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Inmate nearly freed despite threats to kill family

Last year, Joseph Bilotta pleaded guilty to horrific crimes against his family.

Over and over, he hit his wife and four children with a metal baseball bat and a knife. He locked his wife in a closet, broke her arms and legs, shot tear gas into one child's eyes, sexually abused his children, and forced them all to buy cocaine for him.

In April 1995, a Fort Lauderdale judge sentenced Bilotta to prison for 36 felony counts including kidnapping and child abuse.

Ten days ago, the Florida Parole Commission voted 2-1 to set Bilotta free.

Despite a file thick with official letters warning that Bilotta has repeatedly threatened to kill his family if he gets out of prison, the Parole Commission voted July 10 to give Bilotta a medical release. A state prosecutor said Bilotta, 47, has AIDS. Under Florida law, terminally ill inmates can seek a "conditional medical release."

If the paperwork had been finished, Bilotta would be free now. But a frantic call last week from Bilotta's wife sent officials scrambling, and now the three-member Parole Commission is reconsidering his case.

"When I heard about this thing, I went bananas," said Woody King, a police officer in Margate, the Broward County community where Bilotta was arrested. "There's no reason to put his family through this after the terror they've been in."

The commission has postponed Bilotta's release from a north Florida prison for 60 days while it looks at what two members say is "new information."

But a review of Bilotta's file shows that the Parole Commission was notified about the threat Bilotta posed to his family as far back as December 1995.

"Please do not make the mistake of releasing him," wrote Maria Schneider, a Broward County assistant state attorney, in a Dec. 4 letter to the commission.

"The fact that he may not have long to live actually makes him all the more dangerous because he has nothing to lose."

Schneider told the parole board that Bilotta "remains an extremely vindictive man. He has recently threatened the safety of his family through a recently released prison inmate. While ill, the Defendant never hesitated to victimize his wife and children both physically and mentally. Every threat he ever made he carried out."

The Parole Commission answered Schneider's letter promptly, assuring her the information would go into the file "to be available to the Commission in the event they receive a recommendation for a conditional medical release."

Another letter, sent by a state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services counselor two months ago, warns that Bilotta "has sent messages through others to let his family know that if he gets out, he will "finish them off.' "

Broward County Assistant State Attorney Dennis Siegel warned parole commissioners that releasing Bilotta would be a "callous disregard for the safety, security and well-being of his family."

Nevertheless, two parole commissioners, Judith A. Wolson and Maurice G. Crockett, voted to set Bilotta free.

Wolson was out of town and could not be reached. Crockett said he couldn't talk accurately about the case because he didn't have the file available, but said: "The recommendation was from the medical staff of the Department of Corrections that he met the statutory standards for medical release."

The third commissioner, Edward M. Spooner, voted against the release.

"I didn't feel like he was a good risk," said Spooner, a former law enforcement officer.

The Department of Corrections did recommend the medical release. But when told about the threats Bilotta had made against his family, the doctor changed her recommendation, DOC documents show.

"It is entirely feasible that if he were near, he could harm them," said a memo written two days after the vote to release Bilotta. "Had (the doctor) known that he had made threats to the family, she would not have recommended" release.

Information about Bilotta's current medical condition was unavailable. The DOC would not release his medical records, citing state privacy laws.

Transcripts from the sentencing last year in Fort Lauderdale show that when he sentenced Bilotta to just 15 years, Circuit Judge Charles M. Greene thought he was giving Bilotta what amounted to a life sentence, because Bilotta has AIDS.

"It has been represented to this court that you . . . will never walk out of prison," the judge said. "You need to be more than just punished. The facts of this case are outrageous. No child, no spouse should ever, if there is a God, have to be subjected to the offenses that you have just pled guilty to."

The Parole Commission will address Bilotta's case at a meeting in Tallahassee on Wednesday.

Margate police Detective Stan Hart, who investigated the Bilotta case, is one of many who will be there to testify.

"I just can't understand it," Hart said.

"Why would you release someone who has nothing to lose? Somebody who could take his life and the lives of his family? You read about this stuff after the fact. Here, we have a chance to prevent it."

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