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Cosmetologist Convicted in Mexico Wins Court Appeal

July 17, 2001|JAMES F. SMITH and ALISON TRINIDAD | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

MEXICO CITY — The grandson of a famed Hollywood cosmetologist was on the verge of freedom Monday after an appeals court overturned his first-degree murder conviction and substituted a far less serious charge.

In April, Joseph Pantuso was found guilty of murdering a 76-year-old patient while administering a chemical facial-peel treatment at Pantuso's Mexico City home. The trial judge ruled that Pantuso poisoned and strangled George Arnold, a prominent Las Vegas show producer. Pantuso, 59, was sentenced to 23 years and nine months in prison.

However, a three-judge Mexico City appeals court panel found the lower court's ruling contradictory and badly reasoned. In a judgment issued Thursday, the court substituted the lesser charge of culpable homicide, saying Pantuso did not have available the required medical and first-aid support when he treated Arnold.

The judges sentenced Pantuso to two years and four months in prison but took into account the 17 months he has already been in custody, agreeing to release him on parole and a $5,500 bond. He must report to the court every month for the next two years and may not leave Mexico during that time.

Pantuso's lawyer, Jorge Vasquez, said he expected Pantuso to be released from the capital's maximum-security Reclusorio Oriente prison sometime before midnight Monday.

Accused Had Insisted He Was Innocent

In an interview Monday from behind the bars of the courtroom's holding area, Pantuso said he was pleased that the appeals court agreed that he had not intentionally caused Arnold harm. Flushed with emotion, Pantuso appeared thin and his hair much grayer than when he was arrested. He was dressed in prison beige, and his blue eyes were watery.

Pantuso has insisted that Arnold was an old family friend whom he had treated many times before and that Arnold died of natural causes in December 1997 while undergoing a touch-up treatment. Pantuso said Monday that although he disagrees with the finding that he was negligent, he preferred to accept it rather than continue appealing.

"I'm tired of fighting at this point, I'm really tired of fighting," he said. "I want to get on with my life and get on with doing my good work. I'm very proud of the work that I do."

Fernando Martinez, Pantuso's longtime assistant, who had also been jailed, was acquitted on all charges and released. Martinez declined to be interviewed, saying only that he was "in a very low state. Very strong depression. Tired."

Pantuso is the grandson of Cora Galenti, who made a name and a fortune for herself in Hollywood in the 1950s administering a chemical-based wrinkle treatment to the faces of stars such as Marlene Dietrich and Gloria Swanson.

Galenti ran into legal trouble in Los Angeles and moved to Las Vegas in the early 1960s. She was convicted of postal fraud there and moved her business to Mexico in 1963. Pantuso, who grew up in Los Angeles, went to Mexico and joined Galenti in business in 1981, taking over after her death in 1993.

He said he plans to resume his work here and hopes to expand the business, perhaps to Europe.

Pantuso maintained that resentment by competitors could have been behind the charges brought against him. He said he feels vindicated by the ruling.

"I'm relieved that the murder charge was dropped, absolutely relieved. I feel that the Mexican justice system is working," he said. "When we received the first judgment, we were absolutely appalled because I knew I was innocent of that charge. I'm pleased with the appeal, but I'm still saddened that anyone would misinterpret my actions as anything negligent."

'Our Prayers Have Been Answered'

Pantuso's sister, Joanna Herbert, said in a telephone interview from her home in Houston: "We're all very ecstatic; we're thrilled. Our prayers have been answered."

Herbert financed much of Pantuso's costly legal defense and on Friday rushed to him the $5,500 bond required for his freedom. She said she hopes he will be permitted to travel to Texas.

"It's been a horrendous ordeal for all of us, for our mother especially," Herbert said. "And also for somebody as genteel as my brother, especially since the gentleman who died was a friend of the family."

At the trial, the prosecution first argued that Pantuso had poisoned Arnold. The state later shifted its argument, claiming that Pantuso and Martinez had forced Arnold to swallow a toxic substance and then strangled him.

The defense contended that there was no forensic evidence to back up such a claim and that the state had never suggested a motive. Arnold had been treated first by Galenti and later by Pantuso during a period of 30 years. He was Pantuso's house guest at the time of his death.

Defense lawyer Vasquez said that "the prosecution wanted to make someone responsible, at any cost. The evidence was altered and was magnified without any basis. In the appeal court ruling, the state's case was devastated for lack of consistency with the facts."

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