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Serial jailhouse informant Paul Skalnik has deep local history

From the archives: The Tampa Bay Times has covered Paul Skalnik, the subject of ProPublica and New York Times story, since 1987.
Paul Skalnik in a 1987 Pinellas County Sheriff's Office booking mug. He played a pivotal rule in the death row sentences of multiple inmates.
Paul Skalnik in a 1987 Pinellas County Sheriff's Office booking mug. He played a pivotal rule in the death row sentences of multiple inmates.
Published Dec. 7, 2019

Editor’s note: Paul Skalnik may be one of the most prolific jailhouse informants in U.S. history, as reported by Pamela Colloff of ProPublica and the New York Times last week. The story details how Skalnik has testified time after time that inmates confessed to him. He’s also a notorious con man. His testimony helped to send James Dailey to death row for the 1985 murder of 14-year-old Shelly Boggio, a sentence that has been stayed until Dec. 30. The first story below by former Times reporter Pat Meisol was published on September 13, 1987. The second published weeks later on Oct. 21, 1987, after Skalnik was released and disappeared.

By PAT MEISOL

CLEARWATER - Meet Paul Skalnik, private eye. After a stint with the Austin, Texas, police department, he left for Florida to make his fortune. That was 14 years ago. Since then, he’s made tens of thousands of dollars - some of it illegally - and ended up in jail. But he says he never stopped being a cop, and in the intervening years, he has become as good at charming juries as he is at conning old ladies.

Skalnik, 38, has spent nearly 1,000 days in the Pinellas County Jail, and in that time he has helped convict more bad guys than some street cops expect to in a lifetime. At least, that's what Skalnik claims.

Skalnik says other inmates confess their crimes to him. During a two-year stay in jail, he estimated that he gathered evidence for prosecutors in 33 cases. Most of the defendants pleaded guilty.

His specialty is first-degree murder. In the past seven months - his second lengthy stay in jail - Skalnik has obtained incriminating statements in four first-degree murder cases, bringing his total to eight since 1983. He takes credit for sending four people to Florida's death row.

Some defendants say they have never seen his face. But they know his name.

Snitch. THE Snitch.

A lot of people would like to kill him.

Through his attorney, Skalnik declined a request for an interview.

But according to his sworn testimony, he snitches because he's still a cop at heart - he says he can't bear to hear all those murderers joking about beating the system.

"I don't see how a man can smile and be happy with the crimes that he has committed," he said. "It hurts me to know what they're doing and that they think there is a chance that they can walk."

In high school, Skalnik was a member of the thespian club. And there are some people who say he's put on an act ever since.

"Amazing, isn't it, that people come right up to his cell to confess to him?" asked Hank Andringa, who represented James M. Dailey, the last person Skalnik helped put on death row. "He tells a story well."

James Dailey appears in a Pinellas County courtroom in 1993 in the murder of Shelly Boggio. The 14-year-old Kenneth City girl was beaten, choked, stabbed 31 times and then held underwater until she drowned in 1985. Dailey's execution has been delayed because of doubts about witness testimony. [SCOTT KEELER | Scott Keeler]

"Con-man extraordinaire" police wrote on the arrest warrant in Skalnik's current case.

About his own life, Skalnik likes to boast and fudge.

In a letter to a judge in 1983, he described himself as an only, adopted child who grew up to run the high school chapter of Future Business Leaders of America, and garner congressional appointments to the U.S. Merchant Marine and Coast Guard academies.

In sworn testimony, he said he has less than a year to go toward a degree at the University of Texas. Officials there say he attended a year and a half. As for his military career, he attended a New Mexico military institute for two years, but dropped out of the Marines' officer candidate school after a month, police in Austin say.

But the main thing he likes to boast about, and the thing that kept him out of the state prison system all these years, is his career as a police officer.

He did graduate in the top of his police academy class.

And the part about leaving to make more money is undoubtedly true.

In his 1973 letter of resignation, Skalnik apologized for any embarrassment he may have caused when creditors came knocking at the police station doors.

But his patrol duty lasted 14 months, not two or three years, and the commendations Skalnik brags about amounted to the usual five or six letters from citizens. The rest of the letters in Skalnik's file, according to Austin Lt. Roger Napier, are from people wanting to know about bounced checks.

According to Napier, the police chief at the time habitually called officers with problems into the office and allowed them to resign.

After he left the police force, Skalnik worked as a private eye and, police say, a con artist. During this time, according to his own statements, he dined in the finest restaurants, stayed at the best hotels, took limousines all over New York City, and neglected to charge his clients enough to pay the bills.

Once, he dressed up in a fine suit, proposed to a 29-year-old Largo woman with a fake diamond ring and borrowed $3,500 from her to open a new law office. When he disappeared, she called police. It turned out that he already had a wife and wasn't a lawyer.

Another time, he got $4,900 from a woman to open a travel agency.

Twice he convinced people to give him thousands of dollars to buy them cars - a Mercedes and a Winnebago - for which they never got the title.

