By JOHN BURNETT
Tribune-Herald staff writer
A former mortician was sentenced Monday to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole for a near-fatal hammer attack on a downtown Hilo coin dealer more than two years ago.
Robert Diego, 70, will have to serve a minimum of 15 years behind bars for the June 13, 2011, attack since the victim, Donald Nigro, is over 60. Nigro was 65 when the assault occurred.
Diego appeared emotionless as Hilo Circuit Judge Greg Nakamura passed sentence. When the judge asked if Diego wanted to address the court, Diego replied, “No.”
Deputy Prosecutor Darien Nagata told the court that the sentence was warranted.
“Defendant has showed absolutely no remorse for his actions and made wild accusations, but the bottom line is Mr. Nigro was hoping to do a coin deal with the defendant,” she said. “Mr. Nigro had his money, cash and check, and jewelry, ready to complete the business deal.
“On the other hand, the defendant had a hammer with him for no legitimate reason … and attacked Mr. Nigro from behind, hitting him on the head, almost killing him.”
Diego’s attorney, William Heflin, disagreed with the description of his client as remorseless.
“It’s very clear that he does regret striking Mr. Nigro. It’s just that there’s a difference over why that striking happened,” Heflin said. “… Mr. Diego maintains that he struck Mr. Nigro in self-defense.”
The hammer attack occurred in Nigro’s Hualalai Street apartment in Hilo, and Nigro suffered nine head wounds and a fractured skull. Nigro testified during the trial that Diego had given him a list of rare Hawaiian coins he claimed to have for sale, and had requested for privacy reasons that the deal be done somewhere other than Nigro’s Kilauea Avenue shop.
Nigro addressed the court during the sentencing, and referred to the coin list as “a death warrant on which he (Diego) expected to collect.”
“Miraculously, I survived Robert Diego’s attempted murder and robbery of me,” Nigro said.
Nigro called Diego’s claim that he was defending himself from an attempted sexual assault as “a defense of godawful lies, spin-doctored evidence and voracious personal attacks” and “an ugly charade of a defense, which is mostly a character assassination against me.”
Nigro turned to Diego and said: “Sir, I’m not the cause of your problems; you are!”
Nigro referred to Diego’s 2004 felony theft conviction for stealing from pre-need funeral plans at Memorial Mortuary, which Diego owned.
“Robert Diego’s criminal profile literally reveals that he has no respect for the living and the dead,” he said.
Diego served two months in jail on the first-degree theft conviction and the funeral home closed in 2006.
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 circuit judge ordered that each plaintiff be reimbursed $10,000 for the lost funeral plans, and assessed $2.7 million against each of the defendants 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.
After Monday’s sentencing, Nigro thanked Nagata outside the courtroom and said he was “very pleased.”
“My most important contribution to Hilo is that I survived his attack and I’m responsible for him going to jail for life, where he needs to be,” he said.
Heflin said that Diego would appeal the attempted murder conviction and sentence.
“We’ll make the arguments before the appellate court,” he said.
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, also before Nakamura. If convicted on those charges, Diego faces a mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of parole.
Email John Burnett at email@example.com.