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Greed, Crime and Murder For Hire In The Keys

MIAMI (CBSMiami) - In December, retired Coast Guard commander Dennis Zecca was arrested by federal agents in Marathon. Accused of conspiring to buy 10 kilos of cocaine, he was also charged with hiring a hitman to kill one of the town's biggest realtors.

"We're a very nice little community," insisted Mayor Mike Cinque. "No better place to raise your children."

For city leaders like Cinque, Zecca's arrest is an unwanted shadow over a town already struggling economically. Nearly one quarter of Marathon's population has packed up and left in recent years. Its main street has been taken over by cut rate T-shirt shops, strip malls, and empty store fronts.

"It's just like the old days," explained Dave Maimon, a longtime town resident and frequent critic of city government. "You got to follow the money and the cocaine."

Zecca has pleaded not guilty to the charges and his trial is set for this summer. His attorney said the allegations are not true and that DEA informant is lying.

Nevertheless, tales of murder-for-hire are hardly good for business. Even worse, after Zecca's arrest, FBI agents virtually set up shop inside Marathon, pulling records and interviewing members of the city council.

"I met with the FBI," the mayor acknowledged. "I sat down and talked to them and had a good long conversation with them for over three hours."

Cinque said he thought the FBI was just being thorough because the alleged target in the murder-for-hire plan was Bruce Schmitt, a prominent and wealthy developer in the Florida Keys.

"The so-called person that was the victim in this so-called murder for hire is a very well known businessman in town," Cinque said. "And his brother and him are probably two of the most well known and two of the wealthiest people in the community. So I'm sure the FBI is checking every little corner to make this case.

"I think the FBI is trying to do their job but I think sometimes the FBI, you know, they get out here and, I don't know, looking at the city," he said, his voice trailing off. "I have no idea. I know of nothing the city has done wrong [or] anybody in the city has done wrong."

For Maimon, Zecca's arrest exposes a darker side of Marathon few want to talk about.

"I think it's a corrupt little city," he said. He said there has long been a cozy relationship between certain segments of the community.

"What happens in this city is controlled by a few people and if you're on their bad side watch out," he said.

After commanding the Coast Guard station in Islamorada, Zecca moved to Marathon seven years ago and became part owner of Marathon Marina and Boatyard. He has also served as an unpaid consultant for the city on various projects

According to the federal indictment, sometime last year Zecca sought to purchase 10 kilos of cocaine from a handyman at his marina who claimed to have friends looking to sell.

As they were negotiating the deal, Zecca allegedly asked his handyman if he could also kill Bruce Schmitt.

A frequent critic of city government who often appeared before the city council, Schmitt came from one of the wealthiest families in Marathon that still owns a large portion of the city.

Zecca didn't give a reason why he wanted Schmitt killed.

But he did give the handyman a gun with a single bullet in the chamber, according to federal prosecutors. Zecca told the nascent killer to kill Schmitt at Schmitt's waterfront home before Christmas.

Unfortunately for Zecca, the drug deal was a federal sting and the handyman a DEA informant.

As part of the sting, the FBI had Schmitt pretend to be killed. They posed Schmitt on the ground outside his house and took pictures of him, which were later photo-shopped to show blood and a bullet wound.

Since Zecca's arrest the town has been buzzing.

"It's been the talk of conversation at the coffee shops," admitted Cinque.

Fueling that talk, during a recent hearing federal prosecutors announced the investigation was continuing and they believed Zecca was aided by "associates or co-conspirators" in the murder for hire plot.

"Do you think we know the whole story yet?" CBS4's Jim DeFede asked Maimon.

"I don't believe we know any of the story," Maimon replied.

Maimon said a lot of powerful folks in Marathon are worried.

So why would anyone want to kill Bruce Schmitt?

"Jim I'm as confused as anybody else in this whole situation, okay," said a flustered Ralph Lucignano, owner of several businesses in Marathon, including Marathon Liquors. "I've been here for 35 years, I work everyday, and I don't know what's going on."

Ralph Lucignano sits on the city's planning committee. Schmitt and Lucignano are longtime business rivals. In 2007 the city council passed an ordinance which kept Schmitt from opening a liquor store down the street from Lucignano's.

For years Schmitt fought to have the law overturned, and last year a judge agreed, clearing the way for Schmitt to start competing with Lucignano.

Federal agents have shown interest in Lucignano, pulling records relating to his time on the city planning commission, as well as records relating to his home.

"[The FBI] asked me about Ralph Lucignano," Cinque said when asked directly about it. "I think you are getting really way off base here. That's just a lot of rumor. That's a lot of speculation. That's a lot of fallacy. And that's just making a lot of poop out of nothing, to be honest with you."

But Cinque did say the rivalry between Ralph Lucignano and Bruce Schmitt extends beyond business.

"They've had some common interests besides liquor licenses and other things," he said, alluding to the fact that Lucignano's former girlfriend is now living with Schmitt.

"This is just small town garbage that ain't gonna go anywhere," he said of the gossip.

Lucignano's house and Schmitt's house face each other and are separated by a narrow stretch of water.

A former New Jersey motorcycle cop, Lucignano told CBS4 News the FBI came to his house to question him after Zecca's arrest. And he said he knows they have been pulling all sorts of records related to his business dealings.

"Well I own a liquor store, I can't deny that," Lucignano said. "I own the Plaza Grill [restaurant] here and I own the fitness center. What can I say, that's me, I'm here."

Lucignano said he is embarrassed by the attention this case has brought him.

"I hope everything gets straightened out alright," he said. "It's not good for the community and I feel bad for everybody involved."

Schmitt declined our request for an interview. After initially fleeing the country for Costa Rica when the attempt on his life was first uncovered, he recently returned to Marathon. Still worried about his safety, he now carries a gun.

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