On June 7, 1989, at around 9:00 p.m., Thelma Royston was murdered in a horse barn located on the property she owned with husband Larry Royston. At the time of murder, Mr. Royston was inside the family residence with Thelma’s mother. Because of marital difficulties, law enforcement immediately suspected that Larry Royston had perhaps arranged the murder. However, the State could not put a case against Mr. Royston together until March of 1990. At that time, word on the street was that Gail Mordenti had been looking to hire someone to kill Ms. Royston. This word reignited the investigation into the murder. In late February and early March, law enforcement interviewed a number of persons connected with Gail Mordenti.
On March 8, 1990, law enforcement swooped down on Gail Mordenti’s residence to execute a State Attorney subpoena requiring her appearance before an assistant state attorney to give a sworn statement. When they arrived at 7:00 a.m., they expected to find Gail and her live-in boyfriend, Michael Milligan. However, Gail was alone; she reported that Michael Milligan had spent the night elsewhere. She later testified that when she was picked up by Detectives Baker and Kroll, on March 8, 1990, "they said they had the power - - that they could grant me immunity if I would tell them everything that I knew, and I said that if they could do that, then I would tell them everything that I knew about it, and they said fine. And then nothing else was said until we got here." At the State Attorney’s Office, she was given immunity. In return, she gave a sworn statement that Larry Royston asked her to find someone to kill his wife and that her ex-husband, Michael Mordenti, committed the murder.
Pursuant to her immunity, Gail Mordenti was not charged and remained free. Shortly after she gave her statement, she married Michael Milligan, on April 20, 1990.
Both Larry Royston and Michael Mordenti were arrested on murder charges. They were both released on bond pending trial. Mr. Royston’s trial was scheduled to go first in March of 1991. However on the eve of trial, Mr. Royston committed suicide.
Mr. Mordenti’s case then proceeded to trial in July of 1991. Mr. Mordenti was convicted and sentenced to death. Even though Mr. Mordenti presented an alibi for the time of the murder, the jury rejected the alibi based upon the testimony of Gail Mordenti Milligan.
The Florida Supreme Court acknowledged on direct appeal that "[n]o physical evidence was produced linking Mordenti to the crime, and Gail Mordenti [Milligan] was the only witness who was able to place him at the scene of the murder." Mordenti v. State, 630 So.2d 1080, 1083 (Fla. 1994). Thus, the State’s case rested entirely upon the credibility of Gail Mordenti Milligan, who testified that "as long as I told the truth, that I had total immunity." Gail elaborated in cross-examination at trial that "as long as I told the truth, the whole truth, that I had immunity."
At an evidentiary hearing in the fall of 2001, new evidence surfaced which established that Gail Mordenti Milligan had not told the whole truth at trial. At trial, Gail testified Larry Royston came to her house for lunch "it was either late February, or the beginning of March [of 1989]." At that luncheon, Larry Royston asked Gail if she knew anyone who could kill his wife. When Gail testified at the evidentiary hearing on November of 2001, she acknowledged that her date-book established that the luncheon with Larry Royston was not in February or March of 1989, but was on April 11, 1989. Gail testified at the evidentiary hearing when confronted with her trial testimony about the lunch with Larry: "If my book says that it was April 11th, then I was wrong." Gail also acknowledged that on April 11th, she had the first conversation she had with Larry Royston about his desire to find someone to kill Thelma. Accordingly, prior to April 11, 1989, she had undertaken no actions in search of a killer. Thus, she admitted her trial testimony was not the truth, the whole truth.
Interestingly, Gail Mordenti Milligan admitted at the evidentiary hearing that on April 12, 1989, the day after Larry Royston came to a luncheon at her house at her invitation, she gave a statement to law enforcement regarding an investigation into an allegation that she had stolen $200,000. According to her testimony at the evidentiary hearing, she had been notified prior to April 12th that the police wanted to talk to her about $200,000 that was missing from her prior place of business. Because defense counsel was not provided access to the date-book, he did not know to inquire about the proximity of the luncheon to the police questioning of Gail Mordenti Milligan regarding the missing money. However, the State did have the date book and did not share it with the defense.
