This report aired Dateline Saturday, March 11 and re-airs Aug. 12
FT. MYERS, FLA. — The Florida coast, with its wide water to the Gulf of Mexico, is a good place to cruise away your problems. But in July 2002, someone had used the bay to dispose of one particular problem: an inconvenient corpse.
Det. Ryan Bell, Lee County Sheriff's office: It was a brutal murder. Somebody discarded in the bay with no regard for her life or her family’s life. There were some tourists that were boating and they found what they first thought was a manatee floating in the water, but upon closer inspection, it in fact was a person.
No one would have wrapped a lumbering manatee in a king-sized bed sheet and weighted it down with concrete blocks. Sheriff’s investigators recovered the floater, what they call a “Jane Doe,” an unidentified female body.
Det. Bell: She had begun the decomposition process. She had been in the water for apparently a few days. And she started to break down. There was animal activity. She wasn’t in the best of shape.
The middle-aged woman, found barefoot in simple gardening clothes, had been shot four times in the chest. Investigators obtained fingerprints from the body but a check through state, national and even international databases, came back empty.
Lee County Sheriff’s lead detective Ryan Bell had hit a brick wall: no I.D.
Dennis Murphy, Dateline correspondent: You had a true Jane Doe?
Det. Bell: Absolutely.
Murphy: You had a murder victim but didn’t have a clue as to who she was?
Det. Bell: We had no idea who she was.
A body floating just off the docks of million-dollar waterfront houses wasn’t anyone’s idea of the Florida good life. Many of the homeowners there were retirees with comfortable amounts of money, couples like Don and Fern Moringiello who’d each settled into a mid-life second marriage.
Don Moringiello: She was intelligent. She was vibrant. I was attracted to her.
They’d both worked for Pratt and Whitney, the jet engine manufacturer. Careers came before marriage for both.
Don Moringiello: If the company said to me, “We need you in Timbuktu for the next six months,” she would say, “Go, I’ll support you.” And she would. And if the company said to said to her, “We need you in Oshkosh, Wisconsin,” I would tell her, “Go, you know, whatever it takes to get the job done.”
Now retired, with assets estimated in the millions, Don and Fern owned a waterfront home as well as a condo at a local country club where they would dine with friends and spend the night.
They traveled to Europe frequently— Spain, Germany, Italy— to study the architecture and enjoy the art. Fern was even thinking of buying a place on coast of Spain.
They became master gardeners and enjoyed the many community projects they donated so much time to— sea turtle nest protection on the beach, planting a butterfly garden at the local school, and the like.
Don Moringiello: I worked eight-hours a day volunteering. There were about five organizations I volunteered for.
Life was full and good. And at the end of most every day a sunset ritual, a bottle of fine wine and a wonderful meal together by candlelight. Fern was a gourmet cook, they were both wine enthusiasts.
Don Moringiello: It was a relaxing time for us—where would talk about what we did during that day, what our plans were, what was going on.
But dinner at the Moringiello’s came to a snappish end on July 15, 2002, as Don tells it.
Don Moringiello: I said “Okay, I guess dinner’s over. I doused the candles and I started clearing the table.”
He’d come into the marriage with three grown children. Two of them in particular had recently become thorns in the side of his relationship with Fern.
His son Doug, a big guy in his 30s, was a sometimes air-conditioning repairman with a taste for drugs and was, in Fern’s eye, a world-class underachieving sponge on his father financially. Doug had lived with them in Ft. Myers Beach for several months until Fern finally threw him out.
Don Moringiello: All she said to me was, “Doug has to leave, I don’t want him in this house any longer.”
Murphy: What was the straw that broke the back there?
Don Moringiello: I don’t know.
Murphy: It must have been something.
Don Moringiello: It must have been something, but my immediate reaction was, “He’s outta here.”
Murphy: But you had the clear impression that your wife Fern was afraid of your son, Doug?
Moringiello: Yes, she was.
Doug, the deadbeat druggie son may have scared Fern, but things had recently gotten particularly tense with Don’s older daughter Elizabeth.
There’d been the visit by the daughter the previous February, a reunion that ended with Fern supposedly throwing a glass of wine at the daughter, and the daughter, in turn, calling the cops.
