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Italian dies suddenly while testifying in court

An Italian accused of killing his American girlfriend suffered a heart attack and died while testifying for the first time last Wednesday , his lawyer said Monday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

An Italian accused of killing his American girlfriend after he kidnapped their daughter suffered a heart attack and died on the stand as he testified in court for the first time, his lawyer said.

Carlo Ventre, 59, was pronounced dead at the scene by ambulance crews called to the Rome courtroom last week, attorney Roberto Leonardo said Monday.

Ventre had been testifying calmly for about 10 to 15 minutes Wednesday about the first fights he had with girlfriend Toni Dykstra when he suddenly said he did not feel well, Leonardo said. A few seconds later he was dead, he said.

"It's a terrible story, with a tragic epilogue," he said.

Ventre, who had suffered a heart attack in 2002, was charged with killing Dykstra in his Rome apartment in 1998.

Man predicted illness
Dykstra, who lived in Southern California's San Pedro area, had traveled to Italy to retrieve the couple's daughter, Santina. When she found the girl and Ventre, she obtained an Italian court order requiring Ventre to hand over the girl so she could return to the United States with her.

The day before they were to leave, Dykstra, 29, was found dead on the floor of Ventre's apartment. Ventre told Italian authorities Dykstra struck her head on a fireplace when he shoved her in self-defense after she attacked him with an ax.

Leonardo said the judge had allowed Ventre to go free pending trial because the autopsy showed that Dykstra died of a single blunt trauma to the head — consistent with a hard fall — and that Ventre had cuts on him that were consistent with injuries from an ax.

A day before his court date in Rome, Ventre had told Leonardo he feared he would not feel well when he testified, the lawyer said. Ventre arrived tired and sweating, Leonardo said.

Ventre appeared to be doing well while testifying in the air-conditioned court room, Leonardo said. "He was very calm, secure, detailed and very credible," but then suddenly stopped, said he didn't feel well and leaned back in his chair, the lawyer said.

‘Something unexpected’
Attorney Luca Ciaglia, representing the Dykstra family in the civil portion of the case, said the court was stunned.

"It was something incredible, something unexpected," he said, adding that the prosecutor had been calmly asking Ventre about his relationship with Dykstra when the heart attack occurred.

"I'm sorry for him," he said. "He probably was feeling great torment inside."

Ventre was charged with murder; he had pleaded innocent, saying he acted in self-defense.

Dykstra's family and friends had said Ventre repeatedly threatened to kill Dykstra. The couple had lived together in Downey, a south Los Angeles suburb, for about a year but never married.

Ventre was arrested when he returned to the United States in 1999 after Dykstra's father was awarded custody of Santina. He was convicted of international parental kidnapping charges and sentenced to nearly a year in prison.

After completing his sentence, Ventre was held without bond in the United States while he fought extradition to Italy. He was finally sent to Italy in 2005 after his appeals were exhausted to face murder charges in Dykstra's death.

Shortly after he was extradited, Ventre was also charged in the United States for allegedly soliciting the murders of Dykstra's parents and another kidnapping of Santina.

Santina has been in the custody of Ventre's brother, who lives in Las Vegas.