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N.Y. Lotto Winner Guilty of Murder

March 20, 1998 GMT

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. (AP) _ A Lotto millionaire who claimed he had to shoot his way out of a blood-feud ambush was acquitted Friday of murdering his ex-lover but convicted of killing her father-in-law.

Defendant Joseph Rukaj, who had winked as he entered the courtroom to hear the verdict, looked straight ahead as it was read. His wife and 14-year-old daughter embraced each other and sobbed. Some of the victim’s relatives celebrated with handshakes and raised fists.

Rukaj, 38, had pleaded self defense saying he was targeted by the women’s family after he claimed to be the father of her five-year-old daughter. He was convicted of second-degree murder for killing Mark Nikac.

The Westchester County Court jury, in its fourth day of deliberations, decided the claim did not apply to the killing of Nikac, 58, who was shot three times in the back and may have been unarmed. The ex-lover, Rigaletta (Vickie) Nikc, apparently shot Rukaj in the chest before she was killed.

The six-man, six-woman jury acquitted Rukaj of four counts of first-degree murder and of second-degree murder involving Mrs. Nikc. It also acquitted him of the attempted murder of Mrs. Nikc’s husband, Antonio, and of burglary charges but he was convicted on two weapons counts.

Rukaj can be sent to prison for 25 years to life when he is sentenced May 18. Judge Kenneth Lange revoked his $2.9 million bail.

Antonio Nikc said he was ``very pleased″ with the guilty verdict but added, ``I’m very upset he didn’t get it for Vickie. They died together and he should be sentenced for both.″

Rukaj said he drove to the Nikcs’ chalet-style home in Mount Pleasant on Sept. 11, 1996, to ``make peace″ after embarrassing the family by filing a paternity claim.

His lawyers claimed Mrs. Nikc, her father-in-law and her husband Antonio ambushed him there in an old-world attempt at revenge and redemption for his affair with Mrs. Nikc.

Mrs. Nikc, who was pregnant, was ``sacrificed,″ the defense said, under an ancient Albanian code that dictated she should be the one to kill Rukaj.

But the prosecution ridiculed the ambush theory, claiming Rukaj, who won $17.5 million in the state lottery in 1990, was out to wreak misery on a lover who had jilted him and to kidnap the 5-year-old girl who was born of their long affair.

In phone call after phone call in the hours before the killings, Rukaj threatened to take the girl and kill the family, though he also pleaded for peace. In return Mrs. Nikc dared him to show up.

Whether prompted by the family or acting on his own, Rukaj drove in at about 8 p.m.

``It’s no ambush,″ said prosecutor Robert Prisco, ``when the defendant sets the time and place and shows up with a gun.″

Testimony indicated that when Rukaj first got out of his black Range Rover outside the Nikc home, he was unarmed, but at some point he reached back in for his 9mm handgun. He actually called the house from the driveway on his cell phone, announcing his arrival, which sent Mrs. Nikc, her husband and her father-in-law out to confront him.

Though the defense alleged that all three had guns, only one was recovered _ a .32 that was apparently wielded by Mrs. Nikc and that her husband admitted hiding in the ceiling after the shootings. Aside from the .32 bullet that wounded Rukaj, all the other recovered bullets were from Rukaj’s gun, which was fired 10 times.

Rukaj was shot in the chest. Mrs. Nikc was hit in the chest and the head, and a pathologist testified that she was killed instantly _ which meant that if she fired at Rukaj, she did so before he fired at her, a key element in the self-defense claim.

Her father-in-law was shot three times, near or right into his back, and there was little evidence he had a gun. Her husband ran back into the house, apparently while under fire from Rukaj.

Much of the chaos was captured on a 911 call from the house, in which Mrs. Nikc’s sister-in-law screams, ``Oh God, please hurry up. Please send the ambulance. Please. She’s gonna die. She’s pregnant. Please. Please God. Please God. Oh, God, please hurry.″

After the carnage, Rukaj drove in his blood-soaked shirt to the nearest police station, where he told police of the shootings and said, ``They shot me and I shot them.″ But when asked again who shot him, he said only ``The woman.″

The trial began Jan. 29. Rukaj did not take the stand, and all 39 witnesses were presented by the prosecution.

Feelings ran high in the courtroom gallery, with relatives of the dead on one side of the aisle and Rukaj’s family on the other. His four children attended the late stages.

Relatives of the Nikcs took offense at any suggestion that Mrs. Nikc’s youngest daughter was Rukaj’s child, even after overwhelming DNA tests were entered into evidence.

Near the end of the trial, the jurors told the judge they feared their verdict might prompt some kind of retribution, and they were sequestered even before deliberations began.