Don Moringiello: As my daughter was leaving the house, Fern yelled to her,”I don’t want you in my house ever again.” And as my daughter yells back, “And you’re not welcome in my house either.”
That was back in February, so the reason dinner came to an unhappy conclusion months later, on July 15th, was, according to Don, his announcement to Fern that he was going to go visit his daughter Elizabeth at her home in Connecticut.
Don Moringiello: She got very upset very quickly. And she took her napkin and threw it on the table and said started to walk towards the bedroom and said something to the effect that, “If you can leave, if you think you’re gonna leave me here to take care of the house while you’re on vacation, I can go on vacation too! I was started cleaning the pots. And I heard the front door open. And I looked up and there was Fern walking out with her suitcase on wheels and I thought, “Okay, she’s probably going to go to the condo, we also own a condo in Ft. Myers and she’s probably going to go there and cool off. Let her go. She needs cooling off before we talk anyway.”
Murphy: Was that the last time you saw your wife Fern?
Don Moringiello: Yes, it was.
Three days later, Don Moringiello flew to New England to visit his daughter and grandchildren.
About the same time his plane’s landing gear was snapping up, some boaters in the bay thought they spotted a dead manatee.
The police were on their way.
Don Moringiello had gone to Connecticut to visit his daughter and grandkids, a trip he moved forward by a week, he says, after his wife Fern stormed out of their Florida home following an argument he replayed in his mind.
Don Moringiello: The following morning when I woke up, I was kind of surprised Fern wasn’t in bed. I fully expected her to come back sometime that night.
Fern had apparently taken the van.
Murphy: The fact that she had had the van told you what?
Don Moringiello: [It] told me she was probably taking a trip. We use the van for long trips.
Still, he went that day to check their in-town condo, the logical place she would go to spend the night afterleavingin a huff.
Don Moringiello: I had some strange signals from the condo. The bed had been made. Her clothes were gone that we kept at the condo. We both kept clothes there. And I saw two wine glasses in the sink. Now that’s not typical of fern. She would wash the wine glasses.
Dennis Murphy: Do you think maybe she was seeing another guy?
Don Moringiello: I thought that was possible, yes.
But Moringiello still figured that she was just in a snit and after she cooled off, she’d join him in New England.
Don Moringiello: She knew a lot of people in Connecticut. She’s gonna go visit her friends in Connecticut, Vermont and sometime after the following weekend she’s going to drive up to my daughter’s house.
But Fern never showed upat his daughter’s or her friends places.
Don still wasn’t worried — Fern was headstrong and independent. She knew how to take care of herself. This was a woman who had her own pilot’s license.
Don Moringiello flew back home to Ft. Myers on July 31.
By then nearly two weeks had gone by and detective Det. Ryan Bell was still trying to put a name to his Jane Doe, the body of a woman found floating in the bay, wrapped in a bed sheet, weighted down with concrete blocks. She’d been shot four times in the chest.
Det. Bell: We have no idea who she is. And so much in a murder investigation is victimology. We need to find out who that victim is to help us take that next step in the investigation. We just don’t know who she was.
The detective and his team went door to door in the waterfront community where the body had been recovered, handing out this flyer they’d made up showing the gardening clothes the Jane Doe had been wearing, pictures of the blocks that weighed her down, but their shoe leather detective work produced no results.
The case was at a standstill until the middle of August—almost a month since the body had been discovered—when the detective got a phone call from Huntsville, Alabama.
The woman on the other end said her Aunt Fern had gone missing, did authorities know anything about it?
Lorri Seibert, a second-grade teacher, and her husband Mike, a lawyer, were in a busy season of their lives with twin babies, Lorri’s mom fighting cancer. They hadn’t had much time lately to visit with her father’s sister, Aunt Fern.
So when she picked up the kitchen phone on August 13th she was pleased to hear Fern’s husband Don on the line.
Lorri Seibert: And when I said “Hi,” I thought, “Oh, they’d gotten home.” They’ve been someplace and they realized mom’s had cancer and they’re calling to check on either babies or cancer... you know, I didn’t know which.
