Florida Keys News
Saturday, December 28, 2013
A big year of criminal activity
Self representation didn't work out, jurors found defendants guilty

On the crime front, 2013 will go down as the year of defendants representing themselves in bizarre and violent crimes and the year Nichloas Ferro was convicted in the 2009 Fantasy Fest murder of Marques Butler.

But the biggest headline of all, in terms of surprise and chatter it created in the community, was the FBI's arrest of prominent Marathon marina owner and retired Coast Guard Station Islamorada commanding officer Dennis Zecca on suspicion of hiring a hitman to shoot and kill Marathon Realtor Bruce Schmitt.

Zecca was arrested in December 2012 and not 2013, but most of the legal maneuvering surrounding the case occurred this year, including Zecca's guilty plea he entered in November as part of a agreement with prosecutors.

Federal prosecutors agreed to drop two cocaine charges and one gun-related charge in exchange for a guilty plea on the murder-for-hire charge against Zecca, according to court documents.

The murder-for-hire allegation carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and fines up to $250,000.

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

Zecca agreed to give authorities a "full, accurate and complete" picture of all the circumstances surrounding the case as part of the plea agreement, according to court records.

In January, 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 two cocaine-related charges each carry maximum sentences of life in prison, and the murder-for-hire and firearm counts each carry maximum penalties of 10 years of imprisonment.

Federal prosecutors allege that Zecca, a former manager at Marathon Marina and Boatyard, attempted to pay an undercover Drug Enforcement Administration informant $20,000, or a kilogram of cocaine, to shoot and kill Marathon Realtor Bruce Schmitt with a 9mm Beretta handgun during the 2012 Christmas holidays.

The alleged murder-for-hire scheme came to light during the DEA's undercover cocaine investigation into Zecca, 52, who originally pleaded not guilty on Jan. 14 to murder-for-hire and cocaine charges.

Fantasy Fest murder

Another big headline was written after the Sept. 27 conviction of Nicholas Christopher Ferro, 27, of second-degree murder. Ferro, who lives in Hollywood is tentatively scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 7, but his defense attorneys have asked Circuit Judge Luis Garcia in Plantation Key for a hearing on the day before the sentencing so they can present their arguments for a new trial.

The conviction capped four years of waiting by both families of Ferro and Butler as to what happened in a fight on Caroline Street on Oct. 31, 2009, between a group of Ferro's friends and those of Butler that led to Butler's death. Ferro stabbed Butler with a small pocket knife, but has long maintained it was only in self-defense.

The incident would spark a dialogue over Fantasy Fest and a discussion on whether the sometimes raucous parade needs to be toned down or reviewed.

Meanwhile, it remains to be seen when Ferro will be sentenced as his attorneys are still preparing arguments for a special hearing, where they will request a new trial based on alleged misconduct by witnesses and the sitting of one jury who they say shouldn't have been allowed to hear the case because they don't live in the Keys.

Other notable crimes:

• Troopers charged a Miami-Dade County man in May with drunken driving and manslaughter in a fatal April crash on the Seven Mile Bridge, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.

Xavier Ycaza, 23, of Golden Beach in Miami-Dade, was charged with DUI manslaughter, DUI causing serious bodily injury, and DUI causing property damage.

Troopers were waiting for Ycaza at Ryder Trauma Center in Miami when he was released from the hospital Thursday and took him to Monroe County Detention Center on Plantation Key, said FHP Lt. Kathy McKinney.

Floyd Devos of Grand Rapids, Mich., 79, was pronounced dead at the scene on the bridge on April 17. The 1999 Chevrolet he was driving south at Mile Marker 46 with his wife, 76-year-old Nancy Devos, was struck by Ycaza's northbound 2013 Nissan.

The Nissan reportedly swerved into the southbound lane just before 9 p.m., struck the wall and caught fire near the north lane, while the Chevrolet struck the opposing wall and came to rest in the south lane.

Two Monroe County Sheriff's Office deputies pulled Ycaza from the Nissan before he was badly burnt by the fire.

• A construction worker was airlifted to Miami in July with third-degree burns over 61 percent of his body after his truck was purposely set ablaze, according to a Monroe County Sheriff's Office report.

Jose Gonzales, 52, of Homestead was airlifted to Ryder Trauma Center.

Stuart James Collins, 28, of North Carolina, was charged with attempted second-degree murder, arson with great bodily harm, and arson with property damage, according to sheriff's spokeswoman Deputy Becky Herrin.

Florida Paving and Trucking Inc. worker Gonzales was sleeping in the cab of his work truck at 3:43 a.m. on 107th Street when Collins allegedly set the vehicle on fire by tipping over a nearby gas can and lighting the fuel, according to a press release.

Detectives learned that Collins and Gonzales had exchanged words at JJ's Dog House and Sports Bar, said sheriff's office spokeswoman Herrin.

The truck also had a generator and a tank of diesel fuel aboard. Several explosions were reported as the truck burned, according to reports.

Detectives and the Fire Marshal's Office were investigating the fire, which the sheriff's office called arson.

alinhardt@keysnews.com

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