LANSING - Double murderer Dennis Michael Salerno broke his silence yesterday, claiming he was a loving husband, not a cold-blooded killer.
Just moments before Judge Peter Houk sentenced Salerno in Ingham County Circuit Court to life in prison without the possibility of parole, Salerno delivered a well-rehearsed speech to the court. He accused his estranged wife's family of tearing their marriage apart, saying police, prosecutors, and the judge had conspired to convict him of Michelle Rizzi Salerno's murder.
“I hold great contempt for this court in finding me guilty,” Salerno raged. “Perhaps if your honor had not been so busy e-mailing and instant-messaging his friends during my trial, perhaps the outcome would've been different.”
Salerno said he knows now why Lady Justice wears a blindfold.
Addressing both the court and his estranged wife's family, he said he hoped “that your gods have mercy on your souls” and promptly announced he would not stand but would take a seat at the defense table while his sentence was delivered.
The fiery speech came during the culmination of what has been a five-year ordeal for the woman's family. The pain began, they said, when Michelle met and married Salerno in 1997 and continued through their abusive marriage.
In June, 2000, Michelle, then a 26-year-old graduate student at Michigan State University, disappeared from her East Lansing apartment. Ten months later, Salerno led investigators to her body as part of a plea bargain with prosecutors in Wood County, where he was facing the death penalty for another murder.
Her remains were found in a construction landfill on the Bowling Green State University campus. An autopsy showed she had been strangled.
Salerno, 32, ultimately pleaded guilty to the murder of Larry McClanahan, a truck driver from Moscow, Ohio, he had met in prison years before. In exchange for his help in finding Michelle's body, the death penalty was dropped and he was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison.
On Aug. 27, Salerno was convicted of first-degree murder for Michelle's death after a trial before Judge Houk. Prosecutors contended Salerno killed his estranged wife because she had threatened to expose his homosexuality and divorce him.
Yesterday, he reiterated his claim that McClanahan killed Michelle while accusing her mother, Patricia Rizzi, of “the ultimate hate crime.”
“Pat Rizzi, my mother-in-law, has been the bane of mine and Michelle's existence since the day she found out we got married,” Salerno said.
He said Mrs. Rizzi despised Italian males, including her own husband, and worked from Day One to destroy the “loving marriage” he enjoyed with Michelle.
“She defined Italian males as despicable monsters and swore her daughters would never marry one,” he said.
Judge Houk, who gave Salerno the maximum sentence in Michigan, said he was not surprised by Salerno's speech, saying his contempt was based on a false sense of superiority.
“You have repeatedly lied to this court about your participation in this crime, about the location of the missing victim in this crime,” the judge said. “The biggest lie is the loving, faithful relationship with your wife. The record clearly belies that.”
Michelle's mother, father, and sister each told the court of the good things Michelle had done with her life and all that she hoped to do. They said her smile faded after her marriage to Salerno.
“She thought she had married the love of her life. She married her worst nightmare,” said Mrs. Rizzi of Swanton.
She called Salerno “a dangerous man who refuses to control himself. You maliciously destroyed the best thing in your life that ever happened to you.”
Mario Rizzi said his daughter always found the good in people, even in Salerno.
“You took her beautiful smile from her, and even though you put so many obstacles in front of her, she was still achieving her goals,” he said. “The only way you could stop her was to take her life in a cowardly way, I presume in her sleep.”
After the proceeding, Mrs. Rizzi had little to say about Salerno's accusations.
“I just considered the source,” she said.
Assistant Ingham County Prosecutor Sam Smith said the sentence was “bittersweet when he has the opportunity to stand up and again inflict pain on the victim's family. That was vicious and that was sick. I've never seen anything like it.”
While Salerno's case automatically will be appealed, Mrs. Rizzi said she believes she and her family could move on and focus on efforts to remember Michelle through support of Serenity Farms in Luckey, Ohio, a horse-riding program for autistic and handicapped children.
“I think this is the end of our dealings with Dennis,” she said.