By Amber Nolan
Federal agencies released previously withheld information about a 2012 murder-for-hire case deepening suspicions about the involvement of a prominent Marathon businessman in the botched murder attempt.
Dennis Zecca was formerly the Commanding Officer of the Coast Guard station in Islamorada, but is now serving a 10-year sentence after pleading guilty on July 2, 2014, to attempted murder-for-hire in a scheme to kill Bruce Schmitt, a wealthy realtor residing in Marathon. Even as Zecca’s 2014 sentence was delivered, questions still lingered as to why Zecca – who had no relationship with Schmitt – would put a hit out on him.
No one has more questions than the victim himself and he is determined to get answers. Bruce Schmitt filed a civil suit in November of 2016 against Dennis Zecca and his co-conspirators, “John Doe #1″ and “John Doe #2”. Zecca has steadfastly refused to name his co-conspirators and federal agencies had kept all clues about their identities hidden in a previously released highly redacted transcript.
Monroe County Circuit Judge Mark Jones issued an order in July of 2017, necessary for Schmitt to obtain un-redacted versions of those transcripts from federal agencies. Those transcripts were recently released again – nearly a year later.
The transcripts were made from audio recordings captured by a confidential informant (whose name was never released). At the time (December 2012), the DEA was conducting a drug-trafficking investigation using the informant, who worked for Zecca at the Marathon Marina Boat Yard. During the course of the investigation, Zecca and the informant plotted to purchase 10 kilograms of cocaine. What was unexpected was that Zecca added murder-for-hire to the mix. He asked the informant to kill well-known Marathon realtor, Bruce Schmitt, offering the informant $20,000 “or a kilo of cocaine” to do the job.
The informant reported back to his handlers at the DEA, and just a few days before Christmas, FBI and DEA agents showed up at Schmitt’s office, recommending he leave the country immediately – but not before they helped his fiancé snap a staged photo of him lying dead in his own backyard.
The informant told Zecca he would kill Schmitt, playing along with the scheme during several recorded conversations with Zecca in December 2012. On December 21st, after showing Zecca a doctored photo of the completed “murder,” with Schmitt lying in a pool of blood, the informant said he planned to leave town and asked Zecca for a partial payment of $5,000. Zecca said he needed to go see some people, mentioning one name.
However, until this week that name had been redacted from records by federal officials.
Schmitt believes “John Doe #1” has now been identified. The identities of the others, who were meant to help get the murderer paid, referred to as “Ralph’s people” in the transcript, are still unknown.
“Because I don’t want a problem between me and you, because you’re my friend. You’re gonna give me my $5,000 tomorrow right?” The informant asked Zecca the day after the “murder.”
“I gotta go get it,” Zecca said to the informant, “I haven’t even talked to these people yet that it’s done. I haven’t even said nothing to nobody,”
“Who, Ralph?” the informant asked.
“It ain’t Ralph. I gotta go to Ralph’s people.”
Although “Ralph’s” last name is not spelled out in the FBI’s transcript which, despite Judge Jones’ order, remains highly redacted – with entire pages appearing as black boxes, Schmitt’s complaint was amended this week to include the well-connected businessman and former City of Marathon Planning Commissioner, Ralph Lucignano, as one of Zecca’s co-defendants.
Unlike Zecca – who didn’t know Schmitt – Ralph Lucignano and Bruce Schmitt have a turbulent history.
Ralph Lucignano’s Ex-Girlfriend Was Schmitt’s Fiancée
According to the amended complaint, Schmitt’s fiancée at the time, now his wife, Ginger Henderson, was Lucignano’s ex-girlfriend. The two remained in contact after their separation. The new complaint states that Lucignano would sometimes make comments aimed at gauging Henderson’s romantic interest and that several individuals close to him felt he was still in love with her. During the summer of 2012, while on the way to see a real estate property together, Lucignano allegedly asked, “How did you let this happen to us? We had such a good life.” And then, while reaching over and grabbing Henderson’s thigh, “I’m going to get Bruce out of there and move in,” referring to the home she shared with Schmitt.
