From the day Coral Gables nurse Debra Clark was discovered strangled, beaten and shot inside her townhome, police had focused on one chief suspect: Allen Bregman, her older, married lover.
But it took 42 years, and the evolution of DNA-matching technology, for a jury to decide that detectives had the right man.
Jurors on Friday convicted Bregman, now 77, of murdering Clark during a fit of rage in August 1977. Bregman showed no emotion as the verdict was read, while Clark’s relatives began to weep quietly.
“She got her peace. She’s at rest. I thank God for being a righteous God to help the jurors make a wise decision,” said a tearful Brian Pantola, Clark’s brother. He had traveled along with relatives and supporters from upstate New York to watch the trial.
Bregman was convicted of second-degree murder with a firearm, and he was immediately taken into custody to await sentencing in the coming weeks. The gun portion of the verdict was important. Had jurors convicted him of plain second-degree murder with no weapon, Bregman would likely have walked free.
The reason: Bregman had to be tried under 1977 Florida law, back when the statute of limitations for second-degree murder with no deadly weapon was only four years. The law has since been changed, and there is no longer a statute of limitations on the charge.
The trial was unique in Miami-Dade County history — prosecutors believe it was the longest stretch between the time of the murder and the killer’s trial.
Over the course of two weeks, prosecutors presented a circumstantial case that transported jurors back to 1970s Miami, and relied on a major piece of evidence: a single hair from Bregman, found resting on the inside of Clark’s arm.
“A little piece of the defendant — his hair,” prosecutor Rebecca DiMeglio told jurors during closing arguments on Thursday. “What’s at issue is when the defendant’s hair fell out of his head. Based on where it landed on top of her immobile dead body, we know when — after he killed her. You can use your common sense and you can take that to the bank.”
Defense lawyer Charles White told jurors that detectives ignored other possible suspects, and the hair was already in the bed because Bregman often stayed with his secret lover.
“You can’t hold Allen Bregman responsible for the lack of evidence,” White said. “You can’t let your emotions fill in the gaps.”
Clark’s murder went unsolved until 2016, when Miami-Dade cold case homicide detectives David Denmark and Jonathan Grossman arrested Bregman after the DNA match to the hair. Bregman is a retired real-estate agent who lived for years in Boca Raton.
Back in the 1970s, Bregman worked for his wealthy father managing real-estate properties. In 1977, he lived in an upscale waterfront home in Miami Beach down the street from the La Gorce Country Club and was an avid boater, serving as a volunteer with the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary. His wife was Florence Bregman.
Jurors heard that Bregman, then 36, was seeing Clark for more than a year. The 23-year-old hailed from Utica, N.Y., and had come to Florida to experience life outside her small town. Clark got a nursing job at Coral Gables Hospital but planned to enroll in law school to become a lawyer.
He vacationed with her, moved her into a townhome he owned near Coral Gables and promised he would get a divorce. Prosecutors said he was living a “double life.”
“He wanted a mistress and a wife. He didn’t want a divorce,” prosecutor Lara Penn told the jury on Thursday.
Bregman was in New York for a Coast Guard training when a friend called to tell him Florence had discovered the affair and planned to file for divorce. On Aug. 4, 1977, he changed his trip itinerary and flew home to Miami.
There were no witnesses to Bregman arriving at Clark’s home that day. But prosecutors relied on a host of clues to prove he was in the house.
There was no sign of forced entry. “He had a key. He let himself in,” Penn said.
Clark was dressed in night clothes and was lying on the bed, which suggested she was comfortable with the person who killed her. Prosecutors theorized that Clark refused to leave the apartment, and Bregman snapped, shooting her with a small handgun he had bought for her months earlier.
Then, they said, he strangled her, beat her with his hands and the pistol, so brutally that the gun’s grips fell apart and were found on the bed.
She was not discovered until two days later, when worried co-workers went to the home and called police. All of Bregman’s belongings — and even their photos together that had been on the wall — had been taken from the home.
Bregman’s actions after the murder also cast suspicion. Two days after the body was discovered, he filed a life insurance claim on her for $50,000 — something her relatives fought in court for years. He also failed to attend the funeral and never showed grief for the death of his girlfriend, her friends told jurors.
White, the defense attorney, told jurors that prosecutors were simply making Bregman out to be a “bad guy” because he was having an affair.
“You have the state playing emotional games here,” White said.
Bregman never refuted that he flew to South Florida early — prosecutors had a copy of his plane ticket as evidence. But Bregman did not testify in his own defense, and his whereabouts during Clark’s murder remained unexplained to the jury.
Jurors deliberated five hours on Thursday before leaving for the night. They returned Friday morning, announcing they had a verdict after less than one hour.
The verdict was a relief for Thomas Guilfoyle, the Dade County police officer who forced his way into the townhome to discover Clark’s body. Guilfoyle, now 71 and still a sworn cop, later went on to serve as the police department’s legal adviser, and now does the same job for the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office.
He works on the Florida Sheriffs Association Cold Case Advisory Commission, which explores unsolved homicides, much like Clark’s was for decades.
“You don’t forget something like this. She was a beautiful young nurse. Twenty-three years old,” Guilfoyle said. “It was very brutal. It was my first homicide and it stuck with me all these years.”