MIAMI – Two decades ago, a Miami jury convicted Italian filmmaker Enrico Forti for murdering an Australian man whose body was found in the sand in Virginia Key.
Forti’s claim of innocence has been a cause for célèbre in Italy, even as he is serving a life sentence in Florida and state courts have consistently rejected his appeal of the 1998 murder conviction of Anthony “Dale” Pike.
But Forti, 61, may return to his home country soon after Governor Ron DeSantis, at the request of the US Department of Justice and the Italian government, “conditionally agreed” to transfer his custody to Italy – a move that the Miami-Dade prosecutor who punished him fiercely opposed.
Such transfers are rare but permitted under agreements between the United States and most European countries. A spokesman for the governor said the transfer was approved “following guarantees by the Italian government that Mr Forti will serve the entire remainder of his Florida prison sentence in Italy.”
Miami-Dade lawyer Katherine Fernandez Rundle, in a statement, said she was “disappointed by the government’s decision” to send Enrico Forti back to Italy.
“Due to the strength of the evidence against Forti, the 12 jurors rejected multiple fakes aimed at suspecting anyone but himself of the murder of Dale Pike,” the statement said. “Many of Forti’s criminal court appeals appear to have failed for the same reason.”
The transfers were made public last weekend when Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio announced the news in a Facebook post. Forti’s conviction of murder remains intact.
Forti’s case is little known in the United States, but journalists in Italy have long championed it as an example of American justice going awry, even likening it to the case of the infamous Amanda Knox of America, who was jailed for murder in Italy and eventually released. .
Pike’s murder isn’t the first time Forti has made headlines in South Florida.
Connection to the Versace murders
When spree killer Andrew Cunanan was found dead on the Miami Beach houseboat in 1997, Forti presented papers indicating he was the ship’s final owner. Forti claimed exclusive film rights until 2000, and made thousands of people who rent boats for tabloid TV shows want to show Cunanan’s final hideout, who killed fashion icon Gianni Versace.
The film Forti itself was never filmed there: The ship sank just before Pike’s murder.
Police and prosecutors say Forti killed Pike, an Australian whose father owned a resort on the Spanish island of Ibiza. Dale Pike flew to Miami in February 1998, after he intercepted a fax in which his father appeared to be signing his exclusive resort to Forti.
Pike flies into Miami International Airport determined to uncover what happened. Forti offers to pick him up from MIA so they can talk about him. Pike was later found face down in an area known as Sewer Beach. He was shot dead on his son’s third birthday.
At the 2000 trial, prosecutors presented evidence to a jury that showed Forti tried to trick the older Pike, who had dementia, out of his fortune. They also present cellphone records showing Forti being near the beach, a popular windsurfing spot, the night Pike was killed.
Forti, in a preliminary interview with Miami homicide detectives, denied that he picked Pike from the airport.
As evidence Forti was at the scene, prosecutors showed the jury a small sample of sand found in the suspect’s Land Rover – unique sand on the Virginia Key line.
But defense lawyers argue that Forti, who has produced films about windsurfing and other extreme sports for ESPN, was framed when his body was dumped at a popular windsurfing site. They point out that there were no witnesses to the murder, or forensic evidence such as fingerprints or DNA that tied Forti to the murder.
Does anyone else have a motive?
His lawyers have always insisted that the real mastermind was a man named Thomas Knott, a German tennis professional and Forti’s neighbor on Williams Island. Prosecutors said Knott had an alibi for the night of the murder.
Days after Pike’s murder, Forti and Knott were both charged with exploitation and fraud for allegedly defrauding the old man.
In an interview with CBS’s “48 Hours” that aired last year, Forti admitted to picking up Pike but insisted that he dropped him off at Rusty Pelican, a restaurant near the beach. Forti said, Pike got into the Lexus who was waiting with an unknown man.
“The man in the car waiting for him is an elegant person in a white shirt – gold chain, gold watch,” Forti said in the interview.
Forti, for the time being, remains incarcerated at the South Florida Reception Center, a state prison facility in Miami-Dade County. When he will return to Italy is unclear.
“As the only possible vote for the victims of this fraud, which later turned into murder, I hope that justice is truly served and that the Italian government will fulfill their promise to the government that Forti will serve the entire remaining Florida prison sentence,” said Fernandez Rundle.
Forti’s lawyers did not reply to requests for comment.
The Florida Department of Improvement “will continue to work with federal authorities during the transfer process, which can take some time,” the agency said in a statement on Monday.
The US Justice Department – which approached Florida about the transfer after a request from Italy – must issue “final approval,” according to the governor’s office. The DOJ press office did not reply to a request for comment from the Herald on Monday.
According to a statement from the governor’s office, Forti would only be returned to Italy “upon confirmation that the victim’s immediate family has no objection to the transfer.” The statement did not say whether the governor’s office had not reached out to Pike’s living relatives.
“Neither Mr. Forti (Italy) nor the (Australian) victim was an American citizen, and neither Italy nor Australia supported the transfer,” governor spokesman Meredith Beatrice said in the statement.
The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office was not aware of the governor’s decision until Monday. Italian media reported on the foreign minister’s announcement about Forti.
The state prosecutor did not deal with the governor’s office about the transfer request. Instead, prosecutors laid bare the history of the case, and their evidence, during a more than 90-minute conference call with a DOJ lawyer in June, according to an email obtained by the Herald.
“We were informed that the Italian ambassador made a direct request to the Attorney General and was told that there was ‘a lot of pressure’ being put on them,” Assistant Attorney General Christine Zahralban, head of the law firm, wrote in an email to colleagues on June 16.
Zahralban added: “I firmly state my position [State Attorney] and the leadership team is against this transfer. “
Whether Forti really remains in prison in Italy remains to be seen. His transfer is being processed under the DOJ’s International Prisoner Transfer Program, which began in the late 1970s.
Although tens of thousands of foreign convicts qualify for the program, only a handful are actually transferred abroad – in 2013, for example, only 245 convicted prisoners in the federal justice system were transferred.
It’s even more complicated for inmates convicted of state crimes like Forti because state authorities have to approve such transfers, said attorney Sylvia Royce in Washington, DC, who headed the DOJ program in the late 1990s.
He said many state governments were wary because foreign countries’ judicial systems often allow sentences to be drastically cut, or reduced to parole or house confinement.
“I would be very, very surprised if he was not released soon enough after he returned,” Royce, who was not involved in the case, said of Forti.
Forti is not the first Italian to be returned to serve America’s long sentence.
The most notable example is Silvia Baraldini, a left-wing activist who was sent back to Italy in 1999 to complete the remaining 23 years of the 40-year federal sentence originally handed down in New York. He was convicted of taking part in a series of robberies and attempted robberies, including the robbery of an armored truck which resulted in the killing of a guard and two police officers.
But two years after his return, Baraldini was allowed out on house arrest. He was later granted amnesty.
Nor will Forti become the first Miami convicted killer to be released from state prison to another state.
In 1988, then Governor. Bob Martinez allows William Shapiro to return to Israel to complete a life sentence for masterminding the murder of his business partner, Burt Dewitt. Miami-Dade prosecutors said Shapiro hired two men to fatally beat Dewitt and throw his body overboard.
Shapiro, a former US Army soldier and Israeli police officer, was stripped of American citizenship and freed to live in a commune known as a kibbutz. He later died of natural causes there.
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