Another try at justice in Pasco neo-Nazi slaying

NEW PORT RICHEY

The tattooed white supremacist accused in a stabbing that killed one person and wounded another will face his second jury this week. A panel last December deadlocked on John Ditullio's fate, voting 10-2 for acquittal. This time prosecutors have a new witness who claims Ditullio confessed to him about the March 23, 2006, attack. The defense will continue to hammer on discrepancies — clothing and build — between witness descriptions of the attacker and Ditullio. Both sides have the benefit of hindsight to fortify the weaknesses in their cases. Who will the jury believe? Here's an overview of the key players.

The suspect: John Ditullio

The 24-year-old defendant described himself on the witness stand last year as a lifelong wanderer who never fit in — the textbook personality of people who fall in with cults. With the American Nazis on Teak Street, he said, he finally found a sense of belonging. "The glamor and theatrics of the brotherhood," Ditullio called it. Life in their small mobile home had aspects of structure and ritual, but also of arbitrary hazing and menial work. Ditullio, as a recruit vying to be a full member, had to clean the yard, separate beer cans for recycling and stand guard at the property line. He said he was forced to drink cocktails laced with drugs, then taunted by the other members to stay awake. Jurors in his trial won't see the myriad tattoos covering his face and neck — including a swastika and the words "f--- you." But they're there, even though Ditullio renounced his white supremacist brethren soon after his arrest. "I will always believe in my race," he said in a 2006 interview with the Times. "It just don't make no sense to me, bro. This wasn't an Aryan movement. This was five drunk rednecks with guns."

The victims: Patricia Wells and Kristofer King

For weeks, Wells had been having trouble with the neo-Nazis who lived next door to her in Griffin Park. They chased her up her driveway and shouted slurs and threats because she had a gay son and an African-American friend who visited her house. The night of the attack, Wells testified that she was lying on her couch, dozing in front of the TV, when a man in a gas mask burst in with a knife. Fighting off his slashes, she scrambled to a back bedroom, where her son's friend Kristofer King was sitting at a computer. Wells said she never got a glimpse of her attacker's face, but when she saw a photo of Ditullio being led away in handcuffs the next day, she believed she was looking at the man who stabbed her, based on his height and build. Since the crime more than four years ago, Wells moved with her son and has kept a low profile.

King was 17 and dreamed of being a writer. He was working as a telemarketer but planned to attend Pasco-Hernando Community College. He frequently stayed at Wells' house and was good friends with her son, Brandon Wininger. Authorities have said King may have been mistaken for Wininger, who was a target of the neo-Nazis' ire for being gay, or that King was a target himself. The motivation for his killing cuts especially deep for his family, who said he accepted everyone. As Wells ran out of the house to get help, she said the last words she heard from King were, "Why are you doing this to me?"

The attorneys

Bjorn Brunvand

An in-demand private defense attorney in Clearwater, Brunvand was appointed to represent Ditullio. With his cool, confident demeanor, he didn't seek to prove anything, only to raise enough questions to undermine the state's evidence. He cast suspicion on Shawn Plott, another neo-Nazi, a tack he will drive home this time around using lifesize cardboard cutouts of Ditullio and Plott to illustrate their difference in size. He highlighted problems with the state's DNA evidence — normally a slam dunk — which was contaminated and not conclusive. Perhaps most importantly, he made a major issue of the clothing discrepancy. The stabber wore a white T-shirt and khaki pants; Ditullio had on red and black. Brunvand, through witnesses and photographs, made sure the jury didn't forget that.

Mike Halkitis

There's a reason Halkitis prosecutes virtually all of west Pasco's first-degree murder cases: He wins. In his most recent case last month, he had to convince a jury that a man who shook and beat his infant daughter — but maybe didn't intend to kill her — was still guilty of murder. The guilty verdict took less than 30 minutes. He uses stock phrases in his arguments that resonate with jurors — asking them to return guilty verdicts "in the interest of justice" and seldom calling the accused by name, instead using the less-humanizing label "this defendant." He hammers defense witnesses and has a knack for concluding cross-examinations with questions that catch them contradicting themselves. But the Ditullio jury last year came two votes shy of acquitting. Neither Halkitis nor Brunvand gave a closing argument then, a rarely seen tactic that could change this time around.

The new witness: Kraig Constantino

The new twist in the retrial, prosecutors added Constantino to the witness list just a couple of months ago. He's a frequent inmate at the county jail who has often represented himself in cases, filling volumes of court files with hand-written motions accusing judges, court reporters and attorneys of committing fraud and falsifying records. This summer, Constantino came forward claiming that Ditullio made admissions to him in jail about stabbing two people. According to the attorneys in the case, Constantino will testify that Ditullio had three or four conversations with him before last year's trial and one afterward in which he admitted to the stabbings; Ditullio, Constantino claims, said he stabbed Wells because she was dating an African-American man and they sold crack cocaine; and Ditullio said he turned the knife on King when he came to Wells' aid. Constantino, 40, has his own pending aggravated battery charge and was in jail until he made the deal with prosecutors agreeing to testify against Ditullio in exchange for being let out.

The missing person: Shawn Plott

The most important witness who won't testify in the trial is Plott. He was a member of the neo-Nazi clan in 2006 and the person Brunvand says is the more likely killer. His evidence: Wells testified that her attacker wore a white T-shirt and khaki pants. Other witnesses said Ditullio had on a red T-shirt and black pants that day, and the next morning when he was being led away in handcuffs. Wells also told her friend Ron James that her attacker was "a lot shorter than you, Ron." James, according to Brunvand, is the same height as Ditullio — 6 feet 1. Plott is listed in jail records as 5 feet 8. Plott, now 38, absconded from probation three years ago and hasn't been seen since.

Molly Moorhead can be reached at moorhead@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6245.

Another try at justice in Pasco neo-Nazi slaying 12/04/10 [Last modified: Saturday, December 4, 2010 2:12pm]

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