Lucignano is a Former Police Officer Arrested for Fraud and Forgery
In the Florida Keys, Lucignano owns and operates several businesses, including the Marathon Liquor and Deli, which the complaint refers to as a gathering place for the “boys club,” a group of well-connected individuals in town, including Dennis Zecca – who Lucignano was a close friend of. However, the businessman and former Marathon planning commissioner is also a former New Jersey police officer. According to Schmitt’s claim, Lucignano was arrested in 1980 for fraud and forgery relating to “alleged kickback and forged check schemes while representing the Jersey City Police Officers Benevolent Association.” [The Blue Paper has not located any records showing that Lucignano was ever convicted of those charges. Lucignano was not immediately available for an interview.]
Lucignano and Schmitt Had Ongoing Quarrels Over Liquor Licenses
When Schmitt’s tenant, Publix Supermarkets, wanted to move in and sell liquor – it threatened direct competition to Lucignano’s liquor store. Schmitt claims Lucignano, the former Marathon Planning Board Commissioner, recruited “disbarred attorney and convicted felon, James Hendrick,” and used his connections to Marathon City Commissioner, Pete Worthington, and City Attorney, John Herin, in order to curb Publix’s efforts. The Marathon City Commission rejected the Publix liquor license application.
The claim also states that previously, in 2010, Bruce Schmitt and his brother Brian supported a liquor license application of another tenant – this time Walgreens – which Lucignano opposed. Schmitt claims Lucignano sent Marathon City Commissioner, Mario DiGennaro, to his brother, Brian Schmitt’s, office asking them to pay Lucignano’s a “large sum of money” to withdraw his opposition. Schmitt claims the brothers refused and Lucignano, through DiGennaro, then increased his demand to a million dollars. The Schmitts say they refused the “extortion” offer. DiGennaro has publicly denied the incident. The Walgreen’s application was eventually approved. Schmitt says he reported the incident to the FBI.
The City of Marathon also passed an ordinance preventing liquor stores from operating within 1,500 feet of a school. Schmitt alleges the rule was enacted to protect Lucignano from competitors and that in mid 2012 Lucignano and the planning commission tried to use the rule to block reinstatement of a liquor license for Overseas Liquors – but the business successfully challenged it in court. Schmitt publicly congratulated the business owners, and when the city commission announced its intention to strengthen the code through a rewrite, he spoke out in opposition at a planning commission meeting held by Lucignano. The ordinance was repealed in 2014.
Zecca Wanted Money for Real Estate Investments
Zecca told the undercover informant that he used to be a “king” with millions of dollars, and that he wanted to help the informant have a life like the one Zecca had when he was younger.
“Well, why you making all these million for?” the informant asked.
“I made it to have fun,” said Zecca.
“No, I said why you making it?” he asked again.
“Drugs. Real estate,” Zecca replied. “People need me to give money and say, make it clean. You know, I have businesses that I…I have sh*t… I gave my family, everybody. I came out, I was calmed down. Now I ain’t calm. You let me, you know…I got a taste of life again.”
According to Schmitt’s complaint, Zecca created “RZR Development” with partners Peter Roscasco, and Marvin Rappoport, and planned on purchasing Knights Key (currently owned by developer Pritam Singh), but did not have the $500,000 needed to contribute to the venture.
Schmitt also claims that Zecca planned on buying the Banana Bay Resort and Marina and, in an effort to drum up money for the real estate deal, coordinated the purchase of $200,000 of cocaine from a dealer in Miami.
Schmitt alleges in his complaint that Zecca’s cut from the drug deal would not have been large enough to fund the real estate endeavor so he was looking for other ways of acquiring funds. He alleges that Lucignano met with Zecca and offered him a “large sum of cash” to coordinate Schmitt’s murder through the co-conspirators (still only identified in the complaint as “John Doe #2″ and “John Doe #3”).
Was the Murder Supposed to Happen in Marathon? Did Zecca Change His Mind?
On December 18, 2012 the informant asked Zecca when he wanted him to “get the guy,” and he responded, “as soon as possible.”
Zecca then tells the informant how to take out Schmitt:
“I’m going to tell you where to get him. You’re going to follow him, he’s going to go to a Christmas party, he’s going to be all f***ed up and you’re going to be able to get him.”
