Dead man's testimony against Gypsy sparks battle - East Valley Tribune: News

Dead man's testimony against Gypsy sparks battle

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Posted: Saturday, January 5, 2008 4:46 pm | Updated: 11:19 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Some would call it a case of he said-she said. But he is dead.

What is certain in the case is that 22-year-old Tina Salazar arrived July 3 at the east Mesa home of an 80-year-old widower, and by the time she left, each had been stabbed.

Woman stabs 80-year-old man with letter opener

80-year-old man stabbed in July 3 incident dies

Jerry Naponelli gave police his side of the story before he died two weeks later. His statements suggest the young woman who befriended him was part of a group of gypsies that targeted him for fraud.

Police reports and court records suggest Salazar’s partners in crime gave her up to police because the incident drew too much attention to the group.

But a jury may never hear Naponelli’s version of what happened in his condominium at 2310 S. Farnsworth Drive near Baseline and Sossaman roads.

Salazar, whose own stab wounds were nearly fatal, will ask a judge on Thursday to rule Naponelli’s statements to police as inadmissible because a dead witness is not subject to cross examination.

Laura Swenson, Naponelli’s granddaughter, said she’s been told by authorities that her grandfather’s statements are crucial in the case because the physical evidence tells only part of the story.

“They have a hard time proving what happened,” Swenson said.

A medical examiner ruled Naponelli’s death a homicide, and Mesa police recommended a charge of second-degree murder for Salazar. But she probably won’t be charged with his death.

Instead, she is charged with aggravated assault and criminal trespassing

WIDOWER FROM CHICAGO

Naponelli was a World War II and Korean War veteran who moved from Chicago to the East Valley in 1986 with his wife, Lillian.

He retired about a year later, and his wife died in 1998.

He was a union sheetmetal worker and spent his vacations fishing, whether it was deep sea or fresh water.

Salazar told police she knew Naponelli through her boyfriend’s sister, who spent more time with him than she did.

Naponelli told police he met the other woman, who the Tribune is not naming because she hasn’t been charged with a crime, in a Wal-Mart parking lot where she struck up a conversation.

Naponelli told police that Salazar, the other woman and their family scammed him out of $9,000, and Salazar showed up the day of the stabbing to get more money.

Swenson said her grandfather was enchanted by children, which may have been his undoing. He enjoyed making children happy and often made “rock people” figures at a lapidary shop to give as gifts.

She believes Salazar and the other woman used Salazar’s 6- and 4-year-old children to take advantage of him.

“That was his weakness,” she said.

SOFT SPOT FOR CHILDREN

Swenson said her grandfather would sometimes take the women shopping with Salazar’s children.

When he complained about the women loading the cart with too much merchandise, Swenson said one of the women would lead him away by the arm. He’d pay despite his misgivings, Swenson said.

“He was alone,” she said. “And he was lonely.”

A Mesa detective told Salazar he believed she and the other woman were pulling a sweetheart scam, which is where a con artist gains the trust of someone who is in need of companionship and love and eventually drains the victim’s finances.

Salazar said she was no part of any scam and was at his house only to get a package for her boyfriend’s sister. She told investigators Naponelli became angry and slapped her, and she grabbed a letter opener and forced him to sit down.

She said he grabbed a kitchen knife and stabbed her, but she didn’t remember stabbing him.

Naponelli told police that Salazar stabbed him first with the letter opener.

‘TALK OF THE COMMUNITY’

Witnesses saw Salazar staggering on the sidewalk and eventually lay down. People in a Chevrolet Suburban later picked her up.

That night police spoke with friends of hers, a man and woman, who told them they could find her at the Hollywood Video at Val Vista Drive and Guadalupe Road.

After her arrest, she said she remembered going to her home, getting bathed and then waking up in her truck with her children as police arrived.

Police later got tips she was part of a group that commits various scams, and the stabbing was “the nationwide talk of the community” and was “bad for the community.”

Naponelli underwent exploratory surgery, and two days later became confused and paranoid and ripped out his urinary catheter, which led to more surgery, according to an autopsy report.

He underwent two more surgeries and eventually died on July 18.

The medical examiner concluded that the medical complications he developed were the direct result of the assault, and his underlying medical problems limited his ability to recover.

Swenson, who becomes emotional when talking about her grandfather, said she isn’t overly concerned with any possible punishment Salazar may get because she’s already paid a heavy price with her serious injuries and losing custody of her children.

“Whatever happens to her, I just hope she can learn from it,” Swenson said.

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