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Man might go free for lack of witness

(ran PC edition)

If a key witness in a fatal attack does not quickly return to the United States, the only man charged in the case could go free.

A man facing life in prison if convicted in a 1999 attack will likely go free Monday, as a tangle of international laws has left the star witness in Mexico without permission to enter the country for next week's scheduled trial.

Assistant State Attorney Manny Garcia on Thursday told Circuit Judge Wayne Cobb that without their witness, prosecutors could not go forward with the trial of Ramiro Clemente, charged with battery in the commission of a burglary.

Clemente, 26, has been in a Pasco County jail since he was arrested Aug. 28 and is accused of taking part in a July 31 attack that left a man dead. Clemente was accused of knocking Humberto Morales unconscious with a pipe while a second, still unidentified man stabbed Morales' 27-year-old friend, Benjamin Salgado-Ortiz, to death.

Clemente was not accused of striking Salgado-Ortiz and was never charged with murder. Morales was hospitalized briefly but recovered from a blow on the head.

Morales, a 30-year-old Mexican citizen, told the Times after the attack that he was badly shaken by the incident and planned to quit his job pulling asbestos from old buildings and return to his Mexico City home.

"I'd rather be back in Mexico," he told a reporter. "It has scared me."

At the time, Morales told a reporter he was hesitant to talk about the attack, fearful that the suspects might retaliate.

Court records show Clemente was convicted of DUI manslaughter in a 1991 fatal wreck. Investigators said he had a blood-alcohol level of 0.14 percent Oct. 10, 1991, when he drove off State Road 39 south of Zephyrhills.

His passenger, Jorge Zamora, died in the crash.

Court records show Clemente was sentenced to 18 months in prison for that incident but was re-sentenced in 1995 to four years in prison _ with credit for time already served _ after pleading no contest to violation of probation.

In last summer's attack, investigators said, two men went to Morales' Lee Avenue home, a block north of Lock Street, looking for a woman they thought was inside. Morales told detectives Clemente hit him on the head with a metal pipe.

Morales was in this country illegally, Garcia said. The prosecutor told Cobb on Thursday that according to detectives, who have kept in touch with Morales since the attack, Morales has not received permission to re-enter this country from his government or that of the United States. The process is slow, and so far the proper paperwork has not been secured, Garcia said.

Garcia said Morales' testimony is key. Without it, the case can't be tried.

Clemente's court-appointed attorney, A.J. Ivie, filed a demand for speedy trial in April, which compels the state to bring Clemente to trial within 50 days. The clock runs out on that demand this month. With the trial scheduled for Monday, a new trial date within the alloted time is all but impossible, Garcia said.

Ivie said his client has been in jail, unable to post bail, since last summer. Holding him any longer would be unacceptable. He said detectives knew Morales was in Mexico and should have started working on returning him sooner.

Clemente, clothed in a jail-issue blue jumpsuit and wearing handcuffs, spoke quietly with Ivie Thursday afternoon before he was led from the courtroom by bailiffs. Ivie and Garcia agreed that barring Morales' unexpected return from Mexico this weekend, Clemente likely would go free on Monday.

Garcia said the investigation into Salgado-Ortiz' death is still open.