Former Coast Guard commander pleads guilty to murder for hire in Keys

Dennis Zecca, a former commander of U.S. Coast Guard Station Islamorada, has admitted in federal court that he hired a hit man to kill Marathon Realtor Bruce Schmitt.

In return for his guilty plea to murder for hire, the U.S. attorney’s office in Miami dropped charges of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine, and transfer of a firearm to a convicted felon.

If he hadn’t pleaded out Monday, Zecca would have faced trial in December.

U.S. District Court Judge Jose Martinez set sentencing for 1:30 p.m., March 25, in Key West. Zecca faces a maximum of 10 years in prison and three years of probation. If he had been convicted of all the charges handed up by a grand jury, he would have faced life.

Zecca, 52, was wearing a tan prison jumpsuit while shackled and handcuffed, and sporting bandages on his left wrist because of an operation he had had while in custody. There were just four spectators in the courtroom gallery.

After 26 years with the Coast Guard, culminating with his Islamorada post, Zecca became part-owner of the Marathon Marina and Boatyard.

He was arrested last Dec. 21 for allegedly attempting to pay an employee — a federal informant who is a convicted felon — $20,000 or a kilogram of cocaine to murder Schmitt.

No one has ever said what the incentive was, and Schmitt says he has no idea and that, to this day, he still doesn’t know Zecca.

Federal authorities say the murder plot had “associates and co-conspirators in this offense” but have not said who they are. That information could come out at his sentencing.

The plot appears separate from a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration investigation, out of which the alleged plot to kill Schmitt was hatched. Federal authorities say Schmitt, who was not harmed, was not involved in the drug case.

The hit was supposed to take place while Schmitt left a Christmas party.

Zecca was arrested after the informant, who was wearing a wire for the feds, showed Zecca a doctored photo of Schmitt lying in a pool of blood and as Zecca was going to get $5,000 of the $20,000 payment for the hit. The gun count stemmed from Zecca giving the informant a 9 mm Beretta to carry out Schmitt’s killing.

A search of Zecca’s Indigo Reef condo in Marathon following his arrest turned up a safe containing four handguns, four rifles, two shotguns, lots of ammunition and $42,600 in cash, the feds said.

Zecca’s wife, Mary, worked as a real-estate agent for Coldwell Banker Schmitt, which is owned by Schmitt’s family. She was fired after her husband’s arrest.

Zecca initially pleaded not guilty on Jan. 14. He has been in custody since his arrest.

Miami Herald staff writer Cammy Clark provided the plea details.

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