enough to help. He appealed to one of his mistresses, who was once a manager at his farm. He offered to pay off her truck if she helped. She balked but did not contact police.

Royston himself had an alibi: His mother-in-law could attest that he had been in the house, watching TV, when the attacker arrived.

For detectives, the question became: Whom did Larry Royston send to the barn that night to act out his will?

An ex-wife's account

On the early morning of March 8, 1990, Hillsborough sheriff's deputies, alerted by tipsters, converged on Gail Mordenti's home in Largo.

They found her alone, in her nightgown. She was scared. They waited for her to dress and took her to the state attorney's office in Tampa.

In a previous interview, she had denied knowledge of the killing. Now she suggested that she knew more than she had let on. But she wanted immunity.

Prosecutor Lee Atkinson granted it. As long as she told the truth, he said, her statements could not be used against her.

As Mordenti told it, she had met Larry Royston two summers before, when he came to install central air in her house. The two bonded over cars: She sold them, he collected them. He kept classic Chevys and a Mercedes. He owned thoroughbreds. He struck her as rich.

Early in 1989, she said, she invited Royston to her house for lunch. She was broke, stung by recent setbacks in the car business. She wanted him as a partner in a new venture: With her know-how and his cash, they could move a lot of autos.

He seemed interested, but he had a problem. His wife was bleeding him dry in a divorce. She was a lesbian, he said. She was putting him through hell.

"I need to have her done away with," he told her. Did she know anyone?

Mordenti told detectives she didn't think beyond "trying to get my own life straightened out" and "getting myself set up" in business.

She set about finding someone to commit the murder.

She approached a "big Italian guy" who sold cars on 49th Street, whose name, it so happened, she didn't remember. She called a Jewish car dealer in Clearwater, but she didn't remember his name, either. She said she also broached the subject with a former business partner.

When those overtures went nowhere, she said, she contacted her ex- husband, Michael Mordenti. He agreed to do it.

By appearances, it wasn't tough to imagine that Michael Mordenti might fit the bill, might even serve as a Hollywood casting agent's image of a contract killer. People remembered his unnervingly dark, penetrating eyes.

He carried a gun in his briefcase, and a sheathed knife. He liked the camaraderie of other car lot veterans, who gathered in the mornings at his home office for coffee. His language was rough and salty, flavored by his native Massachusetts. He smoked big, reeking cigars, favored dark clothes and bolted his wallet to his jeans with a chain.

Gail and Michael Mordenti had divorced in 1987 but stayed on speaking terms.

"Did Michael ever tell you that he is the one who did it?" a detective asked Gail Mordenti of the murder.

She sighed. "Yeah," she said.

'Stay cool'

The same day, Gail Mordenti agreed to place a call to her ex- husband while detectives listened.

She told him she was scared, that she had received a subpoena from prosecutors in connection with the Royston murder.

"You don't know nothing about it," Michael Mordenti replied. "You're not involved. So don't worry about it."

"Well, what should I say?"

"Nothing. You tell them what you know. That's all. . . . Stay cool. There's nothing to worry about. You didn't do anything."

He asked if she had slept with Larry Royston. She denied it.

"Well, what if they - if they want to give me a lie detector test?" she said.

"You don't have to take nothing. No way. . . . I don't take a lie detector for nobody."

He added, "I don't want to say too much either" and told her, "Don't talk nothing on the phone." He said he'd rather talk in person, that they should meet at a car auction that night.

"I'm just really scared, you know?" she said.

"Play cool," he said, and added: "They have nothing. . . . They're on a fishing expedition, as usual."

Detectives arrested Michael Mordenti and Larry Royston later that day.

The alibi

Michael Mordenti turned to one of Tampa's premier defense lawyers, Barry Cohen. Cohen's investigators got to work establishing an alibi.

They found an ex-girlfriend who swore that she attended the Lee County Auto Auction with Mordenti, 90 miles from the murder, on the night it happened. She remembered that Mordenti wore a western plaid shirt with pearl snaps and smoked one of his "large, nasty cigars," that he ate spaghetti afterward at a Shoney's Restaurant, that they had sex in his car beneath a freeway underpass.

A server would recall serving them that night, though she had not punched her time card to prove that she had worked. A car dealer would corroborate Mordenti's presence at the auction, saying that Mordenti helped to get the bid started on a Datsun 280ZX. A second dealer also remembered Mordenti being there, puffing one of his cigars.

Mordenti soon lost his star attorney. Cohen said Mordenti refused to pay the fees he quoted and seemed "cavalier" about the need for a robust defense.

Instead of turning to the public defender's office, with its decades of collective experience in murder trials, Mordenti wanted his own lawyer and hired one on the cheap.

His St. Petersburg bail bondsman knew someone: an attorney in the office next door. Thus Mordenti found John L. Atti.

Atti had been practicing law just three years. He had never handled a murder trial, much less a death penalty case. He agreed to represent Mordenti for $50,000, paid for with the transfer of Mordenti's property.