But Don Moringiello was calling with disturbing news, quite out of the blue.
Lorri Seibert: He said, well you know, “How are you doing? Is your aunt there with you?” And I went “Oh no, no she’s definitely not here with me.” And he said, “Well we got into a fight and she’s missing.”
“Well, how long has she been gone.” And he said, “Well she’s been gone a month.”
Dennis Murphy, Dateline correspondent: Is any of this making sense to you?
Lorri Seibert: Well, no. I was just thinking, “This is crazy.” Well, I’ll get on the telephone. Let me call people.
And Lorri did just that, called around the family but no one had heard from Aunt Fern. She called back Uncle Don—her head abuzz now with questions now.
Lorri Seibert: And I said, “What did the police say to do? What are we supposed to do now?” And he said, “Well, that’s the thing, I haven’t told the police.” He said he talked to his attorneys and his family and that they told him not to contact the police. And I said, “Well, you need to do that. We need to tell— she’s been gone for a month! It’s time to tell the police.”
Lorri’s husband Mike, a criminal defense attorney who made a living hearing stories from people in trouble, was deeply disturbed by the news from the uncle.
Mike Seibert: I was horrified. And I said, “What did the police say?” And that’s when she told me that the police hadn’t been called, and I said, “Man, this is wrong... I mean it was almost an overwhelming feeling of ‘Oh my god.’”
The Seiberts decided to call Moringiello back but this time they’d tape record the conversation. Mike had scribbled out some questions for Lorri to ask.
Lorri Seibert: Ok, “What did she take? What about her pills. Her make-up?” You know just general stuff, what kind of shoes, you know ...
Mike Seibert: What kind of clothes she packed ...
And in that taped conversation with her uncle she asked an off-center question that would become extraordinarily important in the mystery of Fern.
Lorri Seibert: And I said, “Did she take a gun? Well he’s, “Oh no, she’s scared of guns.” Well, our background is farming in Alabama and a gun is a tool on a farm that you need for snakes or whatever you might need. And I thought, “No she’s not afraid of guns.” That did not make sense to me.
But Uncle Don insisted that Fern was so anti-gun that she actually got hold of the semi-automatic he carried on their small boat and tossed it overboard while they were fishing way out in the Gulf of Mexico.
Mike Seibert: There were so many things that were inconsistent. She was mad about him going to Connecticut. She was going to go to Connecticut. The Gulf of Mexico thing, the firearm...
Lorri and her husband got in touch with Detective Ryan Bell in Ft. Myers.
Det. Bell: We start comparing all of the physical features of her aunt, where the aunt resides. We start keying in on her dental work....
Murphy: And who did your Jane Doe turn out to be?
Det. Bell: Hattie Fern Bergeler Moringiello.
As soon as they had an I.D., Detective Bell’s team executed a search warrant on the Moringiello waterfront home, five doors down from where the body, now identified as Fern, had been found. No one was home but what investigators discovered there made them suspicious.
Det. Bell: There were cleaning supplies in the living room. There were cleaning supplies in the dining room.
In a guest bedroom a fan was blowing on a partially pulled back carpet.
Det. Bell: It looked like the carpet had been wet. And something had occurred in that bedroom.
At first glance it looked as though someone had snapped off a pipe to the toilet deliberately causing a flooded carpet.
Murphy: Now help me connect the dots: The reason that you would create a flood in your bedroom would be?
Det. Bell: Perhaps there was blood or other trace evidence on the carpet and you wanted to get rid of it but in a manner that would cover up what you were actually doing, so you create a flood in there, looks like a plumbing flood but in fact, you’re covering up evidence.
In the sunroom, analysts saw what looked like blood and when they sprayed Luminol, a tell-tale chemical for invisible traces of blood, it glowed in what looked like a patch of cleaned-up tile.
And there was more: On a desk they found a stack of documents including the most recent color Jane Doe flyer they’d distributed— one to every mailbox in the neighborhood. Why did Don Moringiello have two?
Det. Bell: I’m thinking, he took the neighbor’s flier. He took it inside his house because he didn’t want anybody to find out that in fact it was his wife.
