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DeSantis to let Miami murderer serve sentence in Italy. Prosecutors object.

Such transfers are uncommon but allowed under treaties between the United States and most European countries. A governor’s spokeswoman said the transfer was approved following the Italian government’s assurance that Forti will serve the remainder of his prison sentence in Italy.
Enrico Forti
Enrico Forti [ Florida Corrections ]
Published Dec. 29, 2020
Updated Dec. 29, 2020

Two decades ago, a Miami jury convicted Italian filmmaker Enrico Forti of murdering an Australian man whose bullet-ridden body was discovered in the sands of Virginia Key.

Forti’s claim of innocence has become a cause célèbre in Italy, even as he serves a life prison sentence in Florida and state courts have consistently rejected his appeals on the conviction for the 1998 murder of Anthony “Dale” Pike.

But Forti, 61, may soon be back in his native country after Gov. Ron DeSantis, at the request of the U.S. Department of Justice and the Italian government, “conditionally approved” his transfer of custody to Italy — a move fiercely opposed by the Miami-Dade prosecutors who convicted him.

Such transfers are uncommon but allowed under treaties between the United States and most European countries. A governor’s spokeswoman said the transfer was approved “following the Italian government’s assurance that Mr. Forti will serve the entire remainder of his Florida prison sentence in Italy.”

Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, in a statement, said she was “disappointed with the administration’s decision” to send Enrico Forti back to Italy.

“Due to the strength of the evidence against Forti, 12 jurors rejected his many self-serving fabrications intended to cast suspicion upon anyone but himself for Dale Pike’s murder,” the statement said. “Forti’s many criminal court appeals appear to have failed for similar reasons.”

The transfer was made public late last week when Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio announced the news in a Facebook post. Forti’s conviction for murder remains intact.

Forti’s case is not widely known in the United States, but journalists in Italy have long championed him as an example of American justice gone awry, even likening it to the notorious case of American Amanda Knox, who was imprisoned for murder in Italy and ultimately freed.

The Pike murder wasn’t the first time Forti made headlines in South Florida.

A connection to the Versace Murder

When spree killer Andrew Cunanan was found dead aboard a Miami Beach houseboat in 1997, Forti presented papers showing he was the boat’s latest owner. Forti claimed exclusive film rights until 2000, and made thousands renting the boat to tabloid TV shows eager to show the final hiding place of Cunanan, who murdered fashion icon Gianni Versace.

Forti’s own movie was never filmed there: The boat sank just before Pike’s murder.

Police and prosecutors said Forti killed Pike, an Australian whose father owned a resort on the Spanish island Ibiza. Dale Pike flew to Miami in February 1998, after he intercepted a fax where his father appeared to have signed his exclusive resort over to Forti.

Pike flew to Miami International Airport determined to get to the bottom of what had happened. Forti offered to pick him up from MIA so they could talk it over. Pike was later found facedown in an area known as Sewer Beach. He had been shot to death on his son’s third birthday.

At the trial in 2000, state prosecutors presented jurors with evidence showing Forti was trying to dupe the elder Pike, who suffered from dementia, out of his riches. They also presented cellphone records showing Forti was near the beach, a popular windsurfing spot, the evening Pike was killed.

Forti, in an initial interview with Miami homicide detectives, denied that he’d picked up Pike from the airport.

As proof Forti was at the scene, prosecutors showed jurors a small sample of sand found in the suspect’s Land Rover — sand unique to that strip of Virginia Key.

But defense lawyers countered that Forti, who had produced films on windsurfing and other extreme sports for ESPN, was being framed when the body was dumped at the popular windsurfing spot. They pointed out that there were no witnesses to the murder, nor forensic evidence such as fingerprints or DNA tying Forti to the killing.

Was there another motive?

His attorneys have always insisted that the true mastermind was a man named Thomas Knott, a German self-described tennis pro and Forti’s neighbor on Williams Island. Prosecutors said Knott had an alibi for the night of the murder.

Days after Pike’s murder, Forti and Knott were both charged with exploitation and fraud for allegedly swindling the elderly man.

