Florida Keys News - Key West Citizen
Saturday, December 29, 2012
Crime and punishment: murder trials, fraud convictions

The year will close on Tuesday and it can't come fast enough for some Keys residents who foiled the clichéd image of the Keys as a crime- and violent-free paradise.

This year saw arrests and convictions related to murder, money mismanagement and general mayhem from Key West to Key Largo. Perhaps the biggest crime-related headlines related to the murder trial of a Hollywood man accused of stabbing Key West resident Marques Butler to death in a street fight during Fantasy Fest 2009.

The year also wrapped up with the arrest of a former Coast Guard Station Islamorada commanding officer on charges that he hired a federal informant to kill Marathon real estate agent Bruce Schmitt.

Facts surrounding that case were still being uncovered as 2013 loomed.

Toppino takes plea deal

In December, two defendants and a contractor with a well-known Florida Keys construction family charged in an eviction-related fight last year agreed to spend 45 days in county jail and pay $20,000 each in restitution to two victims as part of plea agreements with prosecutors.

Paul Edward Toppino, 69, was charged with felony burglary with assault or battery while armed -- allegedly with a loaded .380-caliber handgun -- in the July 19, 2011, fight at an apartment at 1719 Thompson St.

Toppino's family owns Charley Toppino and Sons Inc. in Rockland Key.

Also charged in the case were co-defendants Michael Dennis, 67, and Graciela Lozano, 48.

The agreement calls for each to serve 45 days in the Monroe County Detention Center and then 12 months' probation as well as paying restitution.

All had been facing a maximum possible punishment of life in prison if convicted.

Fantasy Fest 2011 strangling trial

The year kicked off with the extradition from Wisconsin of Peter Erik Hedvall, who is accused of killing New Town restaurant server 32-year-old Jonathan Alvarado on Grinnell Street during Fantasy Fest 2011.

Alvarado was strangled with wire from a Fantasy Fest costume and bludgeoned with a rock, according to a Monroe County medical examiner's autopsy report.

Alvarado worked at La Trattoria Oceanside restaurant and had lived in Key West for eight years.

Hedvall, a 26-year-old former bouncer at Irish Kevin's bar and Bare Assets strip club, is charged with Alvarado's murder.

The date for his first-degree murder trial has not yet been scheduled. Prosecutors are not seeking the death penalty.

Norma Jean Sawyer

Another big headline grabber early in 2012 was the trial of Norma Jean Sawyer, the former head of the now-defunct Bahama Conch Community Land Trust (BCCLT). She was ordered in March to pay more than $150,000 in restitution and serve 25 years' probation after she became embroiled in a funding scandal.

She must repay $121,637 in misspent state grant money as well as $32,174 to the State Attorney's Office for its investigative costs, circuit Judge Mark Jones ruled.

After a three-day trial, a jury found Sawyer guilty on Feb. 16 of scheming to defraud more than $50,000, ending three years of a financial and legal investigation that ultimately led to the nonprofit BCCLT's demise.

Sawyer told Jones that though she disagreed with the jury's verdict, she took responsibility for her mistakes.

She told Jones she became "overwhelmed" by the financial responsibilities of the land trust.

No new trial granted for Thomas Overton

Thomas Mitchell Overton, convicted of brutally killing a Tavernier couple and their unborn baby in 1991, argued in January that he should be granted a new trial. Circuit Judge Mark Jones ruled that Overton's arguments were "wholly inappropriate," "meritless" and "his guilt remains overwhelming."

Overton killed Michael and Susan MacIvors and their unborn baby, and raped Susan, who was eight months' pregnant. He also was convicted of burglarizing their Upper Keys home.

Overton previously lost appeals in 2005 and 2007.

Top cop sentenced in homestead case

Also in March, the former top cop in the Keys lost his spot after pleading no contest to a misdemeanor petty theft charge.

Former Florida Department of Law Enforcement Agent Vince Weiner claimed a homestead exemption on his Big Pine Key home while renting it out and living on Florida's west coast, and initially was charged with providing false homestead information, a first-degree misdemeanor, and grand theft, a third-degree felony.

Circuit Judge Mark Jones withheld adjudication on the theft charge, meaning Weiner emerged with no criminal record. A charge of providing false homestead exemption information was dismissed as part of his plea agreement.

Weiner was subsequently hired as a road patrol deputy for the Monroe County Sheriff's Office, with a starting annual salary of $40,660, plus benefits.

Weiner's state law-enforcement certification is under review by the FDLE's Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission, however. If the board revokes the certification, Weiner cannot be a deputy. His case before that commission is pending.

'Sea Hag' charged

in Conch Key murder

Also in July, Carolyn "Sea Hag" Dukeshire, 62, of Conch Key, pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder charges in the July 29 shooting death of Marty Mazur, 64, also of Conch Key.

Mazur reportedly was sitting behind his home, drinking a beer with a friend, when Dukeshire approached and asked for a beer. Mazur refused to give her one, at which Dukeshire left and returned with a gun, according to a Sheriff's Office report.

Dukeshire remains in Monroe County Detention Center on Stock Island under no bail. Many Conch Key residents described Dukeshire, who refers to herself as "Sea Hag," as a heavy drinker who did odd jobs around the small island community.

Life sentence in

bludgeoning murder

In July, Circuit Judge Mark Jones handed down what he called a "just sentence" of life in prison to Pablo Solano Jimenez for the 2010 bludgeoning death of Tracy Heshmaty.

"The verdict was just and supported by the weight of the evidence," Jones told Jimenez. "There is no mystery to the sentence I must give you, which, frankly, is the sentence you deserve."

On June 29, a Key West jury found Jimenez guilty of first-degree murder. He also had been charged with robbery with a deadly weapon, but jurors handed down a conviction on a lesser charge of petty theft.

Jimenez bludgeoned 37-year-old Heshmaty with a rock during an argument in a Simonton Street parking lot in the early morning hours of May 31, 2010.

Randy Acevedo

completes probation

In September, former Monroe County Schools Superintendent Randy Acevedo marked the end of his criminal court sentence of three years' probation for trying to shield his wife, former schools administrator Monique Acevedo, from the investigation that sent her to prison for embezzling $413,000.

Circuit Judge Mark Jones gave Randy Acevedo probation, rejecting the prosecution's recommendation of two years behind bars. Monique Acevedo is currently serving eight years in prison, followed by 22 years on probation, during which she must make monthly payments on the $413,000 she siphoned away from the School District.

In 2009, Randy Acevedo was convicted on three counts of felony obstruction of justice while a public servant for his role in the scandal that rocked the Florida Keys and exposed corruption that prompted voters to end Monroe County's practice of electing its schools chief.

Fantasy Fest 2009 stabbing trial

Nicholas Ferro's initial second-degree murder trial ended in March with a hung jury in Key West after days of heated testimony by witnesses of the fight in a melee that cast a shadow on the yearly street party some residents say is becoming too rowdy.

The largest courtroom in the Freeman Justice Center was split with supporters for Ferro and those on the Key West side.

The trial was interrupted multiple times by circuit Judge David Audlin, who warned spectators on both sides to avoid each other and not talk to any jurors. Nevertheless, Audlin excused one juror who said she felt threatened by one of the Butler supporters watching the trial from the public seating area.

Ferro's attorneys claimed the trial should have been moved out of Key West, saying there was too much emotion embedded in residents who knew Butler. Audlin recused himself after the first trial, citing "potential or possible bias, prejudice or sympathy," but did not elaborate further in court records. That sent the next trial to the Plantation Key courthouse, where circuit Judge Luis Garcia presides. Ferro's second trial is pending.

alinhardt@keysnews.com

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