Out in the garden were paint splattered concrete blocks like the ones used to weigh down Fern. In a drawer in the bedroom, rope like the rope used to tie the blocks to the body.
So by time the homeowner Don Moringiello pulled up to see his house swarming with police, Det. Bell had plenty of questions for him.
Det. Bell: I walked outside of the house. Mr. Moringiello walked up to me. He was very nervous and he asked what was going on. I explained to him that we were conducting an investigation in the house and the first words out of his mouth after that was, “Is this about my wife?”
Out front, Moringiello started telling his story about the trip to Connecticut: Fern not appearing, that he hadn’t seen her for a month now.
In the back of the house right off the seawall— an easy throw— a dive team had found a gun registered to Don Moringiello. It was determined to be the same gun used to fire four rounds into his wife, Fern.
Det. Bell: At that point, we have what appears to be a crime scene in the home. We have what appears to be blood in the home. We have two flyers in the home. We have the gun found directly behind the home, and we have the husband who never reported his wife missing.
62-year-old Don Moringiello was charged with second degree murder. Investigators did not believe 57-year-old Fern Moringiello packed up her bags and left on that sultry July night.
Murphy: The authorities have a different ending to that evening. They say that after an argument, they believe you shot your wife four times, then disposed of her body in the bay along with the murder weapon. Did that happen? Did you kill your wife?
Fern Bergeler Moringiello, a former aerospace company manager, avid gardener and gourmet, had been brutally killed. Her body, wrapped in a bed sheet and weighted down with concrete blocks, had been dumped in a Ft. Myers, Florida, bay near her million-dollar waterfront home.
It was up to prosecutor Betsy Biffl to convince a jury that Fern’s husband, Don Moringiello, had fired the murder weapon, a handgun he owned that divers recovered in shallow waters just off his dock.
Biffl believed she had a chain of strong circumstantial evidence to build her story on.
Betsy Biffl, prosecutor: We have a woman who’s been shot, with the gun bought by her husband, then wrapped up in the sheet from her bed, tied with rope from her dresser, weighted down with blocks from her yard and then thrown in the back of her house.
Moringiello had what any defense attorney would regard as a bad set of facts to explain. And yet the affable man in his early 60’s—a former aerospace quality control engineer— hardly looked like anyone’s vision of a murderer.
Biffl: We didn’t have a motive. We didn’t have any direct link. We didn’t have the eyewitness.
The prosecutor’s crime scene experts told the jury about the concrete blocks, the rope, that suspiciously damp carpet and the sunroom floor that looked to them as though it had been wiped of blood. And, of course, there was Fern’s body, found floating, just five doors down from her own home. All of that— and what Don Moringiello himself doesn’t do or say.
Dennis Murphy, Dateline correspondent: How much of your case is the fact his wife is missing for a month. She’s gone and he doesn’t seem to care at all?
Biffl: I think in most people’s mind, that was what it boiled down to. His wife was missing for a month and he didn’t tell anybody.
When he ran into his neighbor Rocco Ditello after almost a month had passed with Fern gone, Moringiello talked about his trip to Connecticut, his plumbing problems, everything but his missing wife.
(In court) Biffl: Did he mention Fern at all?
Rocco Ditello, neighbor: No.
Biffl: Did her name come up in the conversation at all?
And remember the police flyers with color photos of the gardening clothes found on the Jane Doe, the unidentified body? One flyer had been posted to each mailbox in Moringiello’s neighborhood? He had two of them.
The woman across the street told the court she never got hers. Authorities speculate Moringiello snatched it before she could see it but if she had, she testified she’d have no doubt whom those clothes belonged to.
Biffl: Do you recognize that clothing?
Alice, neighbor: This was an outfit that my neighbor Fern often wore while gardening.
The neighbor, a retired teacher, also testified to the cracks she saw and heard in the Moringiello marriage.
Alice: I have seen times when there was tremendous amounts of tension, but more often than not I heard them arguing.
And, there was probably the prosecutor’s best evidence of all: the murder weapon, the handgun fished from the bay directly behind Moringiello’s house. He’d bought it in 2001 he said for self-protection.
(In court) Prosecuting attorney: How certain are you that the projectiles that are in front of you, which were removed from the body of Fern Bergeler, were fired from states exhibit 41?
