(by Jay Weaver and David Ovalle miamiherald.com 4-17-09)
Indy 500 champ Helio Castroneves survived a potentially devastating crash Friday, acquitted of tax-evasion charges by jurors who struggled for six days to unravel complex evidence on racing-car contracts, tax law and offshore companies.
In the end, jurors found Castroneves and sister Katiucia not guilty on six counts of evading taxes on $5.5 million from race car earnings. The pair sobbed and hugged each other after hearing the decision.
The 12-member Miami federal jury deadlocked on the lead conspiracy charge against the siblings, which prompted U.S. District Judge Donald Graham to declare a mistrial on that count.
The jury also acquitted the Brazilian race car star's sports attorney, Alan R. Miller, on the main conspiracy charge and three other tax evasion counts. Miller was not charged in three other counts of the indictment.
With his legal victory, Castroneves was scheduled to fly immediately from South Florida to California to compete in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach for Penske Racing, the team that hired him in late 1999. His contract with the legendary racing organization -- the big break in a career that began as a teenager go-cart racing in Brazil -- was at the core of the government's tax-evasion case.
Flanked by attorneys and an entourage of friends, Castroneves emerged from the downtown federal courthouse, his eyes swollen and red.
He showed off a rosary, proclaimed his faith and interviewed with both U.S. and Brazilian press.
''It's been a nightmare, and finally we wake up,'' said Castroneves, 33, who was sidelined from IndyCar racing during his legal ordeal. ``Instead of going to Disneyland, I want to go to Long Beach and race.''
And then he was off, jumping into a black Porsche Cayenne SUV to take him to Miami International Airport.
Penske Racing issued a statement saying the team was ''excited'' to have Castroneves back as a driver.
The jubilant reaction from Castroneves, Penske and others was starkly different from the somber mood in the courtroom on Friday afternoon.
Castroneves, who has lived in the Miami area for more than a decade, looked to be praying as he awaited word on whether the jurors would find him guilty of failing to pay $2.3 million in taxes between 1999 and 2004.
Sitting side by side, Castroneves and his sister/manager kept their heads down as they listened to the jury's verdicts. Afterward, the siblings rose, crying, then hugged each other and their attorneys: Roy Black, David Garvin, Howard Srebnick and Scott Srebnick.
It was unclear whether the prosecution -- assistant U.S. attorneys Matt Axelrod and Jared Dwyer -- would seek to retry the case on the single deadlocked conspiracy count.
Srebnick said the Miami U.S. attorney should not retry the one count. ''If there's no tax evasion and the jury has made a finding there was no tax evasion, it's illogical to proceed on a charge of conspiracy to evade taxes,'' he said.
The three defendants were teased with partial jury verdicts returned Thursday. But those verdicts were not made public, which made for an agonizing wait.
The jury had to decide whether Castroneves and the others conspired to evade U.S. taxes on what the driver earned over five years, mainly from his $5 million licensing deal with Penske.
Castroneves' attorneys portrayed the two-time Indy 500 winner as a gifted driver who relied on others, including his father, to handle the business side of his career.
The trial, however, centered on Castroneves' racing-car contracts, his financial accounts outside the United States and intricate U.S. tax law.
Under the November 1999 Penske licensing contract, Castroneves' income was supposed to be sent to a Panamanian tax shelter but it was ultimately transferred instead to an annuity account in the Netherlands.
Castroneves -- whose attorney said the driver's father actually owned the Panamanian company, not the racer, as prosecutors alleged -- has yet to receive any of that income.
Castroneves also received $530,000 from a Brazilian trading company that sponsored him just before he hit the big time a decade ago with Penske.
Castroneves and his sister were accused of moving most of the driver's income from the Brazilian sponsor, Coimex Internacional, through the Panamanian company's bank account in New York to a Swiss bank. So far, Castroneves has paid taxes on only $50,000 of his earnings from Coimex.
While jurors did not convict Castroneves, his sister and the lawyer of any tax-evasion offenses, they indicated to the judge that they could not reach a unanimous agreement on the main conspiracy count -- which straddled the Coimex and Penske contracts.
Although jurors left the courthouse through a secret exit because they did not want to talk to the media, it was apparent they struggled over the conspiracy count because Castroneves and his family members had received the Coimex sponsorship income, legal observers said.
Castroneves' attorneys said the Indy 500 champ -- who gained greater fame when he won the Dancing with the Stars reality TV show in 2007 -- plans to start paying his taxes in May when he begins receiving income from his Dutch annuity.
Said attorney Black after the verdict: ``He has not evaded taxes, and when the money comes due next month, he'll pay his taxes.''
Outside the courthouse, Castroneves rejoiced over his legal triumph -- calling it the ''biggest victory'' of his life. ''It was like a race and, unfortunately, it was out of my control,'' he said. ``I couldn't drive this car. I was a passenger.''