Lawyer: Doctor sought hit man; Prosecutor says surgeon asked cellmate to kill wife — (The Courier Post)

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The Courier Post

Thursday, August 12, 2004

By RENEE WINKLER , Courier-Post Staff

CAMDEN – A retired neurosurgeon being held in Camden County Jail after he was accused of shooting his estranged wife outside their Cherry Hill home asked a cellmate to “finish the job he started,” a prosecutor told a judge Wednesday.

Dr. Joseph Coladonato, who is being held on $400,000 bail, “discussed (the shooting) with a cellmate and made it clear he wants Mrs. Coladonato dead,” Assistant Camden County Prosecutor Sally Smith said at a bail hearing.

“He solicited the assistance of the cellmate to finish the job he started on Aug. 6,” Smith told Superior Court Judge Irvin J. Snyder.

“This is not a murder case, but only because Mr. Coladonato missed his target,” Smith said.

The judge, however, agreed with defense attorney Jeffrey Zucker that Coladonato’s initial $1 million bail was too high and reduced it to $400,000, cash or bond.

Coladonato, 61, who retired in January from Lehigh Valley Hospital in Allentown, Pa., appeared composed and unflustered by the allegations during the 30-minute hearing.

Zucker argued he could raise the issue of self-defense if the case goes to trial and pointed out that Coladonato recently stopped taking an antidepressant, which could raise some mental-health issues.

“If you think he tried to hire someone, charge him with that,” Zucker challenged Smith.

Zucker said his client could have posted the $1 million amount, except his wife obtained a court order this week freezing his financial assets.

Coladonato, who had continued to work per diem at Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia, is charged with shooting his wife, Eileen, 57, and trying to shoot her brother, David Barker, during a confrontation at the couple’s home on Charlestown Road in the Barclay Farm development off Route 70.

Smith said Eileen Coladonato, accompanied by her brother, had gone to the house with the couple’s teenage daughter to pick up clothing and asthma medication for the child.

Coladonato attacked Barker, then went into the house and returned with a handgun that he fired at both Barker and his wife, Smith said. Eileen Coladonato suffered an “in-and-out” wound to her shoulder and was treated at Cooper University Hospital in Camden and released.

Smith said Coladonato admitted the shootings in a statement to investigators.

Zucker said if Coladonato had intended to kill his wife, he would have used a gun loaded with bullets more lethal than wad-cutters, flat-tipped bullets generally used for target practice.

Smith said Coladonato’s wife had moved out of the house several days earlier after her husband tried to strangle her. She said the couple have not begun divorce proceedings and they had no history of domestic violence complaints. The wad-cutter bullets “are no less lethal than regular bullets,” she said.

Smith told Snyder that Coladonato is a flight risk because he had been trying to liquidate $1.7 million in securities and had said he intended to leave the country.

Snyder said if Coladonato posts the reduced bail, he can live with his sister and her family in Seaford, Del., about 2 1/2 hours away. He would have to report weekly by telephone to an investigator with the domestic violence unit of the prosecutor’s office.

If convicted of two counts of attempted murder, two counts of aggravated assault and possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, Coladonato could be sentenced to up to 70 years in state prison. Under the state’s No Early Release Act, he would have to serve 85 percent of any term without parole eligibility.

WHAT’S NEXT:  A pre-indictment conference on the charges against Dr. Joseph Coladonato is expected to be held within a week. At that time, prosecutors will decide whether to refer the case to a grand jury.