Police officer: Absolutely.
Prosecutor: No doubt?
Police officer: No doubt.
The gun lead back to that phone conversations that Moringiello had with Fern’s niece, Lorri—a conversation that was now crucial evidence for the prosecution.
In that taped conversation, jurors could hear Moringiello’s own voice telling the story about Fern throwing that very same gun overboard during a fishing trip out in the Gulf of Mexico but that’s not where it was found at all.
Don Moringiello (on tape, court evidence): We were out fishing. We were in the Gulf of Mexico. And she pulled out the gun and she said “What’s this?” And I said, “Well, that’s for our protection, especially out on a boat.”
Lorri Seibert: Right.
Don Moringiello: And she says “We don’t need this,” and she throws it overboard.
Biffl: When you play that tape and you hear his voice saying, “She threw it overboard” and then you hear the diver say that he found it right behind his house. That’s devastating to him.
But there were also things that didn’t seem to fit the prosecutor’s case. Like the van Fern allegedly drove off in after storming out of the house, as Moringiello told it. Two months after Fern’s body was recovered, the van was found in a West Palm Beach airport parking garage—more than three hours away from Ft. Myers—with a time-dated ticket of 10:04 a.m. July 16th, the morning after authorities believe she was killed.
How did the van get there? If Moringiello drove it, investigators could not figure out, hard as they tried, how he’d gotten back home undetected.
And was there a more likely killer? What about Doug, the stepson Fern was said to be scared of? Doug was Don Moringiello's deadbeat son with a heroin habit— a habit that killed him just over a year after his stepmother disappeared. Was he her killer?
The defense was about to mount its case.
It looked bad for Don Moringiello, the aerospace engineer charged with shooting his wife and dumping both her body and the murder weapon in the bay behind his house. His lawyers knew they had a problem.
Joe Viacava, defense attorney: My client’s dead wife, with four bullet holes in her, from my client’s gun. My client not reporting her for three weeks. My client having two fliers of a dead woman in the house with rope that’s close, with concrete blocks — all of the evidence looks terrible.
Dennis Murphy, Dateline correspondent: That’s a mountain to climb.
Viacava: A mountain is only a mountain until you shave it down.
Moringiello’s two defense lawyers worked as an opposite’s attract pair.
Joe Viacava— fast-talking New Yorker, a pit bull on cross-examination— and his partner lawyer Wilbur Smith— folksy, a good ole' boy people find easy to like.
Wilbur Smith: We wanted the jury to believe that someone else other than Don could have done it.
They hammered home a few themes starting with the obvious hole in the prosecution’s case: What could Moringiello’s motive possibly be for killing his wife of 12 years?
Smith: How does a man that’s lived that long a sort of a placid methodical life turn into such a homicidal maniac? Why do you shoot your wife? Over what could they be fighting about that’s so bad?
But to win their client an acquittal, they’d have to account for the prosecution’s chain of damning circumstantial evidence and explain way he never called police to report his wife missing.
They began with the prosecution’s scene of the crime: inside the Moringiello’s waterfront home.
Miller: The carpet has a property of absorbing the blood...
Because Moringiello had money to refute the prosecutor’s circumstantial evidence he was able to hire the top-flight crime-scene experts from the firm of Dr. Henry Lee.
Dennis Murphy, Dateline correspondent: From the O.J. case—his firm came and did some very specialized work for you, didn’t it?
They did a good job, and they said she wasn’t killed in the house. The defense’s blood spatter expert told the jury that if Fern Moringiello had been shot four times at close range, there would have been blood everywhere— in the bedroom if it happened there, or in the sunroom if there, a mist of tell-tale blood.
Viacava: It would have been the bloodiest horror show you’ve ever seen in your life.
So much blood, testified the defense expert, that even a meticulous, task-oriented, quality-control engineer like Don Moringiello would have missed some in a clean-up. And yet, all the prosecution’s crime scene team could come up with were potentially a few drops here and there.
Murphy: If you think you’ve cleaned it up, you haven’t, is what your experts are saying?
