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Bottarini is cleared of all charges

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Jurors on Tuesday found James Bottarini not guilty on all federal charges alleging he pushed his wife to her death in Zion National Park five years ago and lied about it to collect more than $1 million.

The nine-man, three-woman jury returned the verdict after 10 hours of deliberation Monday and Tuesday.

"I feel great," Bottarini said afterward. "I want to thank my parents and family who have supported me through this whole thing." His plans are to "continue raising my children in memory of their mother."

His wife, Patricia Bottarini, 36, had a $250,000 life insurance policy and more than $1 million in her family's California real-estate business. Bottarini was the beneficiary of both, though court proceedings have prevented him from collecting any of the money so far.

Bottarini, Ottawa, Ill., was charged with four counts of mail fraud and one count each of interstate domestic violence and making false statements to a federal officer. The domestic-violence charge could have carried a life prison sentence.

"Why I was ever indicted was a mystery to me," he said. "(It has) hurt, but I think the important thing to remember is that if you were in my shoes and you had the important (child-rearing) responsibility that I have, why would you really pay attention to that?"

U.S. Attorney for Utah Paul Warner said jurors' faces reflected the difficulty of their decision. He said he had no criticism of the jury.

"Obviously we're very disappointed with the result," he said.

Patricia Bottarini's family declined all comment on the verdict.

"We were very candid (with Patricia Bottarini's family) going in that this would be a very tough, close case," Warner said.

Bottarini, 43, hugged his defense attorney, Ronald Yengich, after the verdict was returned. Defense attorney Vanessa Ramos-Smith began crying as soon as the first "not guilty" verdict was read. Her sobbing intensified with each successive "not guilty."

Jurors deliberated for seven hours on Monday before deciding they wanted to go home at 10:30 p.m. They reconvened Tuesday at 8:30 a.m.

Bottarini, his parents and members of his defense team passed time waiting for the verdict in U.S. District Judge David Sam's courtroom, where prosecutors had spent the past three weeks trying to convince jurors that Bottarini pushed his wife off a cliff as the pair hiked Observation Point Trail on May 9, 1997.

During closing arguments Monday, Warner, U.S. attorney for Utah, argued 43-year-old Bottarini killed his wife in the most "heartless, cruel, cynical" way possible — by playing on Patricia Bottarini's fear of heights.

"She realized that her worst fear was about to come true at the hands of her husband who, despite his faults, she loved," he said.

Warner told jurors that there were only three possibilities for the cause of Patricia Bottarini's death — suicide, accident and homicide.

Bottarini has repeatedly said his wife would not intentionally kill herself, and prosecutors contended there was no possible way she could have accidentally fallen to her death.

Patricia Bottarini's profound fear of heights, they argued, would have kept her rooted on the trail and away from the edge of the cliff. An expert witness testified that had Patricia Bottarini tripped she would have fallen forward rather than going sideways off the trail.

"If what happened on the trail was not suicide or an accident, you are left with the inescapable conclusion it was homicide," Warner said.

Rather than proving beyond a reasonable doubt that Bottarini killed his wife, prosecutors set out to prove that Patricia Bottarini's death was not an accident.

"The focus is not on what happened but what did not happen on that trail," Warner said. "How (Bottarini) did it still remains an irrelevant mystery, but what he did remains crystal clear."

In his closing arguments Monday, Yengich said prosecutors lacked the proof necessary to support a conviction.

"How she fell I don't know, and (prosecutors) don't know," Yengich said. "There's reasonable doubt there."

A number of factors — that had nothing to do with her husband — could have contributed to Patricia Bottarini's death, he said. Those could have included a leg cramp, dizziness or distraction, Yengich said.

"This is about a tragedy that occurred in a world that does not exist in blacks and whites," Yengich said. "There are shades of gray, and accidents do happen."

E-mail: awelling@desnews.com