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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Murder for hire plot outlined during Philadelphia trial

It sounds like the plot from a Shakespearean play, but with a decided South Philadelphia twist.

A father, upset because his daughter is dating a man he neither likes nor trusts, sends two henchmen to kill the unwanted suitor. If Shakespeare had written the story, the assassins would have carried swords or daggers.

Ronald Walker said he used a .25 caliber semi-automatic pistol.

Walker took the stand this afternoon during the opening day of testimony in the murder-for-hire trial of Ronald Galati, a South Philadelphia auto body shop owner with a checkered criminal past that includes alleged organized crime connections.

But neither Galati's past nor his suspected mob ties are expected to figure in the trial. Instead, the case will focus on the allegation that last year Galati, 63, hired three men to kill Andrew Tuono who was dating Galati's daughter Tiffany at the time.

Tuono survived the hit and is listed as a potential witness. So is Tiffany Galati.

"It's a simple case," Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Richardson said in his opening statement to the jury of 10 women and two men this morning. "Mr. Galati wanted Mr. Tuono dead." The reason, Richardson said, was also rather mundane. "Mr. Galati didn't like Mr. Tuono."

Testimony and evidence in the trial, which is expected to last about two weeks, may provide a more complicated and convoluted explanation for the Nov. 30, 2013, shooting in Atlantic City that left Tuono bleeding from bullet wounds to the stomach, back and hand.

"I shot four times," Walker, a stocky 49-year-old with an extensive criminal record for drug dealing, assault, attempted murder and robbery, told the jury. "They said I only hit him three times."

Asked why he stopped shooting, Walker replied, "Because there weren't no more bullets."

Walker said he was hired by Galati and promised $20,000 for the hit. He said Alvin Matthews, a boyhood friend, was with him during the shooting and that another longtime friend, Jerome Johnson, had set the murder up at Galati's request. Both Matthews and Johnson, like Walker, have pleaded guilty to murder-for-hire and conspiracy charges and are cooperating with the government. They are also expected to testify.

"This is a case about people, family and relationships," Anthony Voci, Galati's defense attorney, told the jury in a comment that hinted at the soap opera like nature of the case. How much the jury hears about Galati's strained relationship with his daughter and the reasons why he allegedly wanted Tuono killed may depend on whether Tiffany Galati is called as a witness.

What the jury won't hear is testimony about Galati's alleged criminal relationships with Johnson, Walker and Matthews. All three are accused of playing similar roles in another murder-for-hire case pending in Common Pleas Court. In that case, Galati is charged with ordering the murders of two rival auto body shop owners, a father and son, who he suspected were cooperating in an insurance fraud investigation that had targeted him.

Galati, his wife, his son and a dozen others, including the son of mob boss Joseph "Uncle Joe" Ligambi, are also under indictment in Common Pleas court in a multi-million dollar insurance fraud case. Johnson, Matthews and Walker allegedly damaged cars as part of the fraud scheme. Authorities say Walker and Matthews were also involved in arson at Galati's behest.

But Judge Joseph Rodriguez, based on motions filed by Voci, said none of that information can be used in the current trial because it has nothing to do with the attempted murder of Tuono.

Galati, jailed since his arrest in the case, said little as he sat at the defense table next to his lawyer. In his opening statement, Voci told the jury there "was not a shred of physical evidence" tying his client to the case. Voci is expected to argue that there were other reasons why Tuono was targeted, reasons that had nothing to do with Galati.

The government's case, in fact, is built almost entirely on the word of Walker, Matthews and Johnson. Voci is expected to use his cross-examination to challenge the credibility and motivation of those witnesses and to raise questions about their involvement and Tuono's involvement in the drug underworld.

Walker and Matthews were arrested within minutes of the shooting and quickly gave up Johnson and Galati to law enforcement. Johnson eventually opted to cooperate as well. All three are expected to tell basically the same story.

Walker said Galati wanted Tuono dead.

"He said he had a problem with a guy and he needed it taken care of," Walker said, adding that Galati often talked in riddles and that at one point he told the auto body shop owner, "Say what you mean."

"He said he wanted me to kill the guy. He wanted him dead...but he didn't want it come back on him."

Walker said Galati at first suggested that they bury Tuono's body, but Walker balked. He said he eventually agreed to carry out the hit, but not dispose of the body. He said Johnson took him to two different locations in South Philadelphia where Tuono was believed to be staying, but that the target was not there either time.

Finally, on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, he said was driving in a car with Johnson when a call came in from Galati informing them that Tuono was at the townhouse he owned in Atlantic City. Walker said he had Johnson drive him to a few drug deal deliveries that day and that they stopped at a  Church's Fried Chicken restaurant for lunch before heading down the Shore to carry out the hit.

Prosecutors displayed surveillance camera shots from the fried chicken store that showed both Johnson and Walker placing orders at the counter that day. Matthews, Walker said, joined them for the trip to Atlantic City.

He said Johnson dropped them off near Tuono's Carson Avenue townhouse. They waited on the darkened street and up an alley for several minutes before Tiffany Galati and Tuono walked out the door.

Walker said he had been told by Johnson, "do not touch the girl."

Walker told the jury that Matthews called out to Tuono, "Yo, my man. I wanna talk to you."

"About what?" Tuono replied, according to Walker who said he then walked up to the target, pulled a gun and told him, "Don't run."

Tuono ran, Walker said, and Walker opened fire.

Tiffany Galati showed little emotion, Walker said when questioned by Voci. In fact, he confirmed an earlier statement he had made to police that "She just stood there as if she knew what was going on."

Tuono, lying on the ground bleeding, yelled for her to "call 9-1-1, call the police," Walker said. Instead, he told the jury, she got into a BMW that was parked in front of the townhouse and drove away.

Walker said he and Matthews began to run from the shooting scene, but when they turned a corner they saw a police officer pointing his gun and ordering them to stop. Instead, they kept running. Walker said he tripped and stumbled and that the police officer quickly caught up with him.

Matthews was arrested within minutes a few blocks away.

Both men began cooperating almost immediately. Walker admitted that at first he told authorities that Matthews was the shooter, but he said he later changed his story and admitted he was the one who fired the shots.

Walker said he did not know Tuono's name and did not ask Galati why he wanted him dead.

"It wasn't my business to know why," he said.



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