In an interview with CBS’ “48 Hours” aired last year, Forti acknowledged picking up Pike but insisted that he dropped him off at the Rusty Pelican, a restaurant near the beach. Forti said that Pike got into a waiting Lexus with an unknown man.

“The guy inside the car that was waiting for him was an elegant person with a white shirt — gold chain, gold watch,” Forti said in the interview.

Forti, for now, remains imprisoned at the South Florida Reception Center, a state prison facility in Miami-Dade County. When he will return to Italy is unclear.

“As the only possible voice for this victim of a fraud, which then turned into a murder, I hope that justice is truly served and that the Italian government will fulfill their promise to the administration that Forti will serve the entirety of his remaining Florida prison sentence,” Fernandez Rundle said.

Forti’s defense lawyer did not return requests for comment.

The Florida Department of Corrections “will continue to work with federal authorities during the transfer process, which can take some time,” the agency said in a statement on Monday.

The U.S. Department of Justice — which approached Florida about the transfer after a request from Italy — must issue a “final approval,” according to the governor’s office. The DOJ’s press office did not return a request for comment from the Herald on Monday.

According to a statement by the governor’s office, Forti will only be returned to Italy “upon confirmation that the victim’s next of kin does not object to the transfer.” The statement did not say if the governor’s office had yet reached out to Pike’s surviving relatives.

“Neither Mr. Forti (Italian) nor the victim (Australian) were American citizens, and both Italy and Australia support the transfer,” governor’s spokeswoman Meredith Beatrice said in the statement.

The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office did not know of the governor’s decision until Monday. Italian media reported on the foreign minister’s announcement about Forti.

Negotiating the transfer

State prosecutors did not deal with the governor’s office on the transfer request. Instead, prosecutors laid out the history of the case, and their evidence, during a 90-minute-plus conference call with a DOJ lawyer in June, according to emails obtained by the Herald.

“We were advised that the Italian ambassador made a request directly to the attorney general and were told there is ‘lots of pressure’ being placed upon them,” Assistant State Attorney Christine Zahralban, the head of the legal bureau, wrote in an email to colleagues on June 16.

Zahralban added: “I strongly expressed the position of the [State Attorney] and leadership team against this transfer.”

Whether Forti actually remains in prison in Italy remains to be seen. His transfer is being processed under DOJ’s International Prisoner Transfer Program, which began in the late 1970s.

Even though tens of thousands of foreign convicts are eligible for the program, only a handful are actually transferred overseas — in 2013, for example, just 245 inmates convicted in the federal justice system were moved.

It’s even more complicated for inmates who are convicted of state crimes like Forti because state authorities must approve of the transfers, said Washington, D.C., lawyer Sylvia Royce, who headed the DOJ program in the late 1990s.

She said many state governments are wary because foreign countries’ justice systems often allow for sentences to be drastically cut short, or reduced to parole or home confinement.

“I’d be really, really surprised if he were not paroled fairly quickly upon his return,” Royce, who is not involved in the case, said of Forti.

Forti wouldn’t be the first Italian to be returned to serve out a lengthy American sentence.

Some other examples

The most prominent example is Silvia Baraldini, a left-wing activist who was returned to Italy in 1999 to complete the remaining 23 years of a 40-year federal sentence originally meted out in New York. She was convicted of taking part in a series of robberies and attempted robberies, including the holdup of an armored truck that led to the killing of a guard and two police officers.

But two years after her return, Baraldini was allowed out on house arrest. She was later granted amnesty.

Forti also wouldn’t be the first convicted Miami murderer to be released from state prison to another country.

In 1988, then-Gov. Bob Martinez allowed William Shapiro to return to Israel to finish a life sentence for masterminding the bludgeoning murder of his business partner, Burt Dewitt. Miami-Dade prosecutors said Shapiro hired two men to fatally beat Dewitt and dump his body at sea.

Shapiro, a former U.S. Army soldier and Israeli policeman, renounced his American citizenship and was released to live on a commune known as a kibbutz. He later died of natural causes there.