Atti would later admit that he did not realize how much it would cost to take witness depositions in the case. He would say that he didn't think Mordenti would even go to trial, so weak was the evidence against him. He would say that Mordenti, insisting on his innocence, rejected the state's offer of a five- to seven-year sentence in exchange for a guilty plea.

Atti hoped the state would tip its strategic hand when it prosecuted Larry Royston, who was scheduled for trial before Mordenti. But in March 1991, the night before his murder trial was to begin, Royston, 51, took an overdose of antidepressants. He died alone in his widower's condo.

With Royston dead and Gail Mordenti under immunity as the star witness, the state had only Michael Mordenti left to answer for the slaying.

"It was my opportunity to get in the big leagues, if you will, and take on a murder case," Atti would later say of representing Mordenti.

It was a league in which he was hopelessly outplayed.

His courtroom opponent was Karen Cox, who had graduated from Georgetown's law school at age 20 and become a prosecutor at 21.

By the time she got the Mordenti case, still in her late 20s, she was already amassing a record of high-profile convictions at the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office that would build her reputation as the county's top homicide prosecutor. She left to become an assistant U.S. attorney in 1997.

Defense attorneys would later say there was a problem with the way she won: She cheated.

The trial

At Mordenti's trial in July 1991, Cox eviscerated his alibi defense. She ridiculed the "amazing memory" of Mordenti's ex- girlfriend and characterized her as "the conductor" of witnesses who conspired to protect him.

The prosecutor pointed out that the recollections of the car dealers who backed up Mordenti's story were initially hazy on details about the night of the murder but inexplicably improved over time.

The prosecutor put on her star witness, Gail Mordenti, who stuck to her story. She said that Michael Mordenti had told her of committing the murder and had described the victim as having "a lot of really expensive jewelry on - rings and things" that he regretted he couldn't steal.

Crime scene photographs showed there were no rings on Thelma Royston's fingers. Atti failed to point out the discrepancy to jurors.

Though it was not the murder weapon, Cox introduced into evidence the .22-caliber revolver Gail Mordenti claimed her ex-husband gave her. An FBI metallurgist testified that bullets taken from Royston's body came from the same box as bullets found in the revolver.

The gun was the single piece of physical evidence prosecutors produced to link Michael Mordenti to the murder.

Appellate attorneys would later call the metallurgist's testimony junk science, but Atti did not cross-examine him.

Gail Mordenti told jurors that her ex-husband gave her the revolver after the murder. This conflicted with her earlier sworn statement to authorities, in which she said he gave it to her months before the murder.

Atti would later call it "one of the most important issues in this case." Yet in his closing argument, when he tried to tell jurors about the discrepancy, the prosecutor objected: Atti had not introduced Gail Mordenti's previous statement into evidence. Circuit Judge Susan Bucklew agreed with the state. Atti couldn't discuss it now.

Jurors would hear that Michael Mordenti had been involved, in some unspecified way, in a bank robbery investigation. It sounded bad. They did not hear the rest of the story: Mordenti had helped the FBI catch a man who robbed a bank using one of his cars.

Most devastatingly, jurors heard the taped exchange between Mordenti and his ex-wife. When Larry Royston's name came up, Michael Mordenti's remarks clearly showed that he knew who Royston was.

In her closing argument to jurors, the prosecutor painted Michael Mordenti as a liar. She stressed that he had repeatedly denied to authorities "ever knowing or even hearing of Larry Royston," despite the familiarity the tape showed.

But Mordenti had acknowledged his familiarity with Royston, in a February 1990 interview with a sheriff's detective. According to the detective's report, which the prosecutor had in her possession, "He never has met Larry Royston but has heard of him via Gail."

It was another discrepancy Atti failed to point out to jurors.

"I just failed to catch it," he later explained.

Jurors found Mordenti guilty and recommended death by an 11-1 vote.

The datebook

There was one other vital piece of evidence jurors never saw: a datebook belonging to the star witness. Gail Mordenti said she turned it over to prosector Cox before the trial. But Atti, the defense attorney, said the prosecutor never shared it with him.

In the book, Gail Mordenti marked down April 11, 1989, as the day Larry Royston met her for lunch and raised the subject of murder. This contradicted her trial testimony that the meeting was in late February or early March 1989.

Why was the April 11 lunch date important? To Michael Mordenti's appellate attorneys, it undermined his ex-wife's account of how the murder plot unfolded.

One night during the murder planning, she said, Michael Mordenti paid her a surprise visit at home, rousing her from bed. "Get up," he said, wanting to stake out the Royston farm.

Gail Mordenti would place this late-night visit sometime at the end of March or the beginning of April 1989; she knew, she said, because it was just before boyfriend Michael Milligan, who would later become her husband, moved in with her.

To Michael Mordenti's attorneys, the April 11 date suggests that the murder planning took place after Milligan moved in with her. How plausible is it, they ask, that an ex-husband would barge into the house and rouse her from bed while another man lay beside her?

