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LOCKPORT – Timothy C. DePetris, the Niagara Falls businessman who allegedly shot his brother-in-law and then tried to hire a hitman to kill the same man and a witness, rejected a plea offer today that still would have left him facing a potential life sentence.

Also today, Niagara County Judge Sara Sheldon Farkas refused a prosecution request to try the shooting charges and the hitman charges together. She also turned down a defense effort to lift a gag order barring attorneys in the case from talking to reporters, and rejected the defense’s request that DePetris’ isolation status in the County Jail be modified.

DePetris, 44, is to be tried Jan. 6 in regard to the March 26 shooting of Sandro Viola. That’s a postponement from Nov. 18. No date has been set for a trial on the second indictment, accusing DePetris of trying to make contact with a hitman from jail to kill Viola and another witness in the case, Michael Craig.

Craig was driving the pickup truck in which DePetris, a handgun, an automatic rifle and 16 magazines of ammunition were found on March 30. Now-retired Niagara Falls Detective Patrick Stack testified Wednesday that he pulled the truck over on Pierce Avenue after seeing a woman run out of a house after the truck stopped abruptly and seemingly hand the driver something.

Viola, 56, is the owner of a Niagara Falls company, Integrated Controls, which bought machinery from DePetris’ company, Electro-Dyne Choke Corp. DePetris purportedly thought he had been underpaid in the deal and is accused of shooting Viola at the latter’s office.

Today, Deputy District Attorney Doreen M. Hoffmann disclosed in court that DePetris had been offered a chance to plead guilty to one count of attempted second-degree murder to settle both indictments, and said that Farkas in private had expressed a willingness to give him the minimum sentence of 20 years to life in prison.

“Not interested,” defense attorney E. Earl Key said, and DePetris said, “Yes, Your Honor,” when the judge asked if that was his position on the plea deal.

Hoffmann said the U.S. Attorney’s Office has expressed an interest in bringing federal charges against DePetris, but an assistant U.S. attorney told her that if DePetris pleaded guilty in Niagara County, federal prosecutors would seek concurrent sentencing for any federal crimes DePetris might be convicted of.

Key argued that the two Niagara County indictments need to be tried separately, although Hoffmann sought a single trial on the grounds that the point of all of DePetris’ activities was the desire to kill Viola.

“Just because there’s a lapse in time doesn’t mean the crime ended,” Hoffmann said.

Key said a combined trial would tie his hands on trial strategy, because he wants DePetris to testify in the hitman case but not in the shooting case, and Farkas agreed.

“He has to be able to testify about his relationship with the jailhouse informant,” Key said, accusing the latter of “manipulating” DePetris in the alleged effort to hire a hitman.

Handwriting samples have been taken from DePetris in an effort to prove he wrote letters and drew maps directing the purported hitman to Viola. Key intends to challenge a prosecution claim that the handwriting matches.

Key said the gag order also is hurting DePetris’ hope of a fair trial. “What’s being printed so far is going totally against my client,” Key said, but he has no chance to counteract it with interviews.

Farkas rejected Key’s request without comment. She also refused to change her isolation order for DePetris’ jail housing despite Key’s complaints that it was interfering with his communications with DePetris and the defendant’s access to the jail law library.

Farkas agreed with Hoffmann that cutting off DePetris’ access to writing materials and the phone was justified because he allegedly used those to try to hire a hitman.

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com