At trial, Gail testified that prior to contacting Michael Mordenti about killing Thelma Royston, she had unsuccessfully sought to recruit three other individuals to do the murder. After some time had passed and she was unsuccessful in recruiting a killer, Gail testified that she turned to Michael Mordenti within a couple of weeks of the luncheon with Larry "which took place sometime, I think, in February, or the beginning of March." According to Gail’s trial testimony, Michael Mordenti wanted to scope out the Royston place in the daytime. Gail testified that later Michael Mordenti wanted to take a second drive out to the Royston’s place, this time at night. According to Gail’s trial testimony, Michael Mordenti went to Gail’s house in the middle of the night. Gail and Michael Mordenti then went and checked into a motel near the Royston place. In regard to this second trip (maybe a month after the first trip) that she and Michael Mordenti made to the Royston place, Gail testified that it occurred before Michael Milligan moved in to her house "either the end of March or beginning of April." Thus, the date-book reveals that Gail’s trial testimony was completely wrong about the timing sequence and provides a basis for arguing that Michael Milligan, her live-in boyfriend at the time, was the more likely accomplice on a late night trip in late April or May to scope out the Royston place.
Since the luncheon was not until April 11th, Michael Milligan had already moved in with her, thus it is unlikely that Michael Mordenti, as her trial testimony conceded, arrived at her house in the middle of the night to rouse her to go to the Royston place after Milligan had moved in. Since Gail was facing a mountain of debt and lawsuits as she revealed in 2001, it is certainly plausible that she turned to the man with whom she was living and going to marry, Michael Milligan for help in killing Royston’s wife. Interestingly, Milligan’s description matches that of one of the men seen near the Royston place on the night of the murder shortly before the murder.
Gail’s entry for June 7, 1989, the day Thelma Royston was murder included, "Call on ticket for Michael." And later, "Make calls again to Bus Co." In 2001, Gail Mordenti Milligan has testified that the entry "Call on ticket for Michael" refers to Michael Milligan, the man she was living with and would marry in April of 1990. She testified that this was in reference to a "speeding ticket." When asked how she knew that, she answered "[b]ecause he got a lot of them." She had no explanation for the entry "Make calls again to Bus Co."
Meanwhile, the trial prosecutor, Karen Cox, identified her handwritten notes documenting a 2/10/91 interview of Michael Milligan.. The notes reveal that Milligan worked for Michael Flynn of Flynn Motors as a transportation representative since 1985, that he met Gail in 1988 and starting seeing her in March 1989. The notes further indicated, "6/89- mordenti called him & had car picked up w was used in bank robbery from New Mexico." Thus, this note reveals that Michael Milligan told the prosecutor that he went to New Mexico in June of 1989, the month of Thelma Royston’s murder. At trial, Gail Mordenti Milligan indicated that the car used in the murder was left on the Mexican border. In his undisclosed statement to Karen Cox, Michael Milligan placed himself in New Mexico, relatively near the Mexico border, at the time that Gail says the car was being left at the Mexican border.
At trial, Gail testified that Michael Mordenti had given her a gun. "Michael gave it back to me after the murder, and I had it at the house." (R. 662). Gail gave the gun to the police in March of 1990, and evidence was introduced at trial regarding the FBI’s metallurgical examination of the bullets that were in the gun, finding them metallurgical similar to the bullets used in the homicide. The prosecution argued that this linked the bullets to the murder. On cross-examination at trial, Gail testified that Michael Mordenti gave her the gun while she worked at Carlisle which was "from October of ‘89 until April of ‘90, and it had to have been during that time." Thus, making her receipt of the gun after Ms. Royston’s homicide.
Previously in her March 8, 1990, sworn statement, Gail indicated that she received the gun "January, February, March [ ] 89." Gail had explained on March 8, 1990, "yeah, it was kind of a long time ago." This sworn statement placed the receipt of the gun before Thelma Royston’s murder. When asked at trial in cross-examination about this prior statement, Gail testified "I don’t remember making [that statement], no. I can read it, but I don’t remember making it."
In 2001, Gail recanted her trial testimony and acknowledged that she did not know when she received the gun, before or after the murder.
By the time of the 2001 hearing, both the lead prosecutor, Karen Cox, and the lead defense attorney, John Atti, have been suspended from the practicing of law by the Florida Bar.