Woman pleads guilty in murder-for-hire plot against witnesses in social club slaying trial

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PHILADELPHIA — A woman has pleaded guilty in a murder-for-hire plot that prosecutors said targeted witnesses against her husband in a shooting death at an eastern Pennsylvania social club.

Sonia Panell, 38, entered the plea Friday in federal court in Philadelphia to soliciting the murder of three witnesses in the December 2012 gun battle outside a Puerto Rican social club in south Bethlehem that killed a woman and injured five other people.

Federal prosecutors said Panell tried to hire an Ohio man to commit the murders, but he went to federal authorities and later helped record the defendant talking about the planned killings. Authorities said in court documents that she showed him photos of the three targets, warned that they would be armed, took him on a three-hour tour of places they could be found and discussed equipment and payment arrangements.

At one point, according to a transcript of the December 2013 conversation released by prosecutors, the defendant noted that one of the prospective witnesses was disabled "so there's no way the wheelchair one's hard." At another point, according to the transcript, she expressed anger against another target because the woman has slapped her husband and "She's gotta pay for it."

Defense attorney Hope Lefeber argued last fall that the informant's first conversation about the murder-for-hire plan wasn't recorded, so it was his word against her client's about who proposed the killings.

When the judge asked Panell on Friday whether she agreed with the government's factual basis for her guilt, Panell said, "I didn't call him. He called me. He asked me for all the information and I went along with it."

Northampton County jurors last fall convicted her husband, Rene Figueroa, 34, of Easton, of involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault, rejecting the first-degree murder conviction sought by prosecutors.

He was sentenced last month to 15½ to 31 years in prison and is awaiting trial on charges of having earlier tried to hire a prison inmate to kill two of the witnesses.

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