Florida Keys

He’s accused of financing a murder plot. But lawyers say he never intended emotional pain

This is the Marathon Boatyard and Marina. Dennis Zecca, who pleaded guilty to murder for hire in 2014, was a part-owner.
This is the Marathon Boatyard and Marina. Dennis Zecca, who pleaded guilty to murder for hire in 2014, was a part-owner.

A Marathon business owner, accused by the victim of a 2012 attempted murder-for-hire plot of being the financier of that crime, has filed a motion to dismiss a civil case against him for emotional distress and conspiracy.

In their court filing, lawyers for Ralph Lucignano, owner of Marathon Liquors and Deli, don’t dispute that their client may have been the money man behind the plot to kill Bruce Schmitt, as stated in Schmitt’s July 3 complaint. They simply don’t address that question.

But even if the allegations are true, the attorneys argue, they don’t meet the criteria for a successful intentional emotional distress case.

The case is scheduled to be heard in Monroe County Circuit Court in Key West next week.

The question of whether Lucignano was even a player in the plot hasn’t been resolved because he was never charged. The plot to kill Schmitt was foiled when federal agents learned of it and the FBI orchestrated a fake hit, complete with Schmitt lying in a pool of fake blood so he could be photographed. The only person who was charged — Dennis Zecca, a decorated former U.S. Coast Guard chief warrant officer — pleaded guilty in 2014 for murder-for-hire and is in federal prison.

Schmitt filed a lawsuit against Zecca in 2016 seeking compensation for emotional damages he suffered as a result of the murder plot against him. The suit was amended in July to include Lucignano after the FBI unredacted transcripts of conversations between Zecca and an informant indicating a man named Ralph paid for the attempted murder. As part of the lawsuit, Schmitt is also trying to find out other names in the transcripts that remain redacted.

At the heart of it is Schmitt’s belief that Lucignano ordered the hit because he was afraid that Schmitt would help clients like Walgreens and Publix get licenses to sell liquor, beer and wine and compete with Marathon Liquors. At the time, his was the only package store for 20 miles.

Schmitt declined to be interviewed for this story. Lucignano could not be reached for comment, and his attorneys did not return a request for comment asking about Lucignano’s involvement or lack of involvement in the plot. Lucignano did not return phone calls when he was added to the civil case in July. But it’s not unusual that Lucignano’s attorneys did not specifically dispute Schmitt’s claim that their client orchestrated a murder, said Larry Kerr, a Miami criminal defense attorney who is not connected to the case.

In fact, he said, that’s typical in motions to dismiss so lawyers don’t get bogged down and risk a jury trial.

“In a motion to dismiss, the judge assumes the facts alleged in the complaint are true and correct. A good defense lawyer is not going to argue the facts,” Kerr said. “If you contest the facts, a judge is going to deny the motion and let a jury decide.”

Whoever else it might have involved, the plot dates to 2012.

Zecca, now 57, retired from the Coast Guard in 2006. His last assignment was commander of Station Islamorada. Following his service, he became part owner of Marathon Boat Yard and Marina. He also became the target of a Drug Enforcement Administration cocaine-smuggling investigation that included an undercover informant who worked for Zecca at the marina.

Zecca.jpg
Dennis Zecca, whose last post in the Coast Guard was commanding Station Islamorada, pleaded guilty in 2014 to hiring a hit man to murder a Marathon businessman. FILE

In late 2012, Zecca offered the informant his choice of either $20,000 or a kilogram of cocaine to shoot Schmitt dead, according to court documents. The informant told his DEA handlers about the solicitation, who in turn told the FBI. The FBI told Schmitt, then set up a fake hit, with Schmitt photographed lying in a pool of fake blood so he could be photographed for Zecca to see.

The informant said he did the deed and showed Zecca a photo of the supposedly dead Schmitt on Dec. 21, 2012. During a recorded conversation, Zecca made it clear he was not the one who commissioned the murder, and he needed to get the money to pay the informant from “Ralph’s people,” according to transcripts of the conversation that the FBI changed over the summer so that portions that had been blocked out were now visible.

