NEW PORT RICHEY — John Ditullio found a sense of belonging and family when he joined up with a group of militant neo-Nazis in the early spring of 2006.
"When I first met them," he said in a Pasco County courtroom Thursday, "I was entranced by the glamor and theatrics of the brotherhood."
But along with the camaraderie, his low position as a recruit came with menial tasks like guard duty and recycling the group's beer cans. Sometimes the members slipped drugs in his drinks to test his mettle, he said.
Ditullio, 23, took the stand in a high-profile murder trial that could send him to death row if convicted. His testimony — calm and unwavering — bolstered the defense's contention that it was another member of the Teak Street American Nazis who broke into the home of the group's neighbor wearing a gas mask and stabbed two people, killing one of them, in a hate-fueled rampage. Patricia Wells, now 48, suffered multiple stab wounds to her face and arms but recovered. Kristofer King, who was 17, died.
Key to the defense's case is the clothing the stabber wore. Ditullio and other witnesses put him in red and black, his standard uniform. The stabber, according to Wells, wore a white T-shirt and khaki pants.
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On March 22, 2006, Ditullio said, he spent hours doing yard work at the neo-Nazi compound, a single-wide mobile home in the Griffin Park area of New Port Richey. That evening, he and the other members cranked up their white supremacist music and began drinking whiskey. Ditullio was still charged with keeping watch at the fence, making sure no one came in. He was in and out.
Once when he came back inside, he said, he picked up his drink and tasted the familiar bitterness of Xanax, a powerful tranquilizer. He began to feel wasted and tired.
The members taunted him to stay awake, and he staggered back outside. There, he said, he saw group member Shawn Plott fumbling with the gate to get back inside.
"The expression on Shawn's face was he had seen a ghost. He was shaking. He wasn't there," Ditullio said.
Back in the house, Plott paced around and carried out a bundle Ditullio described as like a rolled-up sweatshirt with stuff inside it.
Another member told him something was going down.
" 'Everything you need is right here,' and (he) points at some guns," Ditullio said he was told as he fell deeper into a haze.
Plott reappeared briefly, he said, tossed a gas mask at Ditullio and took off.
Then, Ditullio said, he was alone. He didn't know what had happened next door.
His next memory was awakening to a SWAT team barging into the house, guns aimed at his face.
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Sometime during the night, though, he wrote a letter to the brothers who had abandoned him. It was one of several that prosecutors held up to jurors as evidence of Ditullio's guilt.
Ditullio admitted writing them all. In the one penned during the overnight standoff, he called the police outside "pigs" and said he was ready to die for his race.
"I was real upset. I was angry and scared," Ditullio told jurors Thursday, acknowledging that he recognized the beliefs conveyed in the writing as his own but doesn't remember writing the letter.
In another written from jail, he wrote to his father, saying it was "high time I stand up and face the music."
"All this is my fault," he wrote. "These are my actions."
He told jurors the letter referenced his relationship with his father and the lessons he had taught Ditullio. Among them, he said, was "you are the company you keep."
"My actions were hanging out with people who had done something like this," Ditullio explained in court. "That's what I'm trying to say was my fault."
Perhaps most damaging was a letter he sent one Christmas after the killings to Guy King, the father of Kristofer King.
From jail, Ditullio wrote, "I hope your Christmas is full of memories of your dead gay son. Merry f------ Christmas."
In his only display of remorse, Ditullio said he regretted sending it.
"Every time I hear it read, it hurts me," he said.
His reason for sending it: He had received a newspaper story in jail in which King's family was quoted as saying they hoped the wrath of God was visited on Ditullio.
"I was just trying to strike back, man," he said. "I couldn't believe they thought I did this."
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Prosecutor Mike Halkitis said Ditullio attacked Wells because she had a black friend who visited often and because her son and King were open about their homosexuality. Ditullio and the other neo-Nazis harassed and shouted slurs at them for weeks before the stabbings.
Neighbor Katrina Nielson was familiar with the area's tensions, and with the men who flew Nazi flags.
The night of the stabbings, Nielson testified Thursday, she awoke to Wells' screams and walked outside to see people scattering from the compound.
Ditullio, wearing a red T-shirt and black pants with untied boots, headed one way, she said. Plott, who is now a fugitive, took off in the opposite direction. He was wearing a white T-shirt, Nielson said.
The next day, after the sheriff's SWAT team descended on the compound, Ditullio was led away in handcuffs. He wore a red T-shirt and black pants.
The trial is expected to conclude today.
Molly Moorhead can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6245.