- Daphne Duret Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Early one Tuesday in March, a 34-year-old homeless married mother of three lay cold — as still as a mannequin, a witness would later tell police — on the bare chest of a virtual stranger in a borrowed bed inside a $70-a-night motel room.
Linda Lavell was dead by the time Boynton Beach police arrived, but the man below her was still breathing. It wasn’t long before detectives recognized him as perhaps the most famous informant in the department’s history.
Mohamed Shihadeh, the man who nearly eight years ago had come to police hoping to stop Dalia Dippoplito from killing her husband, nearly died of a drug overdose — a fate that his companion of the evening did not escape.
This wasn’t the first time the star witness in Dippolito’s case had been the subject of a police report. Several recorded incidents have marked the years since he sparked the caught-on-camera investigation that last month led Palm Beach County jurors to convict Dippolito, for the second time in three trials, of solicitation to commit first-degree murder.
Shihadeh had given Dippolito’s defense new life in her second trial, when he claimed police forced him to go through with an undercover investigation after he wanted out, but he ultimately became her undoing again after he also told the third, and latest, jury about a claim that Dippolito had previously tried to poison Michael Dippolito.
Jurors heard this testimony from a thinner, more fragile-looking Shihadeh in June than the tall, brooding, muscular man who had testified in the December trial. But few observers of the latest Dippolito trial were aware of his recent brush with death, as it was not mentioned during the trial.
The Palm Beach Post last week obtained a copy of police report about the overdose case, which details Lavell’s final hours with Shihadeh, a convenience store owner and bit-role actor thrust into the public eye years before by his role in the Dippolito case.
According to witness reports and Shihadeh’s own words to police, Shihadeh met Lavell on March 20 at a park on Boynton Beach Boulevard the night before she died. Shihadeh and a man he knew only as “Darien” had gone there looking to buy drugs.
The three of them then drove to the Homing Inn on Federal Highway, where Shihadeh said they met with two other men and another woman.
“One of the black males told Shihadeh to ingest heroin and cocaine to prove he wasn’t a cop,” Boynton Beach police Detective Rocky Zavattaro said Shihadeh told him.
Zavattaro wrote in his report that Shihadeh told police he didn’t remember much of the night after that and had blacked out.
Jean Carlos Pierre Louis, a homeless man who said he and Lavell occasionally split a room at the motel in the weeks before she died, told police that Lavell and Shihadeh asked him if they could stay in his room that night. He said they told him they had found a “rich couple” who’d agreed to pay them between $500 and $1,000 the next morning to watch Shihadeh and Lavell have sex.
Pierre Louis said Lavell told him the money would be enough to get her back home to New Jersey, where her mother-in-law cares for the three children she shared with her husband, Matthew Stoelker.
Stoelker had been in Florida at least since the summer of 2016, court records show, and it is unclear how long his wife had been in the state. On March 14, a week before her death, the 34-year-old Stoelker was sentenced to 60 days in the Palm Beach County Jail for possession of drug paraphernalia. Two weeks after her death, he died of an overdose himself, Stoelker’s mother said.
Lavell’s family could not be reached for comment, and Stoelker’s mother, Roseanne, didn’t want to talk in detail Monday about her daughter-in-law’s life, or death, but attributed the couple’s deaths to the scourge of drugs.
“These were great people, like almost everyone else you read about with this epidemic,” she said.
But it was Shihadeh’s health that first worried Pierre Louis the night of March 20, when he awoke to see Shihadeh lying on the floor in front of the bathroom. He said he immediately suspected Shihadeh was overdosing, and he alerted Lavell.
“Pierre Louis told Lavell to call 911, but Lavell advised that she knew how to handle this situation and began chest compressions as well as pouring cold water on him,” Zavattaro wrote in his report.
Shihadeh appeared to be breathing, so Pierre Louis went back to sleep. He awoke a short time later and heard what he thought was Lavell snoring, so he continued sleeping until about 11 a.m. March 21.
Pierre Louis said he then tried to wake Lavell, who was lying on top of Shihadeh, to tell her the two of them would need to go rent a room of their own.
Instead, he said, he discovered when he touched Lavell’s back that she was cold. He said he ran outside to a maintenance worker at the hotel and asked to use his cell phone to call the police, but the worker refused. He was eventually able to get a man at a nearby strip mall to let him use his phone.
When police and rescue workers arrived, they found Shihadeh unconscious on the floor just outside the motel room and Lavell face-down on the room’s kitchen floor. It is unclear who had moved them.
A line of cocaine on a mirror, a crack pipe and other drug paraphernalia littered the room.
Lavell had died of a cocaine overdose, an autopsy later showed. The county Medical Examiner’s Office ruled her death accidental.
The police report doesn’t detail Shihadeh’s injuries, but he was unable to speak to detectives because of his condition at one point and later, when he identified Jean Pierre in a photo lineup as his motel roommate, detectives noted he couldn’t sign the identification “due to his medical condition.”
That condition was a a far cry from how he was described in a book about the Dippolito case by Elizabeth Parker, the former prosecutor who won the state’s first conviction against Dippolito in 2011, only to see it later reversed on appeal.
In “Poison Candy — The Murderous Madam: Inside Dalia Dippolito’s Plot to Kill,” Parker begins her description of Shihadeh by outlining his Jordanian heritage and how he and Dippolito first met 10 years before the murder-for-hire plot, when she walked into one of the convenience stores he owned.
A television producer who discovered Shihadeh at a Miami nightclub led to Shihadeh’s casting in the role of a terrorist on an episode of the USA network show “Burn Notice,” according to Parker.
The book goes on to outline two of Shihadeh’s vices — gambling and what Parker described as “a vicious prescription Xanax habit.” The former, by Shihadeh’s own admission at Dippolito’s retrial last month, led him to sell a Range Rover that Dippolito had given him $38,000 to buy. Evidence of the latter laced Shihadeh’s slurred speech in surveillance calls and videos played for jurors in each of Dippolito’s three trials.
A staple of Dippolito’s defense has been that Boynton Beach police officers violated her rights by forcing Shihadeh to continue with the murder-for-hire plot after he told them he wanted to back out. But prosecutors say he willingly signed up to be an informant because he didn’t want to be implicated in Michael Dippolito’s death if Dalia Dippolito succeeded in her efforts to get Larry Coe — a gang member she met through Shihadeh — to kill her husband.
Either way, Shihadeh’s reluctant casting as the central witness appears to have been accompanied by his downward spiral.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys in Dippolito’s first trial, in 2011, agreed to present jurors with a video recording of Shihadeh’s testimony because he said he would be in the Middle East at the time of the trial. But Shihadeh exposed his own deception, when he was arrested on a DUI charge in Florida during the trial.
Then came mounting debt, lawsuits from debt collectors, a paternity suit, two divorces and eventually an eviction. There also were drug counts and in 2014, the same year an appellate court overturned Dippolito’s first conviction, two arrests on charges that he violated a domestic violence injunction.
Still, unlike with any other witness, Dippolito collapsed in tears both times Shihadeh took the stand in her retrials in December and June.
Last month, Shihadeh appeared to have a limp as he made his way to the witness stand, where he leaned forward, his face resting on his clasped hands, through most of his testimony.
“If something happened, I didn’t want it to be on my conscience,” Shihadeh said of why he called police on Dippolito. “I wasn’t going to be able to sleep knowing someone got killed.”