Hit or Mrs.?

According to the courts, Joyce Cohen hired three men to murder her wealthy husband. Now the entire case may be unraveling.

In the '80s Stanley and Joyce Cohen had lived the high life, spent and consumed and entertained conspicuously, according to Carol Soret Cope's book, and partied with cocaine in the Grove and in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, where they owned a 600-acre ranch. A confidential informant told Miami police before Joyce's trial that Stanley had kept a large supply of cocaine in the cellar of his Coconut Grove home, implying that he was a drug dealer; that he had used cocaine three or four times per week until a heart attack forced him to stop; and that his wife used it constantly.

Cohen left assets totaling $13 million, but after debts and obligations, his net worth was probably less than $2 million. He had willed Joyce most of his fortune. But his two children from a previous marriage suspected she was involved in his death. Five days after the murder, Gerri Cohen Helfman, an anchor at WTVJ-TV (Channel 6), and Gary Cohen, a local tax attorney, successfully petitioned Dade County Circuit Court to freeze their father's estate.

Detectives had their suspicions, too. Joyce had appeared to be high the morning of the murder, according to officers who'd responded to her 911 call. Though she claimed she'd been awake all night -- folding clothes for a garage sale, she said -- she could account for only about half an hour. (Her psychiatrist, Dr. Lawrence Cohn, said at the trial that Joyce had once attempted suicide with an overdose of Halcion, a then commonly prescribed sleeping pill since shown to cause amnesia and paranoia, especially when mixed with alcohol or stimulants like cocaine. He added that Joyce told him she had continued taking Halcion for her sleep problems, even after the overdose, drank four or five drinks a day, and used cocaine.)

At Miami police headquarters, where she'd gone voluntarily the morning of Cohen's murder, Detective Spear asked Joyce when she'd last had sex with her husband (he considered sex a relationship's barometer), and Joyce exploded as she realized she was under suspicion. She refused to allow officers to search her house and left police headquarters to meet with attorney Ross, according to Cope's book. The detectives back on the scene had no recourse but to leave and prepare a search warrant for a judge to sign. A coroner had not yet arrived to examine the body, and the delay of some six hours made it difficult to determine the time of death. Later that day Joyce returned voluntarily to the station for questioning, and this time Ross was with her.

While officers waited outside the residence for the search warrant, however, they found a .38-caliber pistol in a fern on the ground below an upstairs bedroom window. The gun was clean of fingerprints; two bits of Kleenex stuck in the hammer suggested it had been wiped down. Lab tests later proved it was the murder weapon. And the gun belonged not to any alleged hit man, but to Stanley Cohen.

On April 4, when Zuccarello first outlined his home-invasion robberies to Metro-Dade police robbery-unit detective Joe Gross, he said he, Tommy Joslin, and Anthony Caracciolo had gone to Coconut Grove in January 1986 to meet a woman who was setting up a robbery in an expensive house near Coconut Grove. She had often called Caracciolo's apartment in Hallandale; Zuccarello had answered the phone on five separate occasions, and the woman identified herself as "Mrs. Cohen." Though he hadn't met her, he identified a photo of Joyce Cohen for Gross and said she was the same woman he'd seen conversing with Caracciolo in the Grove.

That the wife of a prominent developer was helping thugs stage robberies sounded peculiar. Gross' superior, Sgt. James Wander, later testified during a pretrial deposition that Gross told him that day: "You won't believe it. He says he knows something about the Cohen murder." Wander had replied, "Sure, what next?"

Zuccarello so far had only acknowledged that he knew about the Cohen murder. But he told Gross he had information about another victim who had been slain in a car in the parking lot of a club in the southern Broward city of Pembroke Park. Police matched that information to the murder of Charles Hodek. Zuccarello didn't know who pulled the trigger, he said, but ten days later he gave a recorded statement to the Broward Sheriff's Office naming Tommy Joslin's father, a reputed Mob figure, as the killer.

Tommy Joslin had fled the state and wasn't arrested until 1987. Once in custody, however, he told Broward Sheriff's Office Det. Tony Fantigrassi that someone else had shot Hodek and named the killer. When the detective returned to question Zuccarello, the latter admitted he had lied. Joslin's statement was correct, he now said.

Within two weeks of Zuccarello's about-face, Dade prosecutors summoned Fantigrassi to meet with them. Cohen co-prosecutor John Kastrenakes was there, Fantigrassi says. (Kastrenakes denies such a meeting occurred, but Fantigrassi has the prosecutor's business card stapled to his notes of the meeting.) The Dade officials suggested that Fantigrassi had misunderstood Zuccarello's statement, Fantigrassi recalls; in turn, he threatened to testify at Joyce Cohen's trial that Dade County's star witness had a credibility problem in Broward. But prosecutors never called Fantigrassi to the stand; nor did they mention to Joyce Cohen's attorney a word about Zuccarello's inconsistent statements. Only in 1996, after Broward prosecutors finally indicted the man Joslin had named in Hodek's murder, and the police reports became public record, did Alan Ross read them.

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