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 in November trying to hire a hit man to kill a Marathon Realtor in December 2012.
Despite numerous pleas from Miami defense attorney William Aaron, Martinez sentenced Zecca 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 but prosecutors say he had co-conspirators. The "hit man" was actually a federal informant wearing a wire.
At Wednesday's hour-long hearing in Key West, Schmitt was the only speaker, other than Aaron and Assistant U.S. Attorney Benjamin Coats. Schmitt's statement:
"On Dec. 19, 2012, my life changed dramatically when I received a telephone call from Special Agent Patty Thompson of the FBI. You need to know that I was already acquainted with Special Agent Thompson because of a previous case involving an attempted extortion by a local Marathon businessman using a disbarred Key West attorney and a local Monroe County politician in an attempt to extort $150,000 from myself and my brother relating to getting a city of Marathon approval to sell beer and wine in our tenant's Walgreens drug store.
"I was looking forward to meeting with the FBI hoping that there was a break in that case. What happened next was a shock and a surprise that I was not expecting.
"Special agent Thompson came to my office with three [Drug Enforcement Administration] agents. I was asked very directly, who do I know who would want me dead? I was flabbergasted. I had no idea where this was coming from.
"As the question sank in, I was only able to give one name prefacing my statement that it could only be this one person. When they pressed for more names, [I gave another] but qualified it as someone I would find very hard to believe could do such a thing."
Schmitt did not say who the people were who involved in the extortion attempt were.
As for the attempted hit, he asked Martinez to "vacate the plea agreement and order a trial" so Zecca's unnamed co-conspirators could be brought to justice. He said Zecca wasn't among the names he gave to the FBI as possible suspects.
Addressing Zecca directly, Schmitt said he does "not understand why you wanted to kill someone you don't know."
Schmitt told Martinez 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." The drug charges were dropped.
-- 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 the argument, on several occasions interrupting Aaron 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 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 protege," Coats said, pointing out Zecca was recorded attempting to use his law enforcement experience to tell the "hit man" -- who worked at the Marathon Boatyard and Marina, which Zecca partly owned -- 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 the "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.
The murder plot was revealed while the DEA was separately investigating Zecca for drug dealing. 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.