Judge: OK to release names in Zecca transcripts from murder-for-hire case

A Monroe County Circuit Court judge Tuesday authorized three federal agencies to release unedited transcripts of recorded conversations between a former Islamorada U.S. Coast Guard base commander convicted for setting up a murder-for-hire scheme in 2012 and an undercover informant hired to pull the trigger.

The conversations could contain names of at least two other people involved in the plot.

The names are protected under the federal Privacy Act, but attorneys representing the intended target of the 2012 hit, Marathon businessman Bruce Schmitt — who escaped death after federal agents got wind of the plan — filed a motion in Circuit Court last month seeking an exemption from the 1974 law. Judge Mark Jones complied Tuesday at the county courthouse in Key West.

“The federal agents are going to listen to a Key West judge, yours truly,” Jones asked attorney Jason Kellogg before granting the motion.

Kellogg said any judge, no matter the jurisdictional level, could approve the motion.

Jones agreed with Kellogg that the privacy interests of the people named in the transcripts do not outweigh Schmitt’s “need to know” in his civil case against retired Coast Guard Chief Warrant Office Dennis Zecca and his possible co-conspirators — listed in the case as “John Doe I” and “John Doe II.”

Schmitt said he was pleased with Jones’ decision but was surprised that neither attorneys for Zecca nor the agencies involved showed up at the hearing to object.

“We were hoping for this,” he said. “What we didn’t know was if there would be someone here to object.”

Mark O’Mara, an Orlando-based attorney who represented Zecca during a May 15 deposition for the civil case, said he “is still helping out as I can” in the case, but added it is up to the agencies involved to object to Kellogg’s motion to have the unedited transcripts released.

“And I’m pretty certain they will,” O’Mara said in an email Tuesday.

Zecca took refuge under the Fifth Amendment’s protection from self-incrimination 50 times rather than answer questions posed to him by Schmitt’s lawyers during that deposition.

Schmitt is suing Zecca for compensation for emotional damages he suffered as a result of the murder plot. He hopes the civil action, filed in Monroe County Circuit Court in November, will force Zecca to reveal the possible co-conspirators.

At the time of the 2012 plot, Zecca had been retired from the Coast Guard for six years and was manager and part owner of the Marathon Marina and Boat Yard.

Jones’ order does not instruct, “only authorizes,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration to release full transcripts of secretly recorded conversations between Zecca and the man he contracted to kill Schmitt. Monroe County State Attorney Dennis Ward is watching the case closely and could bring local conspiracy charges depending on what information the agencies end up providing.

Messages seeking comment from the the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI were not returned by press time.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in 2016 released some transcripts of conversations that took place between Dec. 19 and 21, 2012, between the two men, but they were heavily redacted. Curiously, names were blacked out that appeared to be — following the flow of the context of the dialog — those of people not only involved in the murder-for-hire plan, but who may have been in charge of the crime.

Zecca pleaded guilty to attempted murder for hire in 2014. He was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison. In exchange for the plea, prosecutors dropped drug-smuggling charges that carried possible life sentences. But going by publicly available court records, they got little in return in the deal. Most importantly for Schmitt, Zecca never had to give up his co-conspirators, even though he told the trigger man someone else funded the hit.

The man hired to commit the murder was a confidential informant working for the DEA in a sting operation targeting Zecca in a 10-kilogram cocaine deal. The informant told DEA agents about Zecca’s plan to kill Schmitt, and the agents told the FBI. Agents then staged Schmitt’s death and photographed him lying in a pool of blood.

The informant showed Zecca the photo on Dec. 21, 2012. Zecca told him he had to get $5,000 of the $20,000 he agreed to pay the informant from someplace else and from someone else. But the names of the person or people who had the money are blacked out of the transcript.

David Goodhue: 305-440-3204