Many are wowed by his charm.

"He seemed to be, you know, so polite and so nice, and he treated me like I was his mother," said Viola Giannovinni. After Mrs. Giannovinni's husband died, Skalnik started coming around for breakfast with his infant daughter. Before long, she gave him $35,000 to purchase two cars for her daughters.

When the cars were repossessed, she called police. She is one of the victims in what prosecutors say is Skalnik's latest misdeed.

Exactly when Skalnik became a snitch is unclear.

But the first accused murderer to confess to him was Kenneth Gardner, convicted in late 1983 in the stabbing of an elderly Clearwater hardware store owner.

The cell had two bunks, and Gardner moved in with Skalnik. In July 1983, he supposedly told Skalnik, "I killed him, but they'll never prove it."

This critical line was not included on a tape recording Skalnik made of his notes on Gardner, and the notes were lost or destroyed, depending on who is talking. Gardner spent three years on death row before his conviction was overturned. He later pleaded guilty and was resentenced to life in 1986.

Next to move into Skalnik's cell was Richard Cooper, the masked trigger man in the execution of three men who begged for mercy at a High Point house in 1982.

"I asked him what he was in for. After that, it was nonstop. And Cooper never shut up," Skalnik said at the time. Cooper went on to death row, along with co-defendant Jason Walton.

There was Freddie Gaines, convicted and sentenced to life in the pocketknife stabbing of his girlfriend's former lover. Skalnik dabbed at his eyes during his testimony in this case, but Gaines got life.

And then there was Dailey, one of two men accused of stabbing seventh-grader Shelly Boggio 31 times and then drowning her. It was one of Pinellas County's cruelest murders, and there was little evidence.

According to Skalnik, Dailey called him over to his cell and told him: "No matter how many times I stabbed her, she wouldn't shut up."

When he was condemned to death Aug. 7, Dailey was ashen-faced. He said he had never met Skalnik and was shocked that such a man could testify against him. He warned that Skalnik would face the wrath of God.

What does he get out of it? So far, nothing. In fact, says one former prosecutor, Skalnik may have spent more time in jail because of his work as an informant. (For safety reasons, he was allowed to serve part of his five-year prison term for grand theft in the county jail; in the process, he lost time off his sentence for good behavior.) "I defy anyone to say that Paul Skalnik got a deal," said former prosecutor Bruce Young, who used him as a witness in the High Point murder cases.

Over the years, prosecutors have denied planting Skalnik in cells with accused murderers or telling him what to say on the witness stand. They, too, had their doubts about Skalnik. But then, "he answered questions (about the facts of cases) that nobody knew but me and the detective," said Young, now in private practice.

Others who know Skalnik find his feats entirely plausible.

"Paul is a charming, pleasant, highly intelligent young man who sometimes seems to get a charge out of seeing what he can get away with," said St. Petersburg lawyer Robert Pope, who represented Skalnik on his 1983 charges.

"There are so many people sitting in jail who would like to spill their guts to someone like Paul. He's an easy listener. He doesn't make judgments.

"The details he gets from these people are uncanny."

So is his timing.

In the past seven months, as Skalnik sat in the Pinellas County Jail awaiting trial on more grand theft charges that could send him to jail for a decade, he has testified against Dailey and gathered evidence in three upcoming murder cases:

- James E. Clifford, accused of murdering a pregnant St. Petersburg woman, stuffing her body into his car trunk and driving to Georgia, where hitchhikers reported him to police.

- Willie Zene Moore, accused of shooting a close friend in St. Petersburg.

- David J. McPartland, accused of stabbing and beating an acquaintance and throwing him into Tampa Bay to drown.

"It's just too much of a coincidence," said Frank Louderback, who represented the first defendant that Skalnik helped send to death row. "It's unusual, don't you think, that he finds out who's charged with first-degree murder?"

McPartland is among a number of accused murderers who are demanding to take lie-detector tests they say will prove Skalnik never spoke with them.

"I don't even know what he looks like, much less talk to him," McPartland said.

On Aug. 12, a week before prosecutors listed Skalnik as a witness in his eighth first-degree murder case since 1983, Skalnik was released from jail for his own safety. Delighted corrections officers helped him pack.

It was Skalnik's testimony in the Dailey case, his fifth capital case, that led to cries of perjury and increased the already abundant death threats against him. "We don't take them seriously," said Charles Felton, director of the Pinellas jail.

What happened was this: The would-be snitch in the Dailey case, inmate Gary Dolan, was replaced at the last minute by Skalnik.

Dolan got his deal with prosecutors anyway. But he accused Skalnik of stealing his material and called for an investigation of perjury in capital cases.

"I'm in here for robbery, and I'm no saint by any means. But Skalnik is the most devious, underhanded, low-life person I've ever met in my life," said Dolan, whose numerous letters to U.S. Attorney Robert W. Merkle, judges, prosecutors and federal officials prompted a visit from the FBI.

