Dennis Zecca, a former commander of U.S. Coast Guard Station Islamorada, admitted in federal court on Monday that he hired a hitman to kill Marathon Realtor Bruce Schmitt.
In return for his guilty plea to murder for hire, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami dropped charges of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine, attempt to possess with intent to distribute cocaine, and transfer of a firearm to a convicted felon.
If he didn't plead out, Zecca would have faced trial in December.
U.S. District Court Judge Jose Martinez set sentencing for 1:30 p.m. March 25 in Key West. Zecca faces a maximum of 10 years in prison and three years of probation, plus a six-figure fine and court costs. If convicted of all the charges that had been handed up by a grand jury, he faced life.
Zecca, 52, was wearing a tan prison jumpsuit while shackled and handcuffed, and sporting bandages on his left wrist because of an operation he had while in custody. There were eight spectators in the courtroom gallery.
After 26 years with the Coast Guard culminating with his Islamorada post, Zecca became part-owner of the Marathon Marina and Boatyard.
He was arrested last Dec. 21 for allegedly attempting to pay an employee -- a federal informant who is a convicted felon -- $20,000 or a kilo of cocaine to murder Schmitt.
No one has ever said what the incentive was, and Schmitt says he has no idea and that to this day, he still doesn't know Zecca.
Federal authorities say the murder plot had "associates and co-conspirators in this offense" but have not said who they are. That information could come out at his sentencing.
The plot appears separate from a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration investigation, out of which the alleged plot to kill Schmitt was hatched. Federal authorities say Schmitt, who was not harmed, was not involved in the drug case.
The hit was supposed to take place while Schmitt left a Christmas party.
Zecca was arrested after the informant, who was wearing a wire for the feds, showed Zecca a doctored photo of Schmitt lying in a pool of blood and as Zecca was going to get $5,000 of the $20,000 payment for the hit. The gun count stemmed from Zecca giving the informant a 9mm Beretta to carry out Schmitt's killing.
A search of Zecca's Indigo Reef condo in Marathon following his arrest turned up a safe containing four handguns, four rifles, two shotguns, lots of ammunition and $42,600 in cash, the feds said.
Zecca's wife Mary worked as a real estate agent for Coldwell Banker Schmitt, which is owned by Schmitt's family. She was fired after her husband's arrest.
Zecca initially pleaded not guilty on Jan. 14. He's been in custody since his arrest.
Miami Herald reporter Cammy Clark provided the plea details.