AP Photo/Alan Diaz
Hélio Castroneves is about to take the sweetest victory lap of his career.
The former Dancing With the Stars and two-time Indy 500 champ has been acquitted on six counts of federal tax-evasion charges after a six-week trial and six agonizing days of jury deliberations.
On his seventh count, the lead charge of conspiracy, the jury remained hung, leaving the judge to declare a mistrial on the count.
"I just want to thank God, and my fans, and all of the people who prayed for me," he said outside the courtroom. "It has been a very difficult place to be in."
The 33-year-old was indicted earlier this year on seven charges stemming from an alleged tax-dodging scheme also involving his sister and business manager, 35-year-old Katiucia Castroneves, and 71-year-old sports attorney Alan Miller. The threesome supposedly tried to hide more than $5.5 million in income from Uncle Sam between 1999 and 2004.
Castroneves' alleged coconspirators also avoided jail time: Miller was acquitted on three counts of tax evasion and one count of conspiracy, while Katiucia was acquitted on six counts of tax evasion, but, like her brother's, her conspiracy charge also resulted in a hung jury.
Both Castroneves siblings sobbed and embraced as the verdicts were read.
Just yesterday, jurors said they had reached a verdict on just two of Castroneves' seven counts, deadlocking on the other five, including conspiracy. U.S. District Judge Donald Graham ordered them to resume deliberations and rejected their request for transcripts of the attorneys' opening statements, saying they were "not evidence."
Castroneves had long maintained his innocence in the case. If convicted, the trio would have faced up to six years in prison.
As for Castroneves' next move, the racer said he plans to fly out to Los Angeles tonight. He hopes to rejoin his Penske Racing team, on which he was temporarily replaced, and compete in Sunday's 2009 Long Beach Grand Prix.
"Instead of going to Disneyland, I want to go to Long Beach to race," he said. "I'm going back to racing."
(Originally published on Apr. 17, 2009 at 11:30 a.m. PT)