This summer marks two years since a retired high-ranking U.S. Coast Guard officer pleaded guilty to an attempted murder-for-hire plot without ever giving up who put him up to the scheme.
Pouring through federal court documents -- some released only this month -- from the case of Dennis Zecca, who once commanded Coast Guard Station Islamorada, raises more questions than answers, chief among them: Who wanted Marathon businessman Bruce Schmitt killed and why?
In redacted transcripts of recorded conversations Zecca had with the unidentified man he hired to shoot Schmitt dead, Zecca mentions several people with possible involvement. Those names are redacted, or blacked out, in the transcripts.
But prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami accepted a plea deal in which Zecca admitted he hired someone to kill Schmitt, but he never had to say who his co-conspirators were. In exchange for the guilty plea, the government dropped two cocaine dealing charges that each carried maximum life prison sentences. Federal prosecutors also dropped a charge of giving a convicted felon a firearm, which carries a 10-year sentence.
Zecca, 55, is two years into a 10-year prison sentence. In transcripts of Zecca's July 2, 2014, sentencing hearing that were released this month, Schmitt told U.S. District Judge Jose Martinez he was angry murder-for-hire doesn't come with a harsher punishment.
"I don't understand," Schmitt said.
The U.S. Attorney's Office does not comment on its cases so it's not clear why prosecutors accepted the deal. But the transcripts show Martinez, too, was bothered that Zecca didn't say for whom or with whom he was working.
"You know, I'm not asking for your communications with your client, but can you tell me what -- why somebody would do something like that," Martinez asked Zecca's attorney, William Aaron. "Why -- there's no connect. It's a total disconnect. There's a black box there and I don't know what's in there."
What is known is the plot to kill Schmitt, who's in the real estate business, was initiated in December 2012. At the time Zecca was part owner of the Marathon Marina & Boatyard on 11th Street oceanside. He hired an employee to pull the trigger for either $20,000 or a kilogram of cocaine.
But unbeknownst to Zecca, the man he hired to kill Schmitt was an informant working for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Zecca was apparently a target in a DEA investigation involving the purchase of 10 kilos of cocaine with fictional California suppliers. The sham deal was supposed to happen Jan. 3, 2013.
When the informant told his DEA handlers about the plan to kill Schmitt, the agents contacted the FBI. Agents with both agencies contacted Schmitt to tell him his life was in danger.
"The rest of the conversation between us that day was about my safety, and the recommendation that I not only leave town, but leave the country," Schmitt told Martinez.
The informant cooperated with the FBI and agreed to set Zecca up. He told Zecca he'd commit the murder. On Dec. 18, 2012, Zecca and the informant discussed how it would happen, according to transcripts of recorded conversations between the two men.
"So, you want me to, make this guy, kill this guy before the end of the year," the informant asked Zecca.
Zecca replied: "Yeah, no, I'm thinking with all the holiday parties going on, you should be able to go and [expletive] take him out, alright?"
As to where the murder would take place, Zecca told the informant: "I'm going to tell you where you're going to get him. You're going to follow him, he's going to a Christmas party, he's going to be all [expletive] up, and you're going to be able to get him."
And when, asked the informant?
"As soon as possible. As soon as possible. Be done with him. Don't let no heat get on me and you, be done with him."
On Dec. 20, 2012, Zecca gave the informant the murder weapon, a 9 mm handgun. The next day, the informant told Zecca that the job was done and showed him a photo on his phone of Schmitt lying dead in a pool of blood. But the murder scene was staged by the FBI.
Zecca was concerned with what the informant said because he had not been able to talk to "these people" about the murder. Assistant U.S. Attorney Benjamin Coats stated "these people" is an apparent reference to Zecca's co-conspirators.
The informant asked Zecca if he had the payment for the hit, Zecca replied: "I gotta go get it. I haven't even talked to these people yet that it's done. I haven't said nothing to nobody."
Again, the transcripts were redacted by the court, but Zecca appears to tell the informant who he is referring to.
"It ain't [redacted]. I have to go to [redacted]."
Zecca told the informant to get rid of the phone containing the photo, and again mentioned other people who appear to be involved in the plot.
"You don't understand. I gotta meet with them, and it looks suspicious when I'm running all over the [expletive] place. That's why I told you. I have nothing. I have absolutely no, I have to get with these people. Alright, get rid of your phone."
Zecca served in the Coast Guard for 27 years, retiring in 2006. But in the recorded conversations, he indicates his criminal career also spans decades. He appeared to be grooming the informant not only as a hit man, but as a protégé for other criminal endeavors.
"I want you to have what I had when I was in the day, when I was younger in my [expletive]," Zecca said. "I was king, and I had everything, millions of dollars."
When the informant asked how he made the money, Zecca replied, "Drugs. Real estate."
He also indicated in the conversation with the informer that he was involved in money laundering. "Uhm, people need me to, to give me money and say, make it clean."
He also gave insight into why he got involved in crime after getting out of the Coast Guard.
"I was calmed down, and now I ain't calm," he said. "I got a taste of life again. And now, I'm saying, what the [expletive]."