ROME – An Italian accused of killing his American girlfriend after he kidnapped their daughter suffered a heart attack and died on the stand Monday 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, attorney Roberto Leonardo said.
Ventre had been testifying calmly for 10 or 15 minutes 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.
Dykstra, who lived in the San Pedro area of Los Angeles, 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.
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, after traveling an hour on public transport in nearly 95-degree heat Monday, Leonardo said.
Ventre appeared to be doing well while testifying in the air-conditioned courtroom, 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.
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."
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 his deportation. He was finally sent to Italy in 2005 after his appeals were exhausted to face charges in Dykstra's death.
Shortly after he was deported, 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.