Gentz refuses to testify in Bashara murder trial

Prosecutors could reinstate first-degree murder charges against Gentz

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published October 13, 2014

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DETROIT — Jurors will hear from dozens of witnesses in the murder trial of former Grosse Pointe Park businessman Robert “Bob” Bashara, but the one person who won’t be taking the stand is the man who claims Bashara forced him to kill Jane Bashara.

During a hearing in front of 3rd Circuit Court Judge Vonda Evans Oct. 10, John Holler III — the new attorney representing former handyman Joseph Gentz — said Gentz refuses to testify in the case unless his sentence is reduced to five years, which Gentz said was the informal deal prosecutors offered him in exchange for his testimony against Bashara. Gentz told law enforcement officers that Bashara paid him to kill Jane Bashara, and when Gentz later balked, he said Bashara threatened to kill him if he didn’t go forward with the murder. Bashara has denied all of these allegations.

“Unless his plea arrangement is reworked, he’s not going to testify for anybody in this case,” Holler said of his client. “He’s adamant he was promised once he testified … that prosecutors would motion this court for a sentence of no more than five years.”

Gentz, 50 — who once performed odd jobs for Bob Bashara — now sits in a prison cell at the Macomb Correctional Facility after confessing to the January 2012 strangulation of Jane Bashara, 56, inside her Grosse Pointe Park garage. Gentz pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of second-degree murder on Dec. 21, 2012, resulting in a prison sentence of 17-28 years. But, one of the conditions of that sentence was that Gentz must agree to testify truthfully, if called upon, in the case against Bashara.

Evans cautioned Gentz that prosecutors could reinstate the original charge of first-degree murder against him.

“I understand,” Gentz responded.

First-degree murder carries a life sentence with it.

“Mr. Gentz has been convinced by jailhouse lawyers that he is the star witness (in this case) … (but) we don’t need his testimony,” said Lisa Lindsey, one of the Wayne County prosecutors handling the case. “We’re ready to go (to trial without him).”

Evans told Gentz that he had the right to choose not to testify, but she again cautioned him about what this decision could mean for him.

“I would not take any advice from anybody that’s locked up. … You’ve got to be careful about taking (legal advice) from people,” the judge told him.

Gentz repeated that he understood prosecutors could withdraw their plea deal with him and issue stronger charges against him.

Lindsey said as late as an hour and a half before the hearing in front of Evans on the afternoon of Oct. 10 that Gentz was trying — through his attorney — to negotiate a shorter sentence of nine and a half years.

“We will not … give him a better plea deal than he negotiated (in 2012),” she said.

Holler suggested keeping Gentz in a Wayne County lockup for the next week, in case someone in the Prosecutor’s Office could arrive at a different solution to which all parties could agree.

“Somebody may change their mind,” he said.

Lindsey remained steadfast.

“Nobody is going to change their mind. … You can send (Gentz) back (to the Macomb Correctional Facility),” she said.

Gentz is facing an uphill battle to prove that a five-year deal was on the table.

Holler said Gentz has asserted that prosecutors gave the five-year offer to Gentz’s trial attorneys, Susan Reed and William J. Winters III, but when Holler asked those attorneys about the alleged offer, “They denied it.” In addition, the five-year offer “wasn’t placed on the record,” Holler said. When Gentz was asked by Evans, during his December 2012 plea deal hearing, whether he had been given any other promises in return for his cooperation, Holler said his client told the court no.

Gentz has told Holler he’s not being kept in segregation in prison, as he says he was promised for his safety.

“He’s not afraid of testifying — he’s afraid of being in prison,” Holler said after the hearing. “As everyone knows, prisons are full of bad men. It’s not outside the realm of possibility Bob Bashara could hire someone on the outside to hire someone on the inside to knock off Joe Gentz.”

Bashara is serving time for having tried to do that before. In December 2012, Bashara, 56, was sentenced to six to 20 years in prison for admitting he tried to hire someone to kill Gentz.

Holler said his client also would like to be able to spend time with his only child, a daughter who’s around 13 years old.

The news that Gentz would no longer be on the witness stand is expected to change everything from opening arguments to the way both sets of attorneys handle the case overall. Evans warned Bashara’s defense attorneys, Lillian Diallo and Michael McCarthy, that they wouldn’t be allowed to make statements to the jury about testimony from Gentz, since he would no longer be taking the stand.

“How do we not make mention of Joe Gentz, the admitted killer in this case?” Diallo asked.

Evans said they can make reference to Gentz and prior statements he’s made, but they can’t tell the jury they’ll be hearing testimony from Gentz.

“If there’s one mention Joe Gentz is going to testify, I’ll discontinue (the trial),” Evans said. “I want you to refrain from mention of his testimony in this matter.”

In order for both legal teams to use previous statements made by Gentz during the trial — such as statements to police — Evans said they would need to receive an order from the court stating that Gentz was unavailable to testify. McCarthy said he would file an emergency motion for that purpose. At press time, Evans had scheduled a hearing on that motion for 9 a.m. Oct. 14 — the day Bashara’s murder trial was scheduled to start.

“We’re going to go forward (with the trial) on Tuesday,” said Evans, adding that they might start trial proceedings a little later in the day, possibly at noon.

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