By JOHN BURNETT
Tribune-Herald staff writer
A former mortician has been convicted of a near-fatal hammer attack on a downtown Hilo coin merchant exactly two years after the beating occurred.
A Hilo Circuit Court jury on Thursday found 70-year-old Robert Diego guilty of attempted second-degree murder and first-degree robbery for the June 13, 2011, attack on 67-year-old Donald Nigro at the victim’s Hualalai Street apartment.
Sentencing is set for Aug. 9 at 9:30 a.m. before Judge Greg Nakamura. He faces a mandatory sentence of life with the possibility of parole on the attempted murder charge and 20 years for the robbery. The jury ruled that since Nigro was over 60 when the attack occurred, Diego will have to serve a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years on the murder charge.
Diego displayed no emotion as the verdict was read. After he was escorted from the courtroom by plainclothes sheriff’s deputies, his daughter, Ranalynn Naipo, sobbed emotionally.
Nigro, who was in the courtroom gallery, smiled and wiped a tear from an eye after the verdict was read.
“I’m very happy,” Nigro said afterward. The jury of eight men and four women were shown graphic police photos showing Nigro lying in a pool of blood on the floor of his apartment following the beating. Nigro suffered a skull fracture and spent three nights in Hilo Medical Center before being discharged on June 16, 2011.
Diego’s court-appointed lawyer, William Heflin, said he was “surprised by the verdict.”
“I think in this particular case, I had a lot of evidence that Mr. Nigro was not very truthful, and as I said from the beginning, this is a two-person case. There were only two people in the room, my guy and Mr. Nigro,” he said.
Heflin said he respects the jury’s verdict but disagrees with it.
“As I think I said in the hearing we had back in October, there are some issues that I’m gonna appeal in this particular case, including the statement by Lisa Jobes and some other things,” he explained.
Jobes, a pretrial service officer for the Department of Public Safety, testified in October that she was told by Diego: “‘What I did was wrong and I’m just going to go to court and ask to be placed at H-triple-C (Hawaii Community Correctional Center).’”
“And that was a direct quote,” said Jobes, who said she relayed the quote to police as a matter of policy.
Nakamura ruled that the statement, and others made by Diego without being informed of his Miranda rights, were made voluntarily and admissible at trial.
Nigro, who owns the shop Antiques & Coins on Kilauea Avenue, said he wanted to buy some rare Hawaiian coins that Diego said he owned and that he had taken Diego to Nigro’s apartment because Diego had requested privacy for the deal. He said that once there, Diego surprised him by hitting him with a hammer on the head, unprovoked, numerous times.
Diego claimed that Nigro, who picked him up at the Hilo Shopping Center, had taken him unexpectedly to the apartment instead of the store. He said that once they were inside, Nigro had fondled Diego’s privates and grabbed his shirt and was trying to sexually assault him. He said he used the hammer, which he had brought to the apartment in a green cloth grocery bag, in self-defense.
Neighbors heard Nigro’s cries for help and called 911. Police and paramedics quickly arrived to the apartment, which is behind the Kilauea Avenue Burger King.
Diego is the former owner of Memorial Mortuary, which closed in 2006 after he pleaded no contest to charges of stealing from pre-need funeral plan funds. He served two months in jail.
More than 100 plaintiffs filed a 2004 civil suit against Diego, his then-wife Momi, and a daughter, Bobby-Jean Crivello. The Diegos never answered the suit.
In 2008, a Honolulu judge ordered that each plaintiff be reimbursed $10,000 for the lost funeral plans, and assessed $2.7 million against each of the three Diegos in punitive damages, for a total sum of $9 million.
Then-Gov. Linda Lingle authorized a $142,000 payout by the state to the plaintiffs in 2009 to settle an allegation that the state failed to properly regulate the funeral home.
Diego is also charged with two counts each of attempted first-degree murder and criminal solicitation of first-degree murder for allegedly twice trying to hire a hit man to kill Nigro. According to the indictment, the solicitations allegedly took place on June 16 and Aug. 10, 2011, while Diego was incarcerated at Hawaii Community Correctional Center.
A separate trial is scheduled for Oct. 21 on those charges, also before Nakamura.
Diego remains in custody without bail in HCCC.
Email John Burnett at email@example.com.