SALEM — The witnesses were standing by. The courtroom was available. The prosecutors were ready. 

But the trial of a former Salem developer charged in a scheme to defraud mortgage lenders and the government by acquiring multifamily apartment houses, converting them to condos and then recruiting "straw" buyers to obtain mortgages, has again been postponed, a result of the ongoing pandemic. 

"Why am I creating risk if there's no urgency?" said Judge Patti Saris during what had been scheduled as a final pretrial motion Tuesday afternoon, as she decided to postpone George Kritopoulos' trial until next April. 

Federal prosecutors allege that Kritopoulos, 48, netted approximately $4 million from the mortgage and tax fraud scheme between 2006 and 2015. 

His two co-defendants in the case, a former South Essex assistant register of deeds and accountant named David Plunkett and a Lynnfield man, Joseph Bates III, have pleaded guilty to their roles in the years-long conspiracy and are now expected to testify against Kritopoulos, according to a trial brief filed by federal prosecutors last week. 

Their testimony must now wait another six months. 

The hearing got off to a rough start when miscommunication over whether the hearing would take place remotely or in the courtroom delayed the arrival of some of the lawyers, who went to the courtroom, then had to scramble to find internet and cell service in the Moakley courthouse.

Kritopoulos appeared as well via video. 

Late last week, his attorney, John Cunha, filed a last-minute motion to delay the trial, citing the ongoing pandemic. 

"Contrary to the president's assertions, there is not going to be a vaccine within the next month, but they are saying it's going to be rolling out in the first quarter of next year," Cunha told the judge during the hearing Tuesday. "That's the best knowledge we have right now."

Cunha said he and the others on the defense team want to delay the trial until next spring so there is a better chance the vaccine will be available.

"The infection rate is heading up again," said Cunha. "I feel strongly that we can't do it."

During Tuesday's hearing, Cunha found a sympathetic ear in Saris, who just completed the city's first jury trial since the pandemic closed down courthouses last March. Saris said it was not easy to find a jury for a week-long trial, and said she is concerned that few jurors will be willing to take part in what is expected to be a considerably longer trial — as long as a month. 

Saris also questioned the logistics of a document-intensive case while jurors are "socially distanced" — and not directly in front of the video monitors in the jury box. 

And she admitted she did not expect that a trial session would be available so quickly, anticipating that the administrative judge would have a long list of trials that would be given higher priority because defendants are in custody. Instead, most of those cases have been resolved, leaving Kritopoulos' trial on deck.

Prosecutor Sara Bloom tried to allay the judge's concerns, saying she believes it can be tried within the space of two weeks, after she and others in the U.S. Attorney's office streamlined the evidence and witness list. 

"We have gotten ready, notified all the witnesses, again," said Bloom, noting her office was operating on the belief that Saris wanted to try the case. 

But Saris said she already has hearings scheduled for several afternoons coming up, meaning that the prosecution's plan to have full days of testimony and evidence won't work.

In addition, having now presided over a jury trial during the pandemic, "I have to say, even though it's inconvenient to you Ms. Bloom or to (co-counsel Victor Wild), I'm having a different frame of mind. I've now done it."

That, coupled with an uptick in new COVID-19 cases in Boston, were behind her decision to postpone the case, she said. It is now slated for April 6, with a final status hearing in February.

"Maybe someday this case will go to trial," said Saris. 

"Stay healthy, everybody," Saris said at the conclusion of the hearing.

Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at jmanganis@salemnews.com or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis. 

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