Isn't it more plausible, defense attorneys ask, that Gail Mordenti fingered the wrong Michael as the triggerman, in an effort to protect Milligan?

Messages left for the Milligans with Gail's daughter were not returned.

The aftermath

John Atti did not last long in the law.

In 1993, two years after he lost the Mordenti case, he resigned his law license amid allegations that he misappropriated client funds and failed to provide competent counsel in other cases. At a November 2001 hearing in a Hillsborough court, Atti, who by then was working for Sears Home Improvement, acknowledged that he made oversights in Mordenti's case.

Karen Cox, the superstar prosecutor, is no longer putting people behind bars.

In 1999, the Florida Supreme Court overturned the conviction of accused contract killer Walter Ruiz, saying Cox and another Hillsborough prosecutor had engaged in "egregious and inexcusable prosecutorial misconduct." In that case, Cox told jurors of her cancer-stricken father's service in the Persian Gulf War. The court said she improperly equated his sacrifice with the jury's "moral duty to sentence Ruiz to death."

As a federal prosecutor in 1998, Cox allowed an informer to testify under a false name in an Internet sex solicitation case. She resigned from the U.S. Attorney's Office in 2001, after the state Supreme Court suspended her for a year, describing her as "a prosecutor who determines on her own when and how to follow the rules." The court, however, called her conduct "an aberration on an otherwise unblemished career," and Cox now practices law in Tampa.

Contacted for this report, Cox referred questions to the state Attorney General's Office, which is handling the case on appeal. That office declined to comment.

Why they convicted

Asked why they convicted Michael Mordenti, jurors interviewed by the Times pointed to one piece of evidence that, for them, clinched the case: the taped call between Michael and Gail Mordenti.

"I just remember him saying, 'They don't know nothing, they're just fishing,' " said juror Norman Haight. "If you were not guilty, I just don't think that's something you would have said."

Juror Karen DuBois agreed, saying: "The recording was to me very damning." Thirteen years later, DuBois still remembers being unnerved by Michael Mordenti's "dark, dark eyes."

"They were cold, hard," she said. "He'd just stare at the jury, and I thought, 'Not a good move. You're not engendering warm, fuzzy feelings here.' "

The Florida Supreme Court

Martin McClain, the court-appointed defense attorney handling Mordenti's appeal, has helped free two men from Florida's death row already.

Here, McClain sees a horribly flawed prosecution based on the word of a woman who had good reason to lie. While prosecutors see proof of Mordenti's guilt in his "cagey" remarks to his ex-wife during their taped exchange, the defense attorney hears something else entirely. He hears Mr. Mordenti trying to calm an ex-wife who, as he knew, had become a suspect in the Royston murder. All the tape really shows, McClain said, is that they had in some way discussed the well-publicized murder before.

"I think she's the one being cagey," McClain said.

In the Mordenti case, he said, so many things didn't jibe. In her hunt for a hit man in 1989, why would Gail Mordenti make overtures to her ex-husband, her ex-business partner and two other car dealers whose names she could not even remember? Why not approach the man she presumably trusted most: Michael Milligan, then her boyfriend, soon to be her husband?

And why, the defense attorney asks, did Gail Mordenti marry Milligan just weeks after her story prompted arrests in the murder? Perhaps so they could not be forced to testify against each other?

"How much misconduct will the court accept from the prosecutor and the state?" McClain asked the Florida Supreme Court on March 5, launching into the case's flaws. He spoke of the datebook, of how the state led jurors to believe Michael Mordenti might be a bank robber.

Robert Landry, the assistant attorney general handling the appeal for the state, admitted that the prosecution had not turned over the datebook to the defense, but he could not explain why. The datebook and how it might have affected the case were what Chief Justice Anstead called "a substantial problem."

Justice Barbara Pariente also seemed troubled. Without physical evidence, Pariente said, "How could there be a case where credibility is more important than in this case?" And in light of the datebook, she said, didn't Gail Mordenti's account of the timeline collapse?

"We have one woman's word, and now we have got several different pieces of evidence, either withheld or misrepresented, that could change what the jury felt about the credibility of Gail Mordenti," Pariente said.

While Gail Mordenti fingered her ex-husband in the murder plot, Pariente said, "She could just as well have said that she talked to her boyfriend, Michael Milligan, and he said for 10,000 (dollars), he'd do it."

The justice added: "She could have said anybody in the world."

Christopher Goffard can be reached at (813) 226-3337 or goffard@sptimes.com.

About this report

Information used in this report was drawn from court transcripts, depositions, Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office reports and interviews. Times staff writer Dong-Phuong Nguyen and researchers John Martin and Caryn Baird also contributed.

UPDATE:  The Florida Supreme Court granted Michael Mordenti a new trial, which was conducted in August, 2005.  Mordenti was again found guilty.  He was sentenced to life in prison with parole eligibility after 25 years and credit for the 14 years he had already served.  He was released from prison in July, 2008.


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