NEW YORK (AP) – It’s not easy to feel sorry for Curtis Sliwa.

He’s loud and opinionated. He’s a publicity hound, an admitted past prevaricator. He co-hosts a morning radio show and earns a ton of money. To top it all off, he never appears without a red beret on his head.

But sympathy abounded for the founder of the Guardian Angels anti-crime group after his 14-year fight to prove that John A. Gotti ordered his near-fatal shooting ended with a strange legal twist. A jury found Gotti was responsible, but a statute of limitations issue prevented the mobster’s conviction in the bloody 1992 attack.

Callers to Sliwa’s WABC-AM drive-time radio show offered their condolences after the third mistrial in the government’s racketeering case against Gotti. People on the street did the same, as did a local prosecutor and an assortment of friends and fellow Angels, Sliwa said.

Even his on-air sparring partner, radical lawyer Ron Kuby, had only kind words for his co-host after the latest mistrial.

“Curtis was clearly vindicated by the jury finding beyond a reasonable doubt that John Gotti did indeed order his kidnapping,” said Kuby, who feuded with Sliwa after testifying earlier this year on Gotti’s behalf.

The federal jury found unanimously that Gotti had ordered the June 19, 1992, attack that nearly killed Sliwa. Two of Gotti’s henchmen allegedly picked up Sliwa in a cab that was rigged so he couldn’t escape once he stepped inside. Gotti had ordered the pair to beat Sliwa in an effort to silence his on-air broadsides against his father, John Gotti Sr., then the head of the Gambino crime family.

The kidnapping went awry, and Sliwa was shot twice by mobster Michael “Mikey Y” Yanotti, according to testimony. The 52-year-old Sliwa relived the attack on the witness stand at all three trials; his blood-soaked Guardian Angels T-shirt was shown to each jury. “I figured I had seconds, maybe minutes to live,” Sliwa testified at the second trial. He survived by diving out a cab window.

An earlier attack on Sliwa, in which he said he was beaten with baseball bats on Gotti’s orders, was not part of the case.

Any doubts about Gotti’s unsympathetic view of Sliwa were erased by a March 14, 2003, jailhouse conversation between the mobster, his lawyer and a friend.

“The guy was one of the most hated guys in the city,” Gotti said of Sliwa during the tape-recorded talk. “The police department hated him. Everybody hated him. And yet he’s a millionaire.”

The jury’s agreement on Gotti’s role in the botched kidnapping was just one element in the racketeering indictment against Gotti. The panel became deadlocked on whether Gotti had actually quit the mob, as his lawyer repeatedly asserted, before July 1999.

If that was the case, the five-year statute of limitations on the racketeering count had expired. What rankled Sliwa most was that if he had died, Gotti would be guilty; there is no statute of limitations on murder.

“If I was dead, he’d be doing 25 to life,” Sliwa said. “The testimony said John Gotti Jr. ordered them to beat me within an inch of my life, and it was that inch that kept him from going to jail.”

One of the condolence calls came from Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan, who wanted to see how Sliwa was holding up after the latest courtroom disappointment.

“I just called to see how he was doing, and how he felt,” Donovan said. The conversation turned to the question of statute of limitations, and the pair will soon meet to discuss the issue, both said.

Sliwa, who spends 25 hours a week on the air with his highly rated morning show, said he intends to make statute of limitations a major issue.

“The statute of limitations has kept justice denied,” he said. “When you’re the victim, you say, ‘Are all these people out of their minds?’ This guy tried to kill me twice, and he got away with it.”

Not yet. Prosecutors have yet to say whether Sliwa and Gotti, who is currently back at his Long Island estate on $7 million bail, will meet at a fourth trial.

AP-ES-09-30-06 1320EDT

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