Viacava: Dr. Carver, our chief medical examiner from the state of Connecticut can’t even clean-up stainless steel in his laboratory, let alone some jet scientist cleaning up blood in his house. It’s impossible.
As for the concrete blocks and the rope, they looked the same as blocks and rope from Moringiello’s home but they weren’t tied conclusively to similar items from the house and yard.
And besides, someone other than the defendant could have found them there and made use of them.
The prosecution’s whole theory of the crime, argued the defense, just didn’t make sense. There was no way Don Moringiello, the aerospace engineer, was that stupid.
Smith: Think about it: you shoot your wife and you take her and throw her off the end of your dock and throw the gun in to the side of the dock and say, “Well, I think I’ll go to Connecticut. That’s that?” I mean that’s pretty preposterous, really.
Take the murder weapon: The gun found in the water just a few yards from the seawall—was big problem no. one for the defense. But as they argued the facts, it looked as though someone was maybe framing Moringiello for the murder. Moringiello said he kept the handgun in a boat bag left in his sunroom.
Smith: Consider this: At low-tide, the gun would’ve been visible. If the gun was a problem, why didn’t Don just wade out there and pick it up and dispose of it so that nobody finds it?
And it looked terrible for Moringiello that he’d obviously lied to Fern’s niece in that taped phone call when he claimed Fern tossed the gun into the Gulf of Mexico miles from his back yard when, of course, she hadn’t.
The explanation for that was convoluted at best but it went something like this: He and Fern didn’t want people to know that they kept a gun so he made up a story for the niece.
Viacava: His own family didn’t know he had a gun yet he needs to tell Lorri, some third-class relative that he never sees, that they have a firearm? He didn’t even know if his wife wanted her to know that.
Other points: The detective’s Jane Doe flyers—two of them inside the house? Well, not suspicious at all argues the defense. Moringiello had in fact approached their law firm just two days before his arrest about their private eye possibly locating Fern. The Jane Doe flyers were part of a packet he said he was preparing for an investigator to use to track down his wife.
Murphy: It looks like he was getting lawyered up before the cops came.
Viacava: That’s what the state wants to say but that’s just not the case.
Then, the defense lawyers did something they often hesitate to do: They called the defendant to the stand. Don Moringiello would tell the jury how close he was to his wife.
Smith (in court): How would you characterize your relationship with her?
Moringiello: I think our relationship was excellent.
But if he was so close to his wife, why didn’t he look for her for almost a month? Talk to neighbors about it? Call the police?
Smith: Why didn’t you file a missing persons report in regards to your wife?
Don Moringiello: She wasn’t missing. I believed she was on vacation. If your wife tells she is going on vacation and she is angry and she packs her suitcase and leaves... if you want to make a bad situation worse, you call the police and report her missing.
Don Moringiello (Dateline interview): I didn’t want to make a public issue out of a domestic problem. I wanted to find her privately. This is about family issues. You don’t make domestic issues out of family spats, you know. That’s just the way I was brought up.
Viacava: What it comes down to is simply this: Mrs. Moringiello was an independent woman. This is both their second marriages. This is not the type of warm and fuzzy couple that are young kids canoodling together. Mrs. Moringiello knows how to take care of herself and the testimony in the trial said it best, “If you’re gonna go on a vacation, well, so am I.”
The defense even planted the idea with the jurors that maybe Fern had run off to have an affair.
Remember, Moringiello said he saw two dirty wine glasses when he went to their condo. And another hint: After Don Moringiello had retired, Fern continued to work in Palm Beach county across the state, commuting home to Ft. Myers on the weekends. Did that explain why her van was found abandoned in the West Palm Beach airport?
Or, had she met an old lover, a tryst that came to a very bad end? Was there another man in Fern’s life? From the defense point of view, this might give the jury reasonable doubt that Moringiello pulled the trigger.
And if the spurned lover theory didn’t work, the defense tried to hint at another possible killer: How about the defendant’s late son Doug? A druggie, a lie-about, someone Fern had made it very clear she despised.
Smith: I think that he is the one that is the most likely suspect. I mean, who is more likely to kill someone in a crude way? A heroin addict who has no particular skills, who doesn’t like the person and the victim doesn’t like him? Or the man that is, has never has been known for violence?
