Florida Keys News
Wednesday, December 25, 2013
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A plot, intrigue and a bridge deal

MARATHON -- For this Middle Keys town, 2013 began with a bizarre murder-for-hire plot.

In January, Dennis Zecca, a retired Coast Guard chief warrant officer and Marathon marina manager, was arrested for allegedly contracting with an undercover operative to kill prominent Realtor Bruce Schmitt.

Zecca stood accused of attempting to pay a Drug Enforcement Administration informant $20,000, or a kilogram of cocaine, to shoot and kill Schmitt with a 9 mm Beretta handgun during the 2012 Christmas holidays.

The scheme came to light during the DEA's undercover cocaine investigation into Zecca, 52.

A federal grand jury issued a four-count indictment against Zecca that included the murder-for-hire charge, conspiracy to possess cocaine with intent to distribute, attempt to possess cocaine with intent to distribute and transfer of a firearm to a convicted felon.

The arrest, rumors of co-conspirators and Schmitt's brief travel overseas for safety reasons fueled months of speculation about Zecca's motive for the attempted hit.

In November, federal prosecutors agreed to drop two cocaine charges and one gun-related charge in exchange for a guilty plea from Zecca on the murder-for-hire charge.

The murder-for-hire allegation carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and fines up to $250,000. Before the plea agreement, Zecca was facing life imprisonment for the cocaine charges. Also as part of the agreement, Zecca must give prosecutors an accurate account of his crime.

Sentencing before U.S. District Court Judge Jose E. Martinez has been tentatively scheduled for March 25 at the federal courthouse in Key West.

During the fall political season, Marathon voters overwhelmingly rallied behind pawn shop owner Mark Senmartin, a political unknown, during the City Council elections. Senmartin ran on a platform to shake up how business is conducted at city hall.

Senmartin, backcountry fishing guide and two-term incumbent Richard Keating, and commercial fisherman Pete Worthington, a former four-term councilman, duked it out for Keating's seat and another being vacated by Mayor Mike Cinque, who had to step down due to term limits.

Voters in November cast 1,410 ballots for Senmartin, while Keating collected 694 and Worthington got 637. The top two vote-getters won the race, but nothing required voters to choose two candidates.

Both Worthington and Keating initially accused Senmartin of manipulating the outcome of the election by urging people to vote only for him, but both stopped short of calling it illegal.

Just before election day, the Monroe County State Attorney's Office released a nine-page report identifying former County Attorney Jim Hendrick as the person who orchestrated an attack mailer against Senmartin. The mailer violated election law because the person who paid for its mailing, one "Scott Miller," did not reside at the address listed on the political mailer.

The advertisement attacked Senmartin for clearing hardwood hammock on his Bluefin Drive property. Senmartin was found to have committed a code infraction at a June 12 hearing. Investigators said no charges would be filed against Hendrick, who claimed he was acting on Miller's behalf, because they could not prove whether or not Miller existed. Hendrick, who told investigators he corresponded with Miller via phone and email, told the Free Press that Miller likely does not exist.

During much of 2013, state, county and Marathon officials have tried to negotiate a way to maintain the Old Seven Mile Bridge on the southside of the city. The bridge has fallen into disrepair and is now open only to foot traffic.

The Monroe County Commission and the Marathon City Council agreed earlier this month to work with the Florida Department of Transportation to restore and maintain the bridge.

Under the terms of the agreement, FDOT would retain ownership of Henry Flagler's 100-year-old railroad bridge. Also, FDOT would pay $57 million of the projected $77 million in repair and maintenance costs over the next 30 years. Monroe County would pay $14.2 million, and Marathon would pay $5.3 million to help cover the cost of repairs. The county would have to pay an additional $720,000 upfront to repair the Pigeon Key ramp, according to the agreement.

FDOT initially estimated that it would take only $14 million to repair the bridge, but that number grew to $77 million after the county hired its own engineer to review bridge inspection reports.

In other Marathon news, bailiffs, judges and other court personnel began working in a renovated courthouse in May. The renovated main building and a large trailer with bathrooms for jurors now provides Marathon with two new courtrooms. Other improvements are updated security camera systems and a larger security area.

Speaking of trailers, the Marathon City Council in late November gave City Manager Roger Hernstadt the OK to seek "value engineering" estimates from two contractors seeking to build a permanent city hall to replace the trailers that for years have served as the city's administrative offices.

The city has budgeted $5.5 million for the new digs; however, front-running contractors West Construction of Lake Worth and Botsford Builders/Overholt Construction of Marathon submitted initial bids of $6.68 million and $7.14 million, respectively.

Hernstadt, meanwhile, has also given thought to relocating -- from Marathon to Marco Island. He is in the running for the city manager's slot in the Collier County island town but remains tight-lipped about his intentions.

Among the unusual news of the year was a municipal pig ordinance that for months plagued the Marathon City Council.

The council held multiple conversations about whether to allow and how to regulate pet pig ownership. Eventually, the council decided to welcome pigs but prohibit their breeding.

jgore@keysnews.com

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