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Mexico Frees U.S. Cosmetologist, Briefly

July 18, 2001|JAMES F. SMITH and ALISON TRINIDAD | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

MEXICO CITY — Just after Joseph Pantuso finally walked out of prison early Tuesday following an appeals court decision overturning his murder conviction, the former Californian was detained by Mexican immigration officials and moved to an even less pleasant cell.

Pantuso, 59, is expected to be released from the immigration detention center today. But it is unclear whether he will be allowed to stay in Mexico and resume his business, offering the chemical face-peeling treatments made famous by his grandmother, Cora Galenti, in Hollywood during the 1950s.

In April, Pantuso was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 23 years and nine months in prison in the death of an elderly client who was undergoing the wrinkle-removing treatment. An appeals court last week threw out that verdict, saying Pantuso had not intentionally caused the man's death.

Instead, the court convicted Pantuso of a lesser charge that in effect said he was negligent for not having appropriate medical and first-aid support available during the treatment. He was given a reduced sentence of two years and four months but received credit for the 17 months he spent in prison. The court then granted him parole.

Pantuso's conviction exposed him to possible deportation, and even if he is allowed to stay it is unclear whether he could receive a work permit. His residence visa expired while he was in prison.

In an interview at the detention center, Pantuso said that he had slept on the floor in a room with scores of other men and that conditions were worse than in the nearby prison. But he said he would prefer to stay in Mexico, where he has lived since 1979.

"I love Mexico in many ways, the people, the places," he said. "I hate what happened to me, of course. Eighty percent of my name has been exonerated, and my inclination is to stay here. But if I have to go, I will."

The appeals court ruled that Pantuso must stay in the country and report to authorities monthly for the 11 remaining months of his sentence. It was not clear how a possible deportation would mesh with that order.

Fernando Martinez, Pantuso's former Mexican assistant who was fully exonerated last week after being jailed with Pantuso, brought his friend a duffel bag full of clothes and food. A U.S. Embassy spokeswoman said a consular official would visit Pantuso and make sure his legal rights were being respected.

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