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Ex-wife sticks with tale of murder

By DONG-PHUONG NGUYEN
© St. Petersburg Times,
published November 28, 2001

TAMPA -- Ten years ago, Gail Milligan fingered her ex-husband as the hit man in a coldblooded murder-for-hire plot, helping send him to death row.

On Tuesday, Milligan stood by her story that Michael Mordenti killed Thelma Royston in her Odessa horse barn in 1989, offering three hours of testimony on the last day of hearings before Hillsborough Circuit Judge Chet Tharpe.

Tharpe will decide whether Mordenti, now 60, should be given a new trial in a case that lacked any physical evidence against him.

Mordenti claims that he had inadequate representation, that then-prosecutor Karen Cox withheld evidence and that his ex-wife lied.

Mordenti's attorney, Martin McClain, tried to raise doubts about Milligan's credibility, painting a picture of her as a greedy and dishonest woman.

Milligan, now 52, does not deny she facilitated Royston's murder. Only she and the killer know who stabbed and shot Royston that June night in 1989.

Although she insists it was Mordenti, defense attorneys say they think it was her current husband, Michael Milligan.

Gail Milligan told the same story on Tuesday she did during the trial: that Thelma Royston's husband, Larry Royston, asked her to find someone to kill his wife, who was blackmailing him. Gail Milligan said she went to two people before Mordenti, a St. Petersburg used-car dealer, agreed to take the job. Larry Royston gave her $17,000 to pay Mordenti.

McClain said that Jack Gartley, a former business associate of Gail Milligan's, testified that she never solicited his help in killing Thelma Royston. That is contrary to Gail Milligan's testimony.

Gartley also testified earlier in the day that he and a mistress double-dated with Milligan and Larry Royston and that he saw the couple hold hands and kiss.

Gail Milligan was granted immunity from prosecution provided she testify truthfully at Mordenti's trial. She has consistently denied ever having an affair with Royston, who committed suicide on the eve of his trial. She told McClain that Gartley lied.

She also says an ex-boyfriend and a sheriff's detective lied.

Milligan has since expressed remorse for her role in the plot and said Tuesday that she was wrong to have served as a go-between.

"It was bad judgment," she said on the stand. "I know it was bad judgment."

Both sides have until Jan. 4 to submit their written arguments.

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