In her affidavit supporting the 2012 criminal complaint, FBI Special Agent, Patricia Thompson, states that Zecca gave the informant detailed advice on how to kill Schmitt and that Zecca told the informant to drive by Schmitt’s work to “get a good look at his face.” Thompson states Zecca gave the informant a Beretta 9mm to use to commit the murder and even wiped it clean the day before.
But according to the December 21 transcript, when the informant told him that the “deed was done,” Zecca was upset. He panicked about the “murder” having been committed in Marathon. He also implied that he had changed his mind at the last minute – despite having told the informant two days earlier to throw the gun over the Seven Mile Bridge when he was done with it.
“The guy already done,” said the informant. “Okay and I don’t want to have, everything is ready…”
“Listen to me. Listen I wish you didn’t do it,” said Zecca. “I wanted you to hurt him, not to…”
“Uh, huh.. okay,” said the informant. Zecca goes on to tell him that he is “nervous”.
“For why are you nervous? …Listen, everything is clean…nobody seen nothing…”
“I didn’t want it to be here, I told you that … , it’s too dangerous here, because we have so much going on, and in this fu**ing town, trust me, it’s going to be all over,” said Zecca.
“I told you that, you…you told me no. Do it. You told me to do it,” said the informant.
Zecca replied “No, I didn’t. I told you not to do it yesterday, I told you not to. Cause we talked and said…”
The informant answered “Before you told…I told you no, I’m going to get him in Costa Rica, you told me no..do it right here.”
The conversation adds confusion – and raises intrigue.
Bruce Schmitt stated, during his testimony at the sentencing hearing in 2014, that prior to the FBI informing him on December 19, 2012 that his life was in danger he’d planned on spending Christmas and New Year’s with his mother in Marathon. On the morning of December 20th, at the urging of the FBI, Schmitt and Henderson left town, headed for … Costa Rica.
Why was the confidential informant talking to Zecca about possibly killing Schmitt in “Costa Rica”?
[Note: The words “Costa Rica” were previously redacted from the transcript by federal officials.)
The Quick Arrest, the Plea Deal and the Fall Out
On December 21st, after the informant informed Zecca that he had “killed” Schmitt, Zecca told him he would have to go meet with some people in order to get him his money. That never happened as agents arrested Zecca in the parking lot shortly after that conversation.
During Zecca’s 2014 sentencing hearing, Schmitt voiced his frustration to the Court about a number of issues, stating,
“I do not understand why Dennis Zecca was arrested so quickly after getting into his truck to get the money for the murder instead of allowing him to lead law enforcement to his co-conspirators.”
In exchange for his guilty plea on attempted murder-for-hire, the U.S. Attorney’s prosecutors dropped two cocaine smuggling charges that each carried 10 years to life prison sentences, as well as a charge of providing a convicted felon a firearm, which carries a 10-year maximum sentence.
Zecca was given the maximum sentence for the remaining attempted murder-for-hire charge – 10 years in prison – plus three years of supervised release. He is now four years into his sentence.
“I do not understand why a deal negotiated — was negotiated dropping the conspiracy to smuggle illegal drugs and providing a handgun to a known felon in exchange for Zecca only having to admit for murder for hire at a lesser sentence,” said Schmitt at the sentencing hearing. “And what galls me the most, it was without requiring Dennis Zecca to disclose who his co-conspirators are.”
When Schmitt’s attorney deposed Zecca earlier this year as part of the civil suit, Zecca pled the 5th Amendment about 50 times and refused to give the names of his co-conspirators.
Although “Ralph’s” name has now been released by federal agencies, perhaps leading to new clues, it didn’t happen before the four-year statute of limitations to file criminal charges in the state of Florida (and five years on Federal charges) had expired. That leaves Schmitt with an admission of guilt from Zecca, but incomplete answers as to who else was involved and why. Large portions of the transcripts, that could answer some of those questions, remain redacted in the newer version of the FBI’s transcript.
At the 2014 sentencing hearing, when speaking about the FBI’s request that he leave the country immediately for his own safety, Schmitt stated,
“Before we left that morning, the FBI asked Ginger, my wife, to take a photo of me lying on the ground in my backyard with my eyes closed in order to stage my murder. Think for a moment about what it would be like to stage and pose for your own death.”
The Blue Paper reached out to Bruce Schmitt’s attorney, Jason Kellogg, who stated that Schmitt was unable to comment at this time.
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