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THE SELLING OF "DEADLY DEIDRE'

Published May 4, 1996|Updated Sep. 16, 2005

A flashlight shines in Deidre Hunt's brown eyes and the camera rolls.

"Okay," a man's deep voice calls from behind the lens.

Hunt pulls out a gun. She points it at the teenager's chest. She fires three times.

The kid, his hands tied behind him to a tree, moans. He raises one leg, then collapses forward. "God," he cries.

Hunt steps closer. She grabs a handful of hair, pulls up his head, and presses the gun to his left temple. She fires.

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That 57-seconds of film, shot by Hunt's lover, memorialized their dark night in the woods.

Police could not have wished for more damning evidence. The videotape, which they found in her lover's home, sent Deidre Hunt to death row.

A second videotape would get her off.

This one was a professional. Put together by reporters and a lawyer, some would come to view it as the sleaziest possible intersection of both professions. It ran on tabloid TV.

Seven years after the teen slumped dead at the side of a tree, that "A Current Affair" segment is giving the woman it dubbed "Deadly Deidre" another chance to live.

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It was 4:54 a.m. and a breathless Konstantinos Fotopoulos, a Greek businessman everyone called "Kosta," was reporting a break-in at his home.

His wife, Lisa, had been shot in the head by the burglar, Kosta told Daytona Beach police officers. He had awoken to the gunshot, reached under the bed for his own gun, and shot the burglar.

Even as the sun rose that morning in November 1989, police had doubts about the story.

Why would a burglar shoot a sleeping woman, but leave her husband, in bed beside her, alone? And wasn't Lisa Fotopoulos the same woman who had recently reported an attempt on her life? Then the kids _ the runaways and drifters who hang out along Daytona Beach's grungy boardwalk of mini-golf, fudge stores and T-shirt shops _ started talking.

Within hours, police told Deidre Hunt they wanted her to come in for a chat.

A 20-year-old bartender in the pool hall Kosta owned, Hunt was petite and mousy-looking. She wore a tatoo of a butterfly on her shoulder. But her talk was tough.

For 3{ hours, police say, Hunt told a tale they found shocking, almost surreal. An affair with 30-year-old Kosta. Assassin clubs. CIA work. Murder.

According to police affidavits:

Deidre Hunt described how she and her lover had planned his wife's murder. She said she had offered several of the boardwalk kids as much as $10,000 to get rid of the woman, heiress to her family's small fortune. Some said no. Others botched their attempts.

Then came Bryan L. Chase. The 18-year-old boardwalk kid was to earn $5,000 for the hit, Hunt said.

And he tried, night after night. The first night, his car broke down. Then he couldn't get through the family home's Plexiglas windows. Then he was scared off by a neighbor's light.

The fourth night, with tools supplied by the exasperated Hunt and her lover, Chase broke in. Once he shot Lisa Fotopoulos, Kosta sat up and shot him.

That, police say, was Hunt and Fotopoulos' plan all along: To have Lisa Fotopoulos killed, then kill her killer. Chase died. Lisa survived.

But even as Lisa recovered from the bullet in her brain, Hunt said she continued to plan Lisa's murder, police affidavits say.

Hunt considered dressing up as a nurse and taking a bomb to Lisa's hospital ward. Or maybe she would send a bomb-laced bouquet of flowers. "Lisa had to die," prosecutors say Hunt told them. "She just had to die."

That was when Hunt mentioned the other death.

There was a dead teen tied to a tree in the woods, she claimed. Kosta had told the kid he was being initiated into their "Hunter and Killer Club" to lure him into the woods, she told police. Kosta wanted Hunt to prove herself capable of killing, she said.

Police weren't sure whether to believe the story. There had been no reports of a dead kid. Hunt took them to the woods.

Forty-five minutes later, they found Mark Kevin Ramsey. The 19-year-old's body had been decomposing there for three weeks. Police would find the videotape later.

Death sentence

Immediately after Hunt's arrest in November 1989, two things became clear: The case would attract media attention from all over the world. And Hunt wasn't getting along with her court-appointed lawyer.

The two problems intertwined fast.

Hunt's lawyer, Peter Niles, complained Hunt wouldn't talk to him, refused to cooperate and wanted to change her trial strategy at the last second. At one point, Niles even called reporters to find out what Hunt had told them, court records suggest.

A reporter from the Daytona Beach News-Journal dropped a note to Hunt. It began "Dear Dee" and read:

Your lawyer "called me here Friday to ask how I had gotten my interview with you. . . . In the future, he said, he wanted to sit down and talk with me about what you have told me."

Quickly, a judge declared a gag order. There had been too many re-enactments of the crimes on TV, too many interviews, too much talk.

As Hunt's trial approached, Niles asked to withdraw as her counsel. The judge refused.

Then, the day the trial was to begin, Hunt pleaded guilty _ although prosecutors say they offered no promise of leniency. Still, Hunt's sentencing would be delayed until after Kosta's trial. Hunt's testimony against her former lover might save her life, observers figured.

Then Hunt indicated that she would not testify against Kosta after all, so a judge went ahead and sentenced her to death. She became one of 10 women sentenced to death in Florida since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment 20 years ago. None has been executed.

