Latest News

Former Coast Guard officer faces hit-man sentencing

A former U.S. Coast Guard Station Islamorada commanding officer who admitted trying to hire a hit man to kill a Marathon Realtor finds out Wednesday how much time he'll spend in federal prison.

Dennis Zecca is scheduled for sentencing at 1:30 p.m. July 2 in U.S. District Court before Judge Jose Martinez in the federal courthouse at 301 Simonton St., Key West.

Prosecutors recommend Zecca get 10 years for his attempt to have Bruce Schmitt shot to death following a Christmas party in 2012. Zecca's been in custody since federal agents arrested him on Dec. 21 that year at the Marathon Marina and Boatyard on 11th Street in Marathon. After 26 years with the Coast Guard culminating with his Islamorada post, Zecca became part-owner of the marina and boatyard.

No one has ever said publicly what his incentive was, and Schmitt says he has no idea. He says he 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 likely won’t come out at sentencing.

Zecca has agreed to forfeit a Beretta 9mm handgun, a Smith & Wesson .40-caliber handgun and a 2010 Toyota Tundra, all apparently related to the murder-for-hire plot.

He pleaded guilty this past November to murder for hire. He had also been charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine, attempt to possess with intent to distribute cocaine, and transfer of a firearm to a convicted felon.

If he didn't plead out, Zecca would have faced trial this past December and a possible life sentence if convicted.

Zecca admitted attempting to pay one of his marina employees -- who turned out to be a federal informant who is a convicted felon -- $20,000 or a kilo of cocaine to murder Schmitt.

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

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 the 9mm 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 Real Estate, which is owned by Schmitt's family. She was fired after her husband's arrest.

Dennis Zecca, who has admitted to trying to hire a hit man to kill Marathon Realtor Brian Schmitt, is scheduled for sentencing Wednesday.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Benjamin Coats says the sentencing range is 7.5 to nine years in federal prison but wants Zecca given the 10-year maximum. He explains in a June 25 court filing his reasoning -- and gives Zecca no mercy.

"The defendant's sentencing memorandum tries very hard to distinguish the defendant from the typical defendant who has been found guilty of this offense, but fails to describe this typical defendant....

"The government submits that one such typical defendant in murder-for-hire cases is the 'passion' defendant, who targets a current or former friend or romantic partner, and is motivated by specific passions directed toward the proposed victim. The defendant does not fare well when compared with 'passion' defendants, who were often in situations that are unlikely to be repeated and can be provided with counseling or coping strategies to improve their stress responses in the future....

"Another typical defendant in murder-for-hire cases is the 'business' defendant, who targets a current or former business partner or rival. This category includes situations where the defendant, victim, or both were engaged in criminal enterprises. This type of defendant is ordinarily more concerning because of the depravity involved in deciding to arrange for another person's death without any personal ill will toward that person; with, instead, the purpose of obtaining money, power, or business advantage.

"Even so, assuming that the defendant's behavior was motive-less, he compares unfavorably even with this group in that a 'business' defendant's reasons can be ascertained and remedial actions or countermeasures can be taken."

"Close examination of the transcriptions of the recorded conversations in this case between the defendant and the confidential human source reveals a troubling fact.... Defendant was no novice soliciting a professional 'hit man' to carry out a hit; rather, the defendant viewed and treated the [informant] more like a subordinate or protege."

"The defendant does not appear to appreciate that only factors outside his control prevented him from causing the cold-blooded murder of another person, or to care that the victim must now live with the knowledge that only the defendant's choice of the wrong 'hit man' prevented the victim's death."

"The defendant uses the terms 'quintessential aberration' and 'moral and mental lapse,' but never uses the words 'murder,' 'kill,' or 'death.' These are not trivial language preferences. His 'acceptance of responsibility statement' discusses his 'role in this case' without specifying what that role was. That same statement comes as close as he has ever come to apologizing to the victim when it says, 'I also am sorry for and regret whatever discomfort this has caused any others....'

"That the defendant could not come up with a better word than 'discomfort' to describe the torment that accompanies learning that someone has been seriously plotting one's murder indicates a shocking lack of empathy."