The Hamilton Spectator
Maria Figliola’s regret
At her trial, Crown prosecutors said Figliola’s motive was “greed and lust” and that she paid about $17,000 for a contract hit so she could receive Frank’s life insurance and pension money …
In one of Hamilton’s most sensational murder cases, Stoney Creek’s Maria Figliola was convicted — twice — for hiring a hit man to kill her husband 18 years ago. And now, she tells the Spectator’s Jon Wells, she is ready to take responsibility for the crime. Or is she? STONEY CREEK, ONT. AUG. 7, 2001
It was a hot, moonlit night.
A man on a bicycle spotted the body off a path by Lake Ontario.
At 3:20 a.m. a police officer snapped photos and jotted notes:
Male victim, face down in the grass wearing boxers, shirt, socks, running shoe on right foot, left shoe removed; track pants, bloodstained, inside out, 86 metres from the body. Wounds on back of the head; welts on the back.
Police ran the plate of a car nearby. It belonged to Frank Figliola, who lived three kilometres away.
Inside his wallet in the car was a piece of paper where he had written his wife Maria’s cellphone number.
Nearly two years later Maria woke early and drove to work in Toronto.
She settled at her desk.
Three Hamilton homicide detectives walked up.
They arrested her for first-degree murder.
Would she like a coat over her arms to conceal handcuffs?
No, she would not.
On the drive back to Hamilton, a detective turned to her.
“Why do men fear you?”
GRAND VALLEY INSTITUTION FOR WOMEN KITCHENER, ONT.
She is smaller than I expected.
This is my first thought, meeting fourfoot-10 Maria Figliola for an interview in prison.
Maybe I thought her size would be commensurate with a person convicted in one of Hamilton’s most notorious murder cases.
Q: The police handcuffed you in the office when they arrested you? A: I guess they didn’t want me to misbehave. Like three burly men couldn’t handle me.
My interview with Figliola was 10 years in the making.
I first wrote her in 2009. In her return letter, she criticized media for wielding “malicious gossip” to “cash-in on the tragedy suffered by me and my family,” but also left the door open to meeting in the future when her appeals dried up.
I wrote her again last spring. “I trust that it is time that my voice is heard,” she wrote in reply. “It has been stifled for the past 18 years and it is at this point that I have nothing else to lose.”
Figliola is the seventh person I’ve interviewed in jail who is serving time for homicide; the first woman, and second inmate with a university degree, a BA in history from McMaster. (Anti-abortion terrorist/ doctor killer James Kopp, who I interviewed in prisons in Buffalo and West Virginia, had a master’s in biology.)
And she is the first who was convicted for contracting a hit man.
When Figliola sat down in an interview room at Grand Valley Institution in September, she reiterated her displeasure with The Hamilton Spectator.
She said a reporter had dubbed her “the black widow” during court coverage.
“What, you conquer your prey like a black widow spider, and then you kill them?” Figliola said, lapsing into second-person. “I don’t do that, sorry.”
That first interview lasted about an hour. I returned for a second that lasted two hours.
A dilemma: how to write the story?
I could do a straight Q&A, but there were details of the homicide case presented in court that were, not surprisingly, at odds with her comments.
I decided to present Maria Figliola’s take on her life and crimes, as well as the narrative of what happened with the investigation and trials as covered in the Spectator — from which, as will become clear, at least one loose end still remains.
Quoting Figliola extensively risks presenting her as a sympathetic figure. That is always the danger when the convict is the protagonist.
I’ve attempted to simply lay it out there: the most important elements of the case, and what the woman at the centre of it says for herself, 18 years after her husband, Frank, was found dead from a fractured skull.
A forensic pathologist deduced that blows were inflicted with a blunt, cylindrical, tapered object: stunned by a blow to the face, falling forward and beaten.
Police believed the weapon was a pool cue.
At her trial, Crown prosecutors said Figliola’s motive was “greed and lust” and that she paid about $17,000 for a contract hit so she could receive Frank’s life insurance and pension money, while continuing an affair with a younger man.
“They really established character for me,” Figliola tells me. “She’s a whore, she embezzled money, killed her husband, and is a drunk who is into cocaine.”
Now 63, she lives not in the maximum security facility bordered with razor wire, but minimum security next door, for inmates who have stayed out of trouble in prison.
“I haven’t threatened anyone. Haven’t put out any contracts on anybody.”
She requested permission for weekly escorted visits to attend church, and visit her mother in Stoney Creek, and was ultimately granted both by the Parole Board of Canada.
She says she prays each day for forgiveness.
But forgiveness for what?
The answer to that question, in the nonspiritual realm, may influence whether Figliola is ever granted day parole.
The parole board wants her to “take accountability” and admit she hired a hit man to kill her husband.
“It’s taken me this long to finally say I was part of my husband’s murder,” she says.