After the sentence, Hunt changed her mind again. She testified against Kosta, who also was sentenced to death.

He went to Starke. She went to Broward Correctional Institution near Fort Lauderdale, women's death row.

Reversal of fortune

In 1991, a year after her conviction, Hunt sent handwritten requests on notebook paper asking to change her guilty plea. A new lawyer _ again appointed by the court _ began filing appeals.

Eventually, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that Hunt should get another chance to be sentenced so a judge could consider the fact that she testified against her lover. The justices wouldn't give her a new trial, though.

A new sentence was never delivered. For in 1994, the case took another bizarre turn.

That year, the state Supreme Court suspended Niles from practicing law for a year, after a Bar investigation revealed that he had been doing more than just representing his client.

Investigators found that Niles made a $5,000 deal with A Current Affair a month before Hunt's trial was to begin.

Then, after she pleaded guilty, Niles called the superintendent of her prison and said he needed to make special arrangements to interview Hunt on videotape as part of a court proceeding. He said he would be bringing along a law clerk and cameraman.

Instead, Niles arrived at the prison with a crew from A Current Affair. Hunt was told to expect to meet with representatives of the court, according to Bar hearing documents. But at the start of the taping she learned that her visitors were from A Current Affair.

Niles told her that he was getting no money for the interview, Bar records say.

The Supreme Court agreed with a hearing referee's finding that Niles lied to his client, the prison, the public "and the legal profession as a whole through a sensational and derogatory media interview."

Exchanging money for talk is dangerous _ and increasingly common, according to James Carey, who teaches ethics at Columbia University's journalism school.

"Making this a commodity turns it into one of the grosser forms of manipulation between lawyers, journalists and sources. It's as if the right to decide these things is no longer the right of judges and juries," he said. "A TV program and a lawyer say: "We can substitute.' They're cowboys, practicing a kind of free-range justice."

The Hunt case, Carey said, marks a new low.

"In this one, it's not merely a matter of sacrificing the lawyer-client privilege or the believability which people can invest in journalists, but it ran the risk of sacrificing a woman's life for $5,000."

Peter Niles' Daytona phone is disconnected. Most people think the 58-year-old has moved away. He did not return phone calls to a Stone Mountain, Ga., house where he is thought to be staying.

The graduate of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville law school has not applied for permission to practice law in Georgia. Nor has he applied for readmission to Florida's Bar.

Last year, Volusia County Circuit Judge Edwin Sanders said he had no choice but to let Hunt retract her guilty plea. He called Niles' act "so egregious a violation that it clearly establishes that defense counsel's performance was deficient and it raises a perception of prejudice resulting from that performance."

Prosecutors are infuriated.

"This is absolutely maddening," said Stephen Cotter, spokesman for the state attorney's office. "When it's based on defense misconduct, that's when the blood really starts boiling."

Since the start of 1996, a new prosecutor has been preparing full time for Hunt's new trial. County officials don't know what it will cost taxpayers.

"Peter Niles poisoned the pot by tricking the client into making confessions on national TV," said Gerard Keating, Hunt's appellate lawyer. "This makes all of us look bad."

Keating found that out for himself the first time he tried to visit his client on death row. No way, the superintendent told him. Not after what you did last time. Keating had to explain that he was new to the case.

Keating is no longer Hunt's lawyer. Hunt wrote a letter to a judge, asking that Keating, too, be removed from the case.

"I am not sure that I really trust him," Hunt wrote, "he seems somewhat interested in the media attention."

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Lisa Fotopoulos has dropped her husband and his name.

She recovered from her bullet wound, divorced her husband and took back her maiden name, Paspalakis. "She's doing great, really great," said Dino Paspalakis, her brother.

Now, though, it appears Ms. Paspalakis will be forced to dredge up grim memories to testify in Hunt's trial. "It's ridiculous," her brother said. "She is getting a new trial when the evidence is overwhelming."

But Deidre Hunt always has maintained that she was under the deadly, overwhelming influence of Kosta, her lover. Her new lawyer, Carey Haughwout, has requested new mental evaluations for her client, who is off of death row and back in a Volusia County jail. Hunt contends that Kosta battered her, held guns on her and burned her with cigarettes in order to control her mind and force her to kill.

Her trial had been set to start last month, but lawyers are still arguing one final issue before an appeals court: Can prosecutors use as evidence certain statements Hunt made, including her interview on A Current Affair?

In New York, meanwhile, the managing editor of A Current Affair seemed unaware of what a stir his program had caused.

Hunt's name sounded only vaguely familiar to Barry Levine. "I think that brings up some memories."

Yes, Levine acknowledged, the show has paid for interviews. That's standard practice, he said. Joey Buttafuoco received between $300,000 and $500,000 for a series of interviews.

"Obviously, these types of decisions aren't meant to affect justice in any way," Levine said.

A Current Affair recently changed its ways.

The New A Current Affair would make no more payments, producers declared. There would be less sensation. More investigation.

But it wasn't enough to save falling ratings. The show that spawned tabloid television nine years ago will end in September. No appeals.

_ Times Researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

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