The defense did call Moringiello’s daughter, Doug’s sister, Elizabeth who told the story about Fern throwing wine in her face during a family reunion. It was the best the defense could do in letting the jury see some of the unresolved tensions between Fern and her husband’s children from the previous marriage.
Elizabeth Moringiello: She did take a glass of wine, throw it in my face, my father came over and he put his arms around her like in a bear hug and he said to us: “Go.”
Had the defense given the jury enough to mull over— the lack of a motive, the apparent absence of blood in the house, the plausibility of a husband not looking for his missing independent, head-strong wife for four weeks?
The case was about to go in to the jury room.
Don Moringiello was charged with murder in the second degree in the shooting death of his wife Fern. If found guilty, he faced up to life in prison.After three weeks of trial, the jurors could finally discuss the case.
Dennis Murphy: Did you take a straw poll?
Bob, juror: Yes.
Murphy: Where did things stand of the six?
Bob: Two guilty, two not guilty, two undecided.
Murphy: So you were really split, you’ve got a lot of work ahead of you at that point.
Among the six jurors were a home store manager; the forewoman, a retired nurse; and a retired computer analyst.
Frank, juror: You got to be pretty certain of what you’re going to do before sending someone away for the rest of their life.
They were all persuaded that Don and Fern Moringiello were not getting along.
Murphy: Did you think maybe this marriage was over and that’s what this was about?
Sandy, juror: Oh, absolutely.
But they were mixed on thinking it suspicious that Moringiello went almost a month without reporting his wife missing.
Frank: A couple, two or three weeks, probably wouldn’t make a difference...
Bob: I mean I could see maybe a week. I know they spent a lot of time apart. But I mean a whole month? That kind of hit me the wrong way.
But they all dismissed the prosecutor’s theory that the chain of evidence— the location of the body, the blocks, the rope— all pointed to Don Moringiello.
And they agreed with the defense’s expert witnesses that there should have been a lot more blood in the house if Don Moringiello were the killer.
Murphy: Shot four times at close range with a handgun. Now what were your expectations of what a wound like that would do to a human being?
Frank: A lot more blood than we saw.
Sandy: Listening to all the scientists, it proved to me that she couldn’t possibly have been murdered in that house.
Stepping back and looking at the crime as the prosecutor described it, they just couldn’t see Don Moringiello being so stupid as to cover up the murder the way he was said to— tossing the gun over the seawall, his wife’s body found five houses away.
Sandy: I just find that impossible to believe that he would do something that stupid.
Murphy: The gun he bought was the one that was used to shoot Fern Moringiello to death?
Murphy: State says “therefore he did it.”
Frank: It’s compelling logic but anyone could have had access to that gun and that house.
Murphy: It’s a bad bunch of facts?
Bob: Absolutely, but I just couldn’t place it in his hands.
As far as the taped phone conversation with Fern’s niece— the one in which Moringiello lies about his wife throwing away the gun— these three jurors were put off by the niece, essentially entrapping her uncle. Lorri Seibert potentially stood to inherit some of her aunt’s estate if her uncle was convicted.
Sandy: I think she was motivated by money.
Bob: Yeah. Definitely seemed like it was orchestrated.
As for the defendant taking the stand, none thought he did himself any good.
Bob: I didn’t feel the grieving. I mean, his wife was brutally murdered and I just didn’t see it.
Sandy: I thought he came across being very wimpy and very naive.
For two days, the jury talked about evidence. Looked at the crime scene photos they’d arrayed on the wall. The divide in the deliberation was now split four to two.
They tried to understand what the defense had been hinting at about another suspect altogether.
Frank: We heard that there was a son that was disallowed from being brought up in the trial.
Murphy: But nothing in direct testimony?
Murphy: Did you think there was somebody else out there that you were not hearing about for whatever reason?
Sandy: Oh yeah.
Bob: We didn’t know for sure but we definitely felt that there was somebody else out there.
By the third day of deliberations, it became clear to all six jurors they were deadlocked. Split five to one, with the holdout seeing polar opposite to the majority on the big questions.
Sandy: I wrote a note to the judge saying that we were at an impasse and that we could not come to agreement.
