By JOHN BURNETT
Tribune-Herald staff writer
A 67-year-old Hilo man who survived a brutal beating with a hammer almost two years ago broke into tears while describing the incident on the witness stand.
Donald Nigro testified Thursday in Hilo Circuit Court in the trial of 70-year-old former mortician Robert Diego, who’s charged with attempted second-degree murder, first-degree robbery and first-degree assault for the June 13, 2011, attack in Nigro’s downtown Hilo apartment. Nigro, a downtown Hilo coin dealer, said he allowed Diego into his apartment because he believed Diego had some rare Hawaiian coins for sale.
Nigro said he was talking on his cell phone as he and Diego went up the stairs to Nigro’s apartment, a second-story walk-up on Hualalai Street. He said that after they entered the apartment and Nigro was putting away the phone, Diego touched him on the shoulder and then hit him from behind with the hammer.
“Boom! I was hit very hard on the back of my head,” Nigro said. “… I just yelled, ‘What are you doing?’ … I yelled, ‘You don’t have to do this!’ And finally, I turned around.”
“And as you were doing this, what were you feeling?” asked Deputy Prosecutor
“For one thing, I was feeling a lot of blood going down the back of my neck, down my back,” Nigro replied. “You could feel the warmth of it and you could feel the dampness of it. You just know that it’s happening. This was a lot of blood.”
Nigro said that as he turned toward Diego, he raised his hands in an attempt to shield himself from further blows. He added that he felt “the impact of more blows to the head.”
“I see Mr. Diego with a hammer, very focused and trying to hit me through my hands. … I held my hands up in the hopes of intercepting the blows before they hit me.”
Nigro said he eventually managed to grab Diego’s right arm and stop the onslaught.
“In a situation like that, you’re just focused on trying not to get hit,” he said. “You’re not counting blows. You’re just hoping to keep from blacking out and hoping that you prevent the attack from continuing.”
Eventually, Nigro said, both men fell to the floor of the apartment with Diego atop him, face to face.
“He looked like he was out of breath, so I thought I could try to push him off and maybe I could defend myself. Maybe I could do battle. … But I didn’t have the strength left,” he said. “That’s when I knew I had to yell for help, hoping I could be saved. … So I started yelling, ‘Someone help me. Call the police.’ I started doing that, over and over.”
Nigro said that Diego then tried to suffocate him by shoving a plastic bag into his mouth, and also attempted to choke him with one hand. He added that Diego also tried to shove his finger’s into one of Nigro’s eyes and threatened to gouge Nigro’s eyes out if he didn’t stop yelling. Nigro said he was able to fend off those attempts.
“I wanted him to stop. I wanted him to leave. I was afraid if I passed out, I’ll never wake up,” he said. “I was bleeding profusely; I’m getting weaker by the second. He was winded from his attack on me. It was just a matter of him getting his strength back, and I can’t afford to get weaker as he gets stronger so I start yelling the best as I could. … I wanted him to leave, so eventually I say to him, ‘You must know the police are on their way.’ I didn’t know if they were or not, but I was hoping and praying that they were.” Nigro broke into tears at that point.
He said that before Diego dropped the hammer and got off him, he asked a question.
“He says to me, ‘Are you gay?’ … or maybe ‘Are you a homosexual?’ One or the two, but the question was there. And I was totally incredulous,” Nigro said. “I was wondering why is this question being asked. What does my sexual preference have to do with anything? I’m fighting for my life. I’m wondering why he’s asking a stupid question like that.”
Neighbors heard Nigro’s screams and called 911. Police arrested Diego, who, according to the previous testimony of Officer Casey Cabral, was still in the apartment standing in a hunched position over Nigro when police arrived.
“Mr. Diego said to the police that I sexually assaulted him,” Nigro testified. “I was flabbergasted, so I basically said, look at the clipboard. You’ll see a list of the coins that Mr. Diego said he had, a check for $18-thousand made out to Robert Diego. Look at my fanny pack. You’ll see between $20- and $30-thousand in jewelry. I was here to do a deal with Mr. Diego and Mr. Diego was here to rob and kill me, obviously.”
Diego is expected to testify that he was acting in self-defense.
Nigro’s court-appointed attorney, William Heflin, will cross-examine Nigro when the trial resumes at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday.
Email John Burnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.