Polk quadruple murder trial nears end

Prosecutors admit the case is mostly circumstantial but say jurors can't ignore the numerous coincidences.

Published October 10, 2006

BARTOW - An Ecuadorean businessman, accused of the worst mass slaying in Polk County history, masterminded an elaborate plot to extract brutal revenge against an ex-business partner and create an alibi almost 500 miles from the crime scene, prosecutors said during closing arguments at his trial Monday.

Defense attorneys said prosecutors can't even prove that Nelson Ivan Serrano, 67, was in Florida when four people were gunned down at a Bartow factory in 1997.

"There is absolutely no credible evidence that in any way puts Mr. Serrano at the scene of the crime," defense attorney Bob Norgard said. "Not a single person on planet Earth - not a single person - has put Mr. Serrano at Erie Manufacturing on Dec. 3, 1997."

On that night, George Gonsalves, 69; Frank Dosso, 35; Diane Patisso, 28; and George Patisso Jr., 26, were shot multiple times in an office at the Bartow factory that makes garment conveyor systems. Gonsalves, Dosso and Serrano were business partners until a dispute over finances led to Serrano's firing as company president in summer 1997.

Prosecutors said rage over the ouster drove Serrano to kill. Serrano, who has dual citizenship in the United States and Ecuador, was arrested in Ecuador and charged in September 2002 with the slayings.

"Make no mistake about this, the man that's sitting over there is a diabolical man," Polk County Assistant State Attorney John Aguero told the jury, pointing to Serrano. "That man thought that he could fool everyone. ... We're talking about a diabolical plan, practiced and carried out with precision to get away with murder."

The jury is set to begin deliberations today. If convicted, Serrano could get the death penalty.

Serrano has denied involvement in the killings, telling investigators that he was in Atlanta on business at the time. Security camera footage shows him in a hotel there about noon the day of the slayings and again about 10 hours later. Authorities said the killings happened sometime after most employees left the business at 5 p.m.

Aguero said a fingerprint on a parking stub proves that Serrano was in Orlando the day of the killings, not in his hotel room nursing a migraine as he has claimed. Detectives testified that Serrano used two aliases and a relative to screen his airline flights and a car rental. Earlier this year, a jailhouse informant's tip led them to a similar pattern of rentals - using the same aliases - on Oct. 31, 1997.

Aguero said a rainstorm foiled the October plot.

He said the case against Serrano is largely circumstantial but that jurors must accept more than 70 coincidences to think Serrano is innocent.

"All of the things that happened in this case couldn't have possibly have happened coincidentally at the same time," Aguero said. "That's why this is such an overwhelming case."

In his closing argument, Norgard laid out more reasons that the jury should find enough reasonable doubt to free Serrano. He pointed to a lack of physical evidence linking Serrano to the crime scene and attacked the credibility of several witnesses.

"It's a tragedy that four people were killed at Erie Manufacturing," Norgard said. "It will be an even bigger tragedy if someone who is innocent is convicted of a crime he didn't commit."