It was a hung jury. Don Moringiello just narrowly missed being acquitted and walking from the court a free man. The jury had hung up at five to one, only one juror believing him guilty. And yet that inconclusive vote—all three of these people voted “not guilty,” doesn’t reflect how these jurors really felt about Don Moringiello.
Murphy: How many of you believe that if he didn’t kill his wife, he knew something something about it or was in on it? All three of you?
Bob: And not just us three but everybody on that jury.
Murphy: Thought his hands were bloody?
Bloody... but not beyond a reasonable doubt as they understood their instructions. Still the hold-out juror gave the prosecution another chance at a conviction. Betsy Biffl would not drop the case.
Betsy Biffl, prosecutor: It was, “Okay, what can we do better next time?”
Don Moringiello would be tried again.
Almost a year after the first trial deadlocked in a hung jury, prosecutor Betsy Biffl got a second chance to convince a jury that Don Moringiello had shot his wife four-times and dumped her body in the bay behind their Ft. Myers Beach home.
In the retrial, the prosecution streamlined its case.
Betsy Biffl, prosecutor: The focus was much more on: here are the strongest things we have. And we’re not gonna worry about trying to throw every single little thing at you.
Another big difference: the second jury didn’t hear from the defendant.
Wilbur Smith, defense attorney: We felt like we didn’t need to put Don Moringiello on the stand. That the state had presented such a weak case that he didn’t need to testify.
Other than no Moringiello, the defense reargued its same case: the apparent lack of motive for murder, the house with too little blood to have been the scene of a bloody shooting, the clumsiness of the cover-up, the inability of the prosecution to put the gun in the husband’s hand.
The defense got a major break in the second trial. This time they got to talk more freely about Don Moringiello’s late son Doug: a heroin addict with a prison record who’d supposedly had a series of run-ins with his stepmother Fern, who by most accounts had no use for him.
The defense stopped just short of accusing Doug, the son.
Smith (in court): Was it his son, who is 6 ft tall and 250 lbs. and strong? Was it him? He had motive. His step mother didn’t like him. Money was an issue. Had a drug habit.
Smith (Dateline interview): I was more confident in the second trial than I was the first trial.
And remember— in the first trial five jurors out of six had voted Moringiello not guilty.
The prosecutor had to get this second jury beyond reasonable doubt in a circumstantial case. The jury deliberated for less than three hours. Among the six jurors they were a telecommunications administrator (the foreman), a small business owner, and a company manager.
Dennis Murphy, correspondent: Where did things stand after the straw poll?
Grace, juror: Two maybes, two yes and two no.
Murphy: It looked like you guys were gonna be in for a while.
Grace: Well, I really didn’t want to believe that he was a murderer.
Rick, juror: Could you really tell that was his blood on the carpet? There were some questions there.
Grace: This person was going to go to jail for the rest of their lives. We didn’t take it lightly. It’s not something to take lightly.
The defendant stood for the reading of the verdict: In the end, Don Moringiello was found gulty of murder in the second degree. Don Moringiello, 66-years old at the time of his conviction, received a prison sentence of 35 years.
What finally persuaded the second jury to convict, when the first jury was just one vote short of setting him free?
Amy, juror: The fact that he was not concerned about where she was at.
Grace: I don’t care how much you are having an argument with your spouse. 29 days is a long time.
Murphy: What about the forensics? There didn’t seem to be a lot of blood in that house.
Grace: But if you have 29 days to clean up a crime scene it could be gone.
Amy: If it had happened in the garden outside with an irrigation system all of that evidence would have been gone and he might have tracked in the blood from the outside and that’s what they got on the inside. The only people that know are Fern and Donald Moringiello.
Grace: I think that he was just fed up with her, that he really did not want to be married to her anymore. And they were probably arguing and he just snapped and wanted to be done with her.
Moringiello insists he was wrongfully convicted and is appealing his case.
Murphy: You’re hoping you’re gonna get another trial to take this before another court?
Don Moringiello: Yes, sir.
Murphy: And get a different opinion?
Moringiello: Yes, sir.
Murphy: You didn’t do it?
Moringiello: That’s correct.
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