“But I wasn’t the one who sanctioned it. Did I know something was going down? Yeah, I thought maybe they were going to break his legs or something like that ... I messed up, I sinned in the eyes of the church. I had an affair. But I didn’t kill anybody.”
Police speak of truth detection in interrogations as something of an art: what is the suspect’s tone? Does he use the passive voice and wordy and evasive answers?
The innocent are typically direct in their denials.
The guilty ramble, deflect, offer alibis without being asked.
Near the end of my first interview with Figliola, I tried to catch her off guard asking the big question.
Q: So did you hire a hit man to murder Frank?
A: No, I did not hire a hit man to murder Frank. I don’t know any hit men.
THE HAMILTON SPECTATOR/AUG. 7, 2001 Father of two fifth homicide of the year
“Frank Figliola told his wife Maria he was stepping out for a few minutes, got into his black Chevrolet Malibu and drove away. Five hours later, the 49-year old was found dead next to a walking path, the apparent victim of a homicide.”
The funeral was held at St. Francis Xavier Church in Stoney Creek, where Frank and Maria married in 1976.
They were born in Italy, moved to Hamilton in the 1950s, and knew each other as kids. Their first date was a Ticats football game in 1970 when he was 19 and she was 14.
Frank was a steelworker, Maria graduated from McMaster University and got hired at a bank.
In 2000 Maria applied for divorce and Frank moved out, but soon returned. They agreed to live in the same house until their son and daughter left home.
In late August 2001, two weeks after the murder, police spoke with
Figliola at her home on Royce Avenue in Stoney Creek.
Police told her nothing that suggested she was a suspect. It was at this interview that she offered police a theory on Frank’s murder, in a conversation that was ultimately revealed in court.
Sitting at her kitchen table, Figliola told detectives Frank had owed money to violent people through his gambling habit. She told them that in the past it got so bad she embezzled $400,000 from her job as a bank account manager to cover losses to the household.
She added that she had previously confessed stealing the money to her bank supervisor, and then resigned from the job. She told police that so far she had never been arrested for embezzlement, but figured it would happen some day.
Three weeks after that kitchen interview, Figliola phoned a homicide detective.
She told him she was upset that an insurance agent told her that the claim on Frank’s life was held up because Hamilton police said she was a suspect.
The detective replied that police typically tell insurance companies no one is ruled out as a suspect.
“My mother and my brother told me I should get a lawyer,” she told the detective.
“You’re innocent, right?” he replied. “You have nothing to do with this, right?”
“Right,” she said.
“Then work with us. We need your help to find out what happened to your husband.”
GRAND VALLEY INSTITUTION FOR WOMEN KITCHENER, ONT.
Some interview subjects need to be coaxed into talking.
Maria Figliola is not one of them. She speaks at length, with little prompting, sometimes circuitously.
She still tries to link Frank’s murder to gambling, and says it was foreshadowed by incidents prior to his bludgeoning death.
“In 2001 these guys came to me, and entered my garage,” she says. “They said, ‘your husband is in trouble again.’ And I basically said, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t help you, do what you have to do.’ That’s when I shut the door, sat down and started shaking. I thought ‘Oh my God, what’s going to happen now?’ ”
Q: This was because they wanted money from Frank?
A: Well yes, he was gambling. And back in 1999, at 4 a.m., we received a call from Hamilton police, and they identified themselves but I didn’t believe them. And they said ‘Where is your Nissan Pathfinder?’ And I said, it should be in the garage. They said it was stolen and they found it. The truck was burned, and the only thing left was the frame.
She says the truck was found in 1999 near the same spot as his body in 2001.
Q: Is that a coincidence?
A: I don’t believe it is a coincidence.
AUGUST 27, 2002 GRIMSBY, ONT.
Homicide detectives came knocking at Maria Figliola’s door.
A year had passed since Frank’s murder, and since they had last seen her.
Figliola had sold the family’s Stoney Creek home and moved 15 kilometres east.
They told her the investigation was changing course because the gambling angle didn’t pan out. Then police spoke to the media. She read the story three days later in the newspaper:
THE HAMILTON SPECTATOR/AUG. 30 2002 Figliola slaying still baffles police; Back to square one in solving lakefront bludgeoning
“Hamilton police investigating Frank Figliola’s murder a year ago have come to the conclusion they’ve been following the wrong theory all along. Now they’re reinterviewing witnesses and asking very different questions.”
The truth was that police had been following Maria ever since the murder, and she remained the prime suspect. Their theory was that she ordered a hit on Frank.
But police were telling Figliola, and reporters, that the gambling angle was a dead end, in an attempt to provoke her.
Detectives wanted to get her talking with two men they had spotted her with in the weeks following the murder; Daniele Di Trapani and Geoffrey Gonsalves.
Di Trapani ran two clubs in Stoney Creek.
