If the State of Florida's attempted murder-for-hire case against Dalia Dippolito unfolds like a reality show, maybe that's because it was made with television in mind.
Dippolito, 33, became the key figure in a special edition of TV's "Cops," which worked with Boynton Beach police to show her allegedly conspiring to kill her newlywed husband. But this wasn't the show she wanted: Her defense lawyers say the entire plot was an act, and that she was performing for police in an ill-conceived attempt to create content for her own reality TV show pitch.
The Boynton Beach department had been planning ride-alongs with the "Cops" crew for months when they said a great case appeared out of nowhere in the summer of 2009: Mohamed Shihadeh, who owns check cashing stores and delis, walked in with a salacious tip, saying his former lover had asked him for help finding a hit man to murder her husband.
Born Dalia Mohamed in New York, Dippolito obtained a Florida real estate license, but her new husband Michael Dippolito — a convicted con-man — said they met when he called for her services as a prostitute. He said the sex was great, romance followed and they married as quickly as they could.
But the police informant said she wanted his money: about $250,000 in savings and their $225,000 townhouse, which the new husband had paid for in cash and put in her name just days before she allegedly planned to have him killed.
Detectives urged the "Cops" film crew to come quickly. They also wired Shihadeh, his phone and his car, and had him introduce Dippolito to undercover officer Widy Jean, who would play the hit man.
"Cops" got plenty of video, some of which the police posted on YouTube even before their case was closed:
- A 23-minute conversation where she tells the apparent hit-man she's "5,000 percent sure" she wants her husband dead, and promises $7,000 for the job.
- The scene at her townhouse two days later, where police break the news to Michael Dippolito.
- The same house, now surrounded with yellow crime scene tape, where Dalia Dippolito falls sobbing onto the chest of a detective who says her husband has been murdered.
- Her videotaped interrogation, where she denies doing anything wrong and suggests to detectives that her husband's former crime partners could be the killers.
Nowhere in this recorded evidence did Dalia Dippolito tell the story she would later bring to court: That she, her husband and Shihadeh were all major fans of reality TV and were only pretending. She claims that they had dreamed up an ill-conceived but innocent video project, in which she would play the part of a murderous newlywed, and then pitch TV producers to hire them.
Michael Dippolito and Shihadeh deny this story.
She was convicted in 2011 and sentenced to 20 years in prison, but an appellate court overturned the verdict because her lawyers weren't allowed to ask jurors individually about their knowledge of the case.
She plans to use the same defense in her May retrial, but her new attorneys, Mark Eiglarsh and Brian Claypool, are emphasizing a twist: They say the police were so intent on impressing "Cops" that they threatened Shihadeh with arrest if he quit being their informant, and that he in turn forced her at gunpoint to meet the pretend hit man.
Shihadeh denies threatening her, with or without a gun, but agrees that detectives pressured him.
Boynton Beach Police Chief Jeffrey S. Katz expressed confidence that Dippolito will again be convicted.
"Our burden rests in the establishment of evidence, not in crafty impression management techniques," he said in a statement. "Whether it's the legendary Twinkie defense or Ms. Dippolito's original reality TV story, defense attorneys have a long history of attempting to establish reasonable doubt. That's what they are hired to do."
She married Michael Dippolito, who says he ran an online marketing company, in January 2009, five days after his divorce from his first wife. Freed from prison, he still owed $191,000 in restitution to the victims he defrauded in a foreign currency scheme, but was sending each just $10 or so a month, while sheltering his cash and buying liposuction for his love handles, a Porsche, an SUV, and, for his mother, a condo. He remains on probation.
The strongest evidence against her is Dippolito herself, as she appears in the passenger seat of the apparent hit-man's red Lexus convertible. They discuss options for payment, plans of attack, his getaway and her alibi. They agree on a date — the following Wednesday — and he tells her to visit the gym as cover.
He also cautions that there's no backing out once she leaves the car, and questions whether she'll be able to handle the pressure of being interrogated by detectives.
"No, I'm not gonna, you know, I'm a lot tougher than what I look. I know you see me and you like go, 'What a cute little girl' or whatever," she says, laughing nervously. "But I'm not."
Two days later, police converged on the Dippolitos' home after she hit the gym, and "Cops" got its money shots.
With cameras rolling, Dippolito holds his head in his hands, apparently shocked that his new bride wanted him dead. Then, with the property taped off to look like a crime scene, she shows up, and more tears flow. Videos show her sobbing with detectives, then again when her husband — very much alive — was brought before her, and once more, when she was taken away in handcuffs.
Shortly after her first trial in 2011, Dalia Dipplolito did star in a reality show. The "Cops" special can still be watched online.