"You can't tell me that (prosecutors and detectives) are naive or unprofessional enough to believe that one inmate in isolation could gain access to 40 people's confessions," Dolan said.

"I've been here 18 months, and I could probably testify against two ... three people at the most."

Is Skalnik believable? Stay tuned.

In coming weeks, Pinellas prosecutors are expected to go to court in an attempt to persuade a jury that the star witness in some of the county's most infamous murder cases is, in fact, a con artist who preys on vulnerable women. He has pleaded not guilty to three counts of grand theft.

Already, there is evidence that the state is beginning to tire of Skalnik.

“If there is any way to prosecute this case without Mr. Skalnik, the state will do so,” Assistant State Attorney Glen Martin said at recent hearing in the Clifford murder case - No. 7 on Skalnik’s list. “We are trying to develop new information.”

***

Oct. 21, 1987

By PAT MEISOL

CLEARWATER - Paul E. Skalnik, con man extraordinaire, apparently has done it again. Two months after he was released from jail by convincing a judge that his life was in danger, Skalnik is nowhere to be found. This time, he has left prosecutors without their key witness in three murder cases and a Palm Harbor woman without her groom. And a rental car company is still looking for a 1988 Lincoln.

A warrant for Skalnik’s arrest was issued last week after he didn’t show up at a scheduled appointment with probation officials. He is scheduled for trial on grand theft charges next week.

An ex-cop, Skalnik has spent most of the last few years in the Pinellas County Jail, usually on theft or fraud charges. Most recently, he was in jail on charges that he took $35,000 from a St. Petersburg widow for two cars that were repossessed.

But Skalnik says he has never really given up being a cop. While he is in jail, Skalnik claims, he gets other inmates to confess their crimes to him, and then he testifies against them during trial. In fact, Skalnik is known to other inmates around the Pinellas County Jail as “the snitch.”

His credibility as a witness has been called into question both by the defendants, who said they never met him, and by defense lawyers, who point out that Skalnik obtained much of his evidence while kept in isolation for safety reasons.

During his most recent time in jail, Skalnik says, he extracted confessions from four inmates charged with first-degree murder, bringing his total to eight since 1983.

His decision to testify for the state led to numerous threats on his life, and as a result, Skalnik was released from the county jail in early August.

But now it’s not just other inmates who would like to get their hands on Skalnik. Police, a bride-to-be and Budget rental cars are looking for him, too.

He was to be married last Saturday at a Palm Harbor church, but the wedding and a reception for 350 guests at the Innisbrook Resort & Golf Club was canceled two weeks ago because the bride could not find him, Innisbrook officials said.

According to Innisbrook officials and the owner of a Countryside bridal gown shop, Skalnik used personal checks to make deposits on arrangements for the wedding. They said their records have been subpoenaed by Pinellas prosecutors.

Bruce Moss, vice president of hotel operations at Innisbrook, said he had planned to secure full payment from Skalnik before ordering food or reserving 50 rooms for out-of-town guests after reading an article about Skalnik’s career as a con artist in the Times on Sept. 13.

As a result, Moss said, Innisbrook lost no money on the wedding, which was canceled after the woman Skalnik was to marry called to say she did not know where he was. “He was never to be found,” Moss said.

Last Wednesday, the bride-to-be also called the Village Bridal Gallery to cancel her bridesmaids’ gowns, said a woman who identified herself as the owner but who declined to give her name. “It appears that this poor gal has been taken in,” the owner said.

(If so, she is not the first. Several years ago, Skalnik proposed to a 29-year-old Largo woman with a fake diamond ring and conned her out of $3,500. He was arrested when she reported him missing, and police discovered that he already had a wife.) Meanwhile, a $25,000 Lincoln Town Car rented by Skalnik’s fiancee and listing a man fitting Skalnik’s description as the second driver has been reported stolen, the owner of the car rental company said.

Skalnik was on a “do-not-rent” list for Budget Car and Truck Rentals, according to local franchise owner Bob Greenwald. But he slipped by because he used the name J.P. Bourne, according to another company official.

The official, Eileen Wise, said Skalnik’s fiancee told Budget employees that Skalnik could not return the car because he was working undercover for the FBI. Ms. Wise said the woman called the rental agency every day asking whether the car had been returned.

The fiancee has an unlisted number and could not be reached for comment. Clearwater police, meanwhile, said they have been unable to contact her about the missing car.

Skalnik is still scheduled for trial next week on charges of grand theft in connection with conning the St. Petersburg widow. Despite the state’s decision to use Skalnik as a witness in three murder cases, prosecutors have so far refused to bargain with him. He faces a decade-long sentence if convicted.

Skalnik’s lawyer, Otto Halboth, acknowledged Tuesday that Skalnik had not kept a scheduled appointment, but he expressed surprise that a warrant had been issued.

“As far as I know, I am preparing to go to trial next week,” Halboth said.

He was appointed to represent Skalnik after the 38-year-old convicted thief and professional snitch swore to a judge that he couldn’t afford a lawyer on his own.

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