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Gulf High teacher convicted in 1999 stabbing attack

(ran PW, PS editions)

He committed second-degree attempted murder when he stabbed his estranged wife's boyfriend, a jury decides.

A jury late Thursday found a former Gulf High School special-education teacher guilty of attempted second-degree murder for stabbing his estranged wife's boyfriend.

Circuit Judge Stanley Mills ordered Philip Pignataro, 32, remanded into custody pending a sentencing hearing. A date for the hearing has not been set. Pignataro faces up to 15 years in prison, said Assistant State Attorney Scott Andringa.

After deliberating for one and a half hours, the jury found Pignataro innocent of the more serious charge of attempted first-degree murder, and also acquitted him of violating a domestic-violence injunction.

The stabbing occurred on Dec. 26, 1999, after Pignataro dropped off his two young sons at the New Port Richey home of his estranged wife, Ara Rutledge.

But prosecutors said there were earlier signs that Pignataro was planning to do something violent to Robert Clark, who started dating Rutledge several months before the stabbing. On Christmas Eve 1999, Clark testified, Pignataro called him and said: "Hope you enjoy living my life for me. Enjoy it while you can. You won't live to see the new millennium."

Pignataro did not dispute that he stabbed Clark, but he testified Thursday that he was acting in self defense. He said he feared for his life when the much larger Clark threatened to kill him and pinned him against Pignataro's pickup truck.

"The only thing I could do to get him off me was to get my knife," Pignataro testified.

Clark was stabbed in the stomach and spent four days in the hospital. He was in the courtroom for the verdict and left without speaking to reporters.

Pignataro handed his valuables to his attorney, Keith Hammond, then turned to his supporters in the audience _ including several former students _ and said "Don't worry."

The school district suspended Pignataro without pay shortly after his arrest. School officials will decide whether to fire Pignataro.