Monday, February 23, 2004 Print This | Email This     

Ex-lovers on trial in murder-for-hire case where the wrong man got killed

By John Springer, Court TV

RIVERHEAD, N.Y. (Court TV) — Lee Ann Riedel wanted her estranged husband beaten, but his best friend was murdered instead.

Now she and her ex-lover both sit in a cavernous courtroom while their bizarre murder-for-hire trial unfolds simultaneously before two separate juries.

It is a story that seems ready-made for an episode of "Law & Order," and decidedly out of place in this sleepy town where Long Island's famed north and south forks diverge.

Riedel, a 35-year-old mother of three, didn't even know her co-defendant, Ralph Salierno, also 35, when he first got involved in her story. It was only after she allegedly enlisted him to rough up her husband — or kill him, as prosecutors claim — that the two became lovers, and eventually had a child together.

Prosecutors say Riedel was looking to bring a violent end to an abusive year-long marriage. She also wanted to keep more than $120,000 she fled to Florida with, to inherit her husband's interests in fitness centers, and to prevent a potentially messy custody battle.

Her husband Paul, however, is still very much alive.

Prosecutors say Salierno and an accomplice didn't do their homework and ended up instead killing Paul Riedel's best friend and business partner, 32-year-old Alex Algeri, on Jan. 17, 2001.

'Someone ... to scare him'

According to testimony so far, Lee Ann Riedel left Long Island and her husband of one year in 2000. Taking her two children and more than $120,000, Riedel moved in with her mother and her mother's lesbian partner in Del Ray Beach, Fla.

But Paul Riedel wanted his money back, plus the son he shared with Lee Ann. Having served six years in an upstate New York prison for a drug-related robbery — during which an accomplice pointed a shotgun at an undercover cop's face — he was a man who was not easily ignored.

"[Lee Ann] was very upset. She was frightened of him. He hadn't been nice to her," the partner, Elizabeth Russo, testified. "He talked to her real mean and she wasn't happy."

Russo, one of a handful of witnesses testifying with immunity from prosecution, told both juries that the three women — she, Riedel and Riedel's mother, Pat Armanini — decided to recruit someone to "scare" Paul Riedel and, if necessary, give him a "beating" for emphasis.

"She didn't want him hurt badly, just beat," Russo said.

Russo, who admitted to sometimes carrying a book about New York mobsters so she could point out her relatives, approached a man at her gym whom she knew from New York's Little Italy. She assumed Larry Diodato had mob ties, and thought he might be able to put a scare into Riedel, but Diodato referred her to Salierno.

Diodato, 46, told jurors he is an investment banker but admitted he spent a year in federal prison for stock fraud conspiracy and doesn't own a credit card. A tall, bald, muscular man who appears ready to rip free from his dark blue suit, Diodato said he is often mistaken for a nightclub bouncer, but Russo was the first person ever to ask him to put the muscle on someone.

Exercising on a treadmill next to Diodato, Russo told him that her "niece" was being abused and harassed by her husband.

"She was in a very bad relationship with her husband and she wanted someone to talk to him, to scare him, rough him up or something of that nature," Diodato, who also received immunity, testified.

Gone awry

Prosecutors say it was always a murder plot.

During her opening statement this week, prosecutor Denise Merrifield told jurors that Lee Ann Riedel had given Salierno a photo of her husband and information about his business on Long Island. Then, with a friend along for the ride, Salierno rented a van, bought a .38-caliber handgun, killed Algeri, got rid of the weapon and returned the van, the prosecutor said.

Algeri, the best man at the Riedels' 1999 wedding, was shot five times when he entered a dark rear parking lot of the Dolphin Fitness Center in Amityville, N.Y., to retrieve compact discs from his car.

Prosecutors allege that Salierno and his friend, Scott Paget, were waiting for Riedel in the van, but mistook Algeri for their intended victim. According to police, a witness spotted a van outside the about the time Algeri was gunned down.

Sometime after the shooting, Diodato testified, Salierno paid him a visit at his office to ask if he knew of a place where he could have a rental van thoroughly cleaned before returning it.

When asked why, Salierno replied, "You don't want to know. You don't want to know," Diodato told jurors.

Paget is also expected to testify against Salierno and Lee Ann Riedel as part of a plea bargain.

He said, she said

For each defendant, and each jury, there is a very different story.

Lee Ann Riedel lays responsibility for Algeri's death entirely at Salierno's feet. Her lawyer, Bruce Barket, said during his opening statement that Salierno was jealous of Paul Riedel and wanted him out of Lee Ann's life.

"He's guilty as sin," Barket said.

Although Riedel's jury is hearing a lot about Salierno's alleged motives and role in the killing during Barket's cross-examination of witnesses, Salierno's jury hears none of it. Whenever Barket begins his questioning, Salierno's jury exits the courtroom.

Saying she's no "Lady Macbeth," Barket told jurors Riedel isn't the cunning would-be husband killer prosecutors are trying to make her out to be. He has been trying to paint Salierno as a controlling, jealous type who wanted to be in charge.

Salierno claims he was "on a date" when Algeri was killed and that prosecutors have offered "cheese" in the form of leniency and grants of immunity to "rats."

Both Salierno and Riedel face life in prison if convicted.

A retired New York City homicide investigator who has been working as a defense investigator said Riedel got involved with the wrong crowd in Florida, but she's no killer.

"When this is all finished, you will see that Lee Ann had no part in a murder or planning a murder," the investigator, Jay Salpeter, told Courttv.com. "Lee Ann is guilty of making bad choices in her life, and getting involved with the wrong men, but she's no murderer."

Salierno's parents have been attending the trial but have refused to talk to reporters. Riedel's father, David Armanini, said he is confident that Riedel will be acquitted and freed from jail.

"Through the Blessed Mother and her Divine Son, my daughter will be proven innocent," Armanini told Courttv.com. "She will be coming home to her family."