Gonsalves, 32, was 13 years younger than Maria. They had begun an affair after meeting online five months before Frank was killed.
Police received permission from a
“I trust that it is time that my voice is heard,” Maria Figliola wrote in reply. “It has been stifled for the past 18 years and it is at this point that I have nothing else to lose.” Police speak of truth detection in interrogations as something of an art: what is the suspect’s tone? Does he use the passive voice and wordy and evasive answers? The innocent are typically direct in their denials.
judge to tap her phone.
Maria’s cell number, found in Frank’s wallet in his car, had been critical to the investigation: One, it proved she had lied to police when she told them she didn’t own a cellphone; and two, they discovered her call history included 143 calls with Di Trapani in the two months prior to the murder.
On Sept. 3, 2002, police interviewed her at Central Station downtown.
A detective showed Figliola a list of names. It included Di Trapani’s.
He asked if she recognized any of them.
No, she said.
He asked if she had dated anyone since Frank was killed.
“I’ll be honest with you,” she told the detective. “I don’t sleep with anyone right now and I didn’t before, either. If my husband ever found out he would probably have put me six feet under. Because you know, it’s unforgivable, a major sin. And I don’t have any suitors lined up at my door. You can ask my kids.”
Before she left the station, police installed a listening device in her car.
Later, they overheard a conversation between Figliola and Geoff Gonsalves. He complained that she hadn’t paid off a line of credit they ran up to nearly $50,000.
“You made it quite obvious,” she replied on the phone, “that it’s not me you want, but the f---ing line of credit.”
“When the money is disappearing out of the account and you don’t even know what the hell it’s for, that’s a problem,” he said. “Why don’t you tell me what else you’re lying about?”
On Sept. 17, police watched Figliola drive around Toronto with Gonsalves, in a leased Mercedes Benz she co-signed for him. He had sold part of Frank’s sports card collection for $900 to help pay for it.
The next night, two detectives showed up at Gonsalves parents’ home near Toronto, and interviewed him in the basement where he lived. They told him they were investigating the Aug. 6, 2001, murder of Maria Figliola’s husband. They told him he was a suspect. They noted it was odd that he had gone from driving a Ford Focus last year to a Mercedes.
When they left, he phoned Figliola.
“They’re accusing me of this,” he told her. “They want me in for a DNA test.”
“You’ve done nothing wrong,” she said. “If they had anything on you, do you think you’d still be walking around? The DNA test will prove you’re innocent.”
“I don’t like being accused of things I didn’t do. Either they have nothing and they’re trying to pin it on me, or you are trying to set me up.”
“Geoff, I swear on the lives of my children, I had no idea the police were down there.”
“Maybe you guys are used to this, but I’ve got news for you, I’m not used to it.”
“I’m used to what? People dying in front of me? Cops accusing me?”
Two days later, Gonsalves told Figliola he feared police were tapping his phone.
“I don’t care if they tap it,” she said. “I’m just telling the world that I love you and that’s not a crime.”
To ease his anxiety, Figliola wrote a statement declaring she took “full and all responsibility for my husband’s death.”
Then she met him at a coffee shop Sept. 30 and handed it over in an envelope.
He could open it in the future if necessary.
A police officer spied on the exchange.
That night, Gonsalves phoned Figliola and told her that he gave the letter to his lawyer.
And the lawyer gave it to police. “Then I’m f----d,” she said. “You wanted security, I gave you security. And you put the noose around my neck.”
Gonsalves later entered a police witness protection program, and testified in court as a key witness for the prosecution.
GRAND VALLEY INSTITUTION FOR WOMEN KITCHENER, ONT.
Q: You denied to police that you were seeing Geoff Gonsalves.
A: I was manipulative and deceitful with the police in the beginning. I lied about having a boyfriend, and the cellphone, because it would have connected me to the boyfriend ... Did I sin in the eyes of the church? Absolutely. And I get on my knees every single solitary day and ask for forgiveness.
Q: That letter you wrote Geoff, it implicated you, and that’s why you felt like you were finished?
A: ‘I’m f----d’ is what I said. Because either the police are going to get me, or the people who did this to my husband will. And I increased my life insurance to a million dollars, because as God as my witness I thought I was next.
Q: Have you been in touch with Geoff since your incarceration?
A: No. But when I was first in here, when Geoff was still under witness protection, my lawyer told me that his handler was asking on his behalf if Mr. Gonsalves could have conjugal visits with me. I said, ‘Are you serious? The Crown’s star witness? Send him in!’ My lawyer told me, ‘Maria, we’re trying to get you off of one murder, we don’t need another one.’”
Q: In that letter you said you took responsibility for Frank’s murder.
A: I take responsibility because I did not go to police to let them know what was happening in my husband’s life.
Q: But you don’t take responsibility for hiring a hit man?
