U.S. District Court Judge Jose Martinez was in no mood for mercy during Wednesday’s sentencing for Dennis Zecca, a former U.S. Coast Guard Station Islamorada commanding officer who admitted trying to hire a hit man to kill a Marathon Realtor in December 2012.
Despite numerous pleas from Miami defense attorney William Aaron, Zecca was sentenced to the maximum 10 years in federal prison for attempting to arrange the murder of Bruce Schmitt.
Zecca has not cooperated with authorities or revealed his motive.
Wednesday’s hour-long hearing took place at the federal courthouse at 301 Simonton St. in Key West. Schmitt was the only speaker, other than Aaron and Assistant U.S. Attorney Benjamin Coats.
Schmitt delivered an impassioned, but calm, plea to Martinez to sentence Zecca to the maximum sentence, which is what he got. That came after Schmitt said he wanted the judge to “vacate the plea agreement and order a trial” so that Zecca’s unnamed co-conspirators could be brought to justice.
In his testimony Wednesday, Schmitt alluded to a past attempt by someone to extort $150,000 from him and his brother Brian in relation to a license to sell beer and wine at the U.S. 1 and 53rd Street Walgreens property the Schmitt family owns through their Coldwell Banker Schmitt Real Estate Co.
Schmitt referred to a “businessman” involved with that case but provided few other details and did not name anyone involved.
On Dec. 19, 2012, Schmitt told the court, he received a call from FBI Special Agent Patricia Thompson about Zecca's plan to kill him. Pressed by the FBI to provide names of potential suspects, Schmitt said, “I could only give one name.” Pressed further, he said he came up with one more.
“The name Dennis Zecca never came up in that conversation,” Schmitt said.
Addressing Zecca directly, Schmitt said he does “not understand why you wanted to kill someone you don’t know.”
Schmitt told Martinez, the judge, that he has many questions left for Zecca and law enforcement:
-- Why a murder-for-hire charge has a 10-year maximum sentence when cocaine charges dropped against Zecca (charges filed when Zecca was arrested) carried life maximums.
-- He is “frustrated there was no trial.”
-- Why a deal was negotiated with Zecca to drop the drug charges, and why it was done “without requiring Zecca to reveal his co-conspirators.”
Aaron, pointing to Zecca’s 27-year Coast Guard career, argued that sentencing guidelines called for a sentence between 7.25 years and nine years. He estimated Zecca saved “40 to 90 lives” in his Coast Guard career and that his accomplishments should count for something.
In addition, Aaron claimed that Zecca’s alcohol abuse “affected his judgment,” which drew several chuckles from some of the roughly 40 onlookers.
“In 2012, Mr. Zecca went from being a social drinker to drinking every day and hiding it from his family,” Aaron said during the hearing.
But Martinez wasn’t buying Aaron’s argument, on several occasions interrupting him to point out discrepancies in Zecca’s story. He was particularly interested in how Zecca got “from point A to point B.”
“I don’t think you flick a switch and become a murderer. Can you tell me why somebody would do that?” Martinez asked.
“He is not only not getting a downward variance [in sentencing], I’m not likely to give him anything but the maximum sentence,” he added.
During Coats’ presentation, he argued the offense was more serious because “it appears to be the kind …that occurred for no reason” and that “Zecca has exhibited no remorse.”
“Mr. Zecca was functioning not as a novice. He treated the source more like a protégé,” Coats said, pointing out Zecca was recorded attempting to use his law enforcement experience to tell the informant how to carry out the murder.
Zecca, shackled and donning a blue prison jumpsuit, was expressionless during the hearing and declined to address Martinez prior to sentencing. Members of his family, including his wife, two sons, mother, sister, brother and in-laws, were in the courtroom. Brian Schmitt, along with several other well-known Marathon residents, was also there.
Zecca admitted hiring a hit man to shoot Schmitt to death on Dec. 21, 2012, in the back yard of Schmitt’s home after a Christmas party. Schmitt wasn’t physically harmed, but did pose for a photo at the behest of the FBI to make it appear the murder was carried out.
It turns out the hit man, who worked for Zecca at the Marathon Marina and Boatyard on 11th Street, was a federal informant was who was wired. The plot to murder Schmitt was revealed while the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration was separately investigating Zecca for drug smuggling. Schmitt was not involved in that part of the investigation.
Once Zecca believed the hit had been carried out, he attempted to go get $5,000 of the promised $20,000 bounty. But FBI agents arrested him before he could pull out of the marina parking lot.
Federal authorities say Zecca had "associates and co-conspirators" involved in the attempted hit but have not said who they are. Zecca pleaded guilty in November to murder for hire.