“Ralph” is Lucignano, according to Schmitt’s complaint, which was amended after the updated transcripts were released to add the politically-connected business owner.

Susan Klock, one of Lucignano’s attorneys, maintains it doesn’t matter to whom Zecca was referring. The plot was to kill Schmitt, not inflict emotional distress upon him.

“Even accepting this ridiculous allegation, the alleged intention was clearly not to inflict emotional distress,” Susan Klock wrote. “The alleged acts do not show a reckless disregard for a likely infliction of emotional distress. If the allegations were true, none of the alleged acts were so reckless that Lucignano should have known that the plaintiff would have learned of any plot to kill him.”

Lucignano’s attorneys also argue the four-year statute of limitations on civil conspiracy and intentional infliction of emotional distress expired by the time Schmitt filed his amended case against Lucignano in July.

The reason Lucignano wanted Schmitt dead, according to Schmitt’s attorney Laurence Kellogg, is Schmitt represented retailers looking to sell liquor, beer and wine in Marathon. Lucignano was vocal that he didn’t want the competition, according to Kellogg. In 2006, Lucignano backed a city council ordinance that prohibited two establishments from selling booze if they were located within 1,500 feet of each other or a church.

It passed, but was repealed in 2014. Critics of the ordinance said it was written at the time to protect Marathon Liquors, which had been the only package store between Marathon and Big Pine Key, about 20 miles away.

“Lucignano repeatedly told the Schmitts that his own liquor store could not compete if a chain like Publix or Walgreens moved to Marathon, explaining that a chain could sell liquor cheaper than Lucignano could buy it from his distributor,” Kellogg wrote in the July complaint.

In 2010, when Walgreens submitted a beer, wine and liquor application to the city, Lucignano tapped influential people in town to oppose it. Nevertheless, the Marathon City Council ended up approving the license.

Then, in 2012, Lucignano and some members of the City Council used what became known as the “1,500 feet rule” to block the reinstatement of a liquor license for the Overseas Lounge, according to Kellogg. The owners of Overseas successfully fought the decision in court in April of that year.

Schmitt publicly praised the ruling in an editorial in a local newspaper, and the complaint suggests that may have placed him in Lucignano’s cross hairs.

Regardless, Lucignano’s attorneys argue, the complaint against their client does not demonstrate he deliberately tried to inflict emotional harm on Schmitt.

“As for actions of Lucignano that would actually support any allegations for intentional infliction of emotional distress, there aren’t any,” Susan Klock wrote. “Every allegation [in the complaint] is a conclusory statement that can only be based on activities of Zecca in conjunction with the confidential informant.”

Right after the informant showed Zecca the photo of Schmitt’s supposedly dead body, Zecca left the marina, telling the informant he was going to get his money. Before he left the property, FBI agents arrested him. For reasons the agency never released, agents declined to bring a case against whoever they suspected ordered the hit.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office, likewise, never sought charges against anyone else, even though volumes of transcripts of recorded conversations between Zecca and the informant strongly indicate more people were involved. The FBI blacked out those names.

Zecca sought refuge behind the Fifth Amendment’s protection against self-incrimination 50 times during a May 2017 deposition where Kellogg asked about Lucignano and other possible co-conspirators.

He pleaded guilty in 2014 for murder-for-hire. In exchange for his plea, federal prosecutors agreed not to pursue cocaine smuggling charges — part of the original DEA investigation — that could have landed him in prison for life. He’s now four years into a 10-year sentence inside a low-security prison.

Monroe County State Attorney Dennis Ward began looking into bringing state charges against Zecca and whoever else may have been in on the plot when he took office in 2016. But, by the time the FBI unredacted “Ralph” from the transcripts, he was out of time. The statute of limitations on attempted murder for hire is four years.

Lucignano’s motion to dismiss is scheduled to be heard by Circuit Judge Mark Jones at the Freeman Justice Center on Fleming Street in Key West at 1:30 p.m. Nov. 28.

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