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Both sides rest in murder trial

This is the third trial for the defendant, whose ex-wife is testifying against him.

By CANDACE RONDEAUX, Times Staff Writer
Published August 13, 2005

TAMPA - She brokered the deal. She found the hitman. She collected the blood money. But Gail Milligan says she never wanted to be involved in Thelma Royston's murder, and all she knows is Michael Mordenti told her he shot Royston in the head.

Milligan, 56, has said a lot of things since her ex-husband was charged 15 years ago with murdering Royston in an Odessa horse barn. Milligan said she never dated Larry Royston, the man who paid $17,000 to have his wife killed.

Milligan's old business partner, Jack Gartley, told a different story Friday when he took the stand in Mordenti's murder trial. Although Milligan vehemently denied having an affair with Larry Royston, Gartley said he and a lady friend went on two double dates with Milligan and the slain woman's husband shortly before Royston was murdered.

"They were holding hands, hugging and kissing," Gartley said.

That was several weeks before the June 1989 murder, he said, and not long after Milligan told Gartley that she'd like to hurt Mordenti - in a big way.

"She said she'd like to have his knees broke or she'd like to have him murdered," Gartley told jurors Friday.

Hillsborough prosecutor Scott Harmon repeatedly tried to slice through Gartley's testimony, questioning the 73-year-old's memory. Unsteady on his feet as he took the witness stand, Gartley grew testy with the prosecutor during the fifth day of Mordenti's trial. But Gartley was resolute, saying he was certain Milligan had spent the night at least once with Larry Royston.

On Wednesday, Milligan testified she understood that the immunity deal prosecutors granted her for fingering her ex-husband would apply as long as she told the truth and had never had a romantic relationship with Royston's husband. When questioned by Mordenti's attorney about her connection with Larry Royston, she insisted it was platonic.

She also testified that she had approached Gartley and others about the murder-for-hire scheme before Mordenti finally agreed to do the deed. She thought Gartley, her former partner in a used car dealership, could use his old mob connections to arrange the hit.

But Gartley denied knowing anything about the mob. He said he tipped off police about Larry Royston's involvement several months after the slain woman's husband told Gartley she was "taking him to the cleaners" in a divorce and he wanted her dead.

That testimony appeared to undercut the prosecution's game plan, pointing to another weakness in a case that seemed airtight when Mordenti was first convicted for the murder. The weapon was never found, nor did investigators find the person Milligan said accompanied Mordenti the day of the murder.

In 1991, prosecutors successfully used Milligan's testimony to convince a jury that Mordenti was the killer. He was sentenced to death then, but the Florida Supreme Court ordered a new trial in December after it was revealed that prosecutors withheld crucial evidence. A new jury deadlocked during Mordenti's second trial in May.

This time prosecutors are not pursuing the death penalty. Both sides rested their cases Friday. Both sides are expected to give closing statements Monday.

Candace Rondeaux can be reached at 813 226-3337 or rondeaux@sptimes.com

[Last modified August 13, 2005, 01:21:17]


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