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LOCKPORT – Timothy C. DePetris, the Niagara Falls businessman accused of trying to murder his brother-in-law and then trying to hire a hitman to finish the job, may have been hoodwinked by a jailhouse informant and a federal agent, according to comments by attorneys in Niagara County Court on Friday.

Also, defense attorney E. Earl Key said he believes the state’s new gun control law can be used to wipe out many of the weapons charges against DePetris.

County Judge Sara Sheldon Farkas has imposed a gag order on the attorneys, but much new information was discussed in open court Friday.

DePetris, 44, is charged with the March 26 shooting of Sandro Viola, his brother-in-law, at the latter’s office. Viola, 56, is the owner of Integrated Controls USA, a Niagara Falls company that bought some machinery from Electro-Dyne Choke Corp., a now-defunct company DePetris owned. DePetris allegedly thought his firm was underpaid in the machinery deal.

In June, the District Attorney’s office obtained a second indictment, accusing DePetris of trying to hire a hitman from jail to kill Viola.

The prosecution won the right to take a handwriting sample from DePetris, to be matched against a letter he sent from the County Jail to the purported hitman.

However, Deputy District Attorney Doreen M. Hoffmann said a jailhouse informant DePetris had been talking to relayed the letter to a federal agent. It was not clear whether that agent was posing as a hitman, but Hoffmann said DePetris did agree to receive a jailhouse visit from the agent.

Farkas scheduled a hearing Sept. 13 on the admissibility of DePetris’ statements to police; a Nov. 6 hearing on the admissibility of the jailhouse informant’s testimony; and a new trial date on the attempted murder indictment of Nov. 18, postponed from Oct. 14.

The trial on the hitman-hiring indictment was to have begun Oct. 28, but Farkas said she is considering whether to simply consolidate the two indictments and hold one trial.

Meanwhile, Key asked Farkas to use a provision of the SAFE Act, the state gun control law passed in January, to dismiss six weapons counts.

Police arrested DePetris on March 30 after stopping his vehicle and finding an automatic rifle loaded with 31 bullets. Also, DePetris, who was wearing a loaded handgun in a homemade holster around his neck, had 16 other ammunition magazines, six of them taped together in pairs, allegedly for faster reloading of the rifle. In all, he allegedly had about 200 rounds of ammunition.

DePetris’ first indictment includes six counts of third-degree criminal possession of a weapon, but Key said the SAFE Act changed the definition to exempt any large-capacity magazine manufactured before Sept. 13, 1994.

He said that the grand jury never heard any evidence about the date of manufacture of DePetris’ magazines, and therefore the six counts should be dismissed.

Hoffmann said if Farkas agrees with Key, the charges will be dismissed, but she denied that the SAFE Act requires a prosecutor to prove the date of manufacture.

Farkas said, “Depending on how I rule, we may reach the question of the constitutionality of the SAFE Act. We would have to bring the [state] attorney general in.”

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com