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Murder Plots, Bumbling Cops, and Con Men: When Reality TV Goes Wrong

How a Florida newlywed who allegedly plotted to have her husband killed on an episode of 'COPS' is fighting her case.

by Francisco Alvarado
Apr 4 2016, 7:00pm

Dalia Dippolito waits for a ruling by Judge Jeffrey Colbath during her original trial in 2011. (AP Photo/ Richard Graulich, Pool)

Yellow tape blocks off the entrance of a two-floor beige townhouse in Boynton Beach, Florida, as the sun breaks on August 5, 2009. Shaky, grainy video shows a police technician taking photographs. Soon, a thin, olive-skinned woman—her raven-black ponytail tucked under a baseball cap—enters the frame.

Dalia Dippolito walks up to a beefy cop in jeans and a green polo shirt bearing the insignia of the Boynton Beach Police Department. The detective relays the grim news that Dippolito's husband, Michael, has been murdered. She wails and begins hyperventilating as the officer tries to console her.

But later that day, the police department's media relations bureau posted the raw footage on its website and on YouTube. The clips were eventually used as evidence against Dippolito, whom law enforcement officials in Broward County successfully prosecuted in 2011 for attempting to have her man assassinated. But the alleged femme fatale has always maintained that she was simply auditioning for a chance to become a reality TV celeb.

Meanwhile, the now ex-husband—convicted conman Michael Dippolito—remains alive and well.

The police department staged the fake homicide scene as part of a criminal investigation that caught Dalia Dippolito on video apparently seeking out a contract killer through an ex-lover, Mohamed Shihadeh. She also met with an undercover cop posing as the hitman to close the deal. Overnight, the recordings transformed the woman into one of those viral villains featured on American awfulness porn mainstays like Nancy Grace.She also had the starring role in an episode of COPS that was all about her case.

Here's where this twisty Florida crime caper gets weirder.

During a February 23 hearing to have her case dismissed before a new trial, Dippolito took the stand for the first time since she was arrested seven years ago. Under oath, the now-33-year-old alleged black widow claimed that she was acting the entire time she was under surveillance, and that her then-husband and Shihadeh—who once appeared in an episode of Burn Notice—were in on the stunt. (At a January hearing, Shihadeh denied Dippolito's Hollywood-style version of events.)

"We were trying to simulate the episode he was on," Dippolito said. "It was a murder for hire episode. It was somebody who had faked, um, their murder for hire, and it wasn't. It was an actor who had faked it."

To no one's surprise, the judge rejected her dismissal request. Despite the wild defense that the plot to whack her man was just an elaborate acting project gone off the rails, it's a defense strategy Dippolito has stuck to for the entire half decade she's been in the criminal justice system. Her former husband, Michael, took the stand five years ago to refute these claims, but back then, Dippolito chose not to testify in her own defense—and a jury found her guilty. Now she's hoping questionable behavior by Florida law enforcement will get her off the hook.

"She was desirous of starring on a reality TV show and knew the cameras were rolling at the time," Mark Eiglarsh, one of her defense lawyers, tells me. "It is extremely ironic that my client desired to be in the limelight, and as a result of this case, she is certainly now in the public eye, which we believe hindered her ability to get her fair trial."

Dippolito certainly gave a convincing turn in the surveillance video showing her meeting with the undercover cop posing as the killer-for-hire. The footage shows her sitting in passenger seat of the investigator's car, where Dippolito agrees to pay $3,000 in cash (and later $4,000 more) for the hit and assures the fake assassin she won't crack when the cops start asking questions.

"I am a lot tougher than what I look," she says in the undercover footage. "I know you think, Oh, what a cute little girl. Whatever, but I'm not. I just need to make sure everything is going to be taken care of."

However, Eiglarsh and his celebrity co-counsel, Brian Claypool, hope to bolster their client's defense by painting the cops and the prosecutor who took down Dippolito as fame-mongers who engaged in bizarre conduct. Besides the whole posting-evidence-online thing, one of the cops admitted to misleading Dippolito into signing a waiver, so her footage could appear on COPS. The defense team also alleges that Shihadeh, a police informant, was threatened by cops, and in turn used a gun to scare Dippolito into meeting the fake hitman. (Shihadeh denies that charge.)

Finally, the attorneys are going after former Chief Assistant State Attorney Elizabeth Parker. After handling the original prosecution, she wrote a book about the case and even took on the ex-husband as a client in her private practice.

Two years ago, Dippolito won a reprieve when an appeals court overturned the 2011 conviction, along with a 20-year prison sentence, on a technicality. The judge in the first trial did not allow her attorneys to individually interview the jurors and gauge their outside knowledge of the high-profile case.

Eiglarsh says his client, who has been on house arrest since her first trial, expects to take the witness stand again during the second go-around later this spring.

During a hearing in March of last year, a judge allowed the defense to interview Detective Alex Moreno, who led the case, about recordings and notes that were allegedly not turned over to Dippolito's attorneys, as the Sun Sentinel reported. But her defense lawyers' were denied their request to re-interview two investigators they believed were not being honest about their relationships with Shihadeh and the intended victim, Michael Dippolito.

In a statement to VICE, Boynton Beach Police Chief Jeffrey Katz defended the department's probe. "We stand behind the principled work our detectives did on this investigation," he said. "We trust in our state attorney to successfully prosecute this case, and we are confident we have given his office sufficient evidence to meet the state's burden."

A spokesman for Palm Beach County State's Attorney Dave Aronberg declined comment.

The Sun Sentinel reported that Dipplito's lawyers allege a "pattern of prosecutorial misconduct" and a possible "conflict of interest" by Parker, the former Palm Beach County prosecutor who led the case against Dippolito. In February 2014, BenBella Books published Parker's tome about the case, Poison Candy: The Murderous Madam: Inside Dalia Dippolito's Plot to Kill.

In Poison Candy's prologue, Parker writes that Dippolito was "sharpening her talons for the first easy score she could sink them into," while her hubby, Michael, was "a good-natured, hapless ex-con with a war chest of cash and a nagging weakness for cocaine and call girls." It's not until the epilogue that Parker—who became a private lawyer shortly after Dippolito's original conviction—reveals that Michael is now her client. Parker did not return a phone message and an email seeking comment.

"She wrote a book about her experience on the case that paints a very unflattering portrait of my client," Eiglarsh says. "Its publication will make it even more difficult to secure an untainted jury."

Robert Jarvis, ethics law professor at Nova Southeastern University, says Florida Bar rules do not prohibit lawyers, including ex-prosecutors, from writing books about cases they worked on—as long as they don't disclose privileged information without a client's consent.

"However, If there's a chance for a retrial, you really should wait," Jarvis tells me. "But at some point, the book is no longer timely. Publishers and television networks always want to get the story out as soon as [a case] is over."

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