A: No. And I don’t know how they could have misinterpreted the letter.
Q: What do you think, looking back on the affair?
A: That’s my biggest regret. For 10 years, Frank and I were in the same house but he slept in the basement. It gets lonely. But it was wrong. I tell women in here, I’m here for tripping over a penis.
Q: Do you know where Geoff lives now?
A: I don’t know and I don’t care. He was a weakling. The last time I saw him I said, ‘Geoff, grow a spine.’ He has to live with what he did to me for the rest of his life.
HAMILTON POLICE CENTRAL STATION DEC. 3, 2002
Fifteen months after Frank’s murder, a detective questioned Daniele Di Trapani. Their conversation was ultimately revealed in court.
Police knew Di Trapani had spoken with Maria Figliola 13 times the day of the murder; the last time at 7:25 p.m., for less than a minute, when Frank was out buying a lottery ticket.
And then, after that evening, there had been zero calls between Figliola and Di Trapani.
Police now asked him: Do you know Maria Figliola?
Not well, he said. Just acquaintances.
The detective pulled a surveillance photo: it had been taken one month after the murder, when Di Trapani was seen with Figliola chatting in a parked car.
They showed him more photos: Di Trapani picking up Figliola near her home; dropping her off at a bank; returning her home.
The detective asked: “What did you do with the 35 $100 bills she took out of the bank and gave to you?”
“She didn’t give me money,” he replied.
What about the $10,000 cheque from Figliola, made out to a numbered company in his name?
I had to borrow from her, he said, to pay off loan sharks.
“How much was your original loan?”
“Five grand. But I owed them 10 grand.”
“It doubled on you?” “That’s why I had to do it. It was either that or my legs.”
The detective mentioned a name: Pat Musitano. The Hamilton mobster.
Di Trapani replied that they were not close; he just managed one of Musitano’s restaurants.
After the interview with police, Di Trapani phoned a friend named Louie Latorre.
The two men had been together the night Frank was killed, and police wanted to know when and where.
“I’m in a bit of trouble,” Di Trapani told Latorre, adding that if police call, tell them we were together that night, but at Tim Hortons.
“F--k you,” said Latorre. “Don’t get me involved. I don’t want to know.”
Two months later, on Feb. 20, 2003, Maria Figliola was arrested and charged with criminal breach of trust and fraud for embezzling money from her bank between 1992 and 1996.
On April 15, 2003, police arrested her for first-degree murder. She was released on $200,000 bail, but later sent back to jail after receiving a five-year sentence for the fraud conviction.
And in October, police leaned on Latorre.
He told detectives he knew nothing about what Di Trapani did the night of the murder.
Police had heard otherwise: that Latorre was at Di Trapani’s soccer social club in Stoney Creek that night, where five or six men stood around a fire burning inside a steel drum. Police dubbed them the BBC; the “burning barrel crew.”
What had been burning? There were rumours floating that it was the murder weapon, or shoes worn by someone at the crime scene.
It was later revealed in court that police pressured Latorre to take a lie-detector test.
At the polygraph test, police sowed fear: Help us, they suggested, or one day people like Di Trapani will come for you. They told him forensic investigators found hair and blood in his car and sent samples to the FBI for DNA testing. That was not true.
“In an investigation like this,” a police officer warned him, “the person who the police are going to believe is the first person who talks.”
Latorre stuck to his story and passed the polygraph.
But moments after the test, his headache throbbing, tears in his eyes, Latorre told police he was scared. Di Trapani knows people, he said: Bikers.
Latorre talked. He said the night of the murder, he stopped at the club between 9 and 9:30 p.m. Nearly an hour later, he walked outside and saw Di Trapani and others beside the fire in the drum.
Di Trapani asked him for a ride, and then directed Latorre toward the lake, around a bend at the foot of Millen Road, near the gravel path by the water.
Slow down, Di Trapani told him. At that moment, Di Trapani put his hand on the back of Latorre’s head, nudged him forward, and stared out the windshield.
“What are you looking at?” Latorre asked.
“Just keep driving.”
They headed to a neighbourhood and stopped in front of a house.
Di Trapani got out. Minutes later he returned.
After hearing Latorre’s story, police took him for a ride.
Police asked him to point to the house where the men had stopped. He showed them. The house was on Royce Avenue.
HAMILTON SPECTATOR/JAN. 16, 2004 Second charge in beating death
“A 29-year-old businessman was charged yesterday in the death of a Stoney Creek steelworker. Daniele Di Trapani, whose family owns Cafe X/Treme, was the second person charged in the first-degree murder of 49-year old Frank Figliola in 2001.”
“I’m in a bit of trouble,” Di Trapani told Latorre, adding that if police call, tell them we were together that night, but at Tim Hortons. “F--k you,” said Latorre. “Don’t get me involved. I don’t want to know.”