By Chris Joseph
By Chris Joseph
By Allie Conti
By Chuck Strouse
By Chris Joseph
By Chris Joseph
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
The killer arrived just after lunch. Clutching a sawed-off shotgun in a leather-gloved hand, he slipped through the back door of a long, stucco dental office. But then, because he wore a ski mask and the afternoon burned hot, he coughed. Down a narrow hallway at the front of the office, a gentle and wavy-haired dentist named Norman Benton Larzelere put down some papers and walked back to investigate the sound.
"No!" the dentist yelled, running away when he saw the gunman. Seconds later, he reached the waiting room, swung open the door, and slammed it behind him. But the masked killer was close behind. He raised the shotgun and fired once. Buckshot blasted through the door and struck the doctor in the chest, inflicting what medical reports would later call a "sucking wound" and "profuse bleeding."
"Is that you, Jason?" the dentist gasped, seemingly identifying the assailant as his teenaged stepson. Hearing this, the gunman broke through a side exit and vanished down the streets of a small town called Edgewater, east of Orlando, without anyone having seen his face.
Inside the office, the dentist's wife and office manager, Virginia Larzelere, appeared at his side. His chest heaved as crimson spread across his white button-down. "Where's Jason?" he whispered, ashen and scared. "Was that Jason?"
Virginia Larzelere grabbed the phone at her desk. "Get me an ambulance!" she screeched at a 911 dispatcher, dissolving into incoherent wailing. "Someone just came in and shot my husband! Somebody shot my husband!"
It didn't take long for the criminal charges to arrive. On May 4, 1991, less than two months later, local police arrested Virginia Larzelere as she prepared to ditch town with a purse full of cash and gold. Based on the testimony of two witnesses, the state charged the slight 38-year-old mother of four with first-degree murder. Prosecutors accused her of ordering her then-18-year-old son, Jason, who was also charged with first-degree murder, to kill her husband so they could pocket nearly $2.1 million in insurance money.
At her trial eight months later, it seemed like a classic case of a psychopathic woman who would do anything for money. And after 14 days of testimony, she was convicted of hatching the plot, sentenced to death, and deposited inside a cell on Florida's death row for women in Broward County right next to Aileen Wuornos, the most notorious serial killer in Sunshine State history.
But the case against Virginia Larzelere, who's been in jail for 23 years now, wasn't nearly as strong as it appeared the day of her conviction. Six months after her trial concluded, prosecutors brought the same evidence against Jason, but he was acquitted after his attorney raised reasonable doubt and proved key elements of witness testimony to be lies.
Given the discrepancy in outcomes, it appears Virginia Larzelere received some bad counsel. But its shocking breadth emerged only in her appeals. At the time of her trial, her lead attorney, Jack Wilkins, was allegedly ingesting "gross amounts" of cocaine and methamphetamine, drinking a liter of vodka a day, and hiding tens of thousands of dollars from the government, according to appellate court records. And incredibly, Wilkins — who denied he did drugs but was later convicted of 16 felonies and sent to federal prison for four years for unrelated crimes — was also romantically involved with the court reporter, a newspaper account shows. So in 2008, citing the ineffectiveness of Larzelere's counsel, the Florida Supreme Court removed her from death row and gave her a life sentence.
But even now, she's locked up at Homestead Correctional Institution. Why? This is Florida, home to one of the most dysfunctional capital justice systems in the nation, where it doesn't take anything more than circumstantial evidence to put someone to death. It just takes a few people who are committed to a terrible lie.
If there are any clues to explain the injustice inflicted upon Virginia Larzelere, they're buried in a small, flat town outside Orlando called Lake Wales. Years before the Disney explosion, in 1952, she was born there into a three-bedroom house where unspeakable things happened.
Larzelere grew up tall and angular, with cascades of curly raven hair. One of four girls, she oozed charisma. Both parents worked for a local juice company called Donald Duck, and the family wasn't poor, recalls Larzelere, whom New Times interviewed several times in prison over the past two months. "But," says Larzelere, smiling sadly during a recent interview, "sexual abuse doesn't only happen in poor households, does it?"
Her father, Pee-Wee Antley, had a heavy presence in the household. According to a biographical report submitted into evidence during Larzelere's appeals, he was a "chronic alcoholic, sitting on the porch drinking daily, with no outside hobby or social interest." In turn, he molested each of his four daughters, but especially Virginia, who, her sisters say, took the worst of it to protect her siblings. At age 17, Larzelere escaped the house and married the first of four husbands. And after Virginia moved out, sister Peggy Beasley testified, "she never moved back."
But she couldn't shake the memories of abuse. "They made her who she is," says her daughter, Jessica Larzelere, who's now 36 years old. And that first marriage, which lasted less than a decade and was marred by domestic violence, injected more conflict into her life. This perhaps caused her to be, at times, callous, manipulative, and given to impulse. "She is very intelligent and she had looks," Jessica added. "She used that to her advantage. She used sex to get whatever she wanted."
The author did his research and for editorial reasons did not to share writers private investigative results which identify the perpetrators their motives and relationships with witness Palmieri and the late Steven Heidle. Virginia Larzelere is provable an innocent person as the evidence proves. The opinions and facts have been shared with enforcement and prosecutors. Only to fall on deaf hears. They were known to the defenders of Virginia Larzelere and plead by Virginia's only advocate defender attorney Harry Brody, before Brody entered private practice. Based on the Brody pleadings the court ordered an evidence hearing on the 'ineffective assistance' and 'prove of innocence claims. The quoted lawyer David Henry and subordinates that replaced Brody made a decisions based on economics to use only writers ineffective assistance evidence and testimony. They prevented writer from attesting to the 'prove of innocence' evidence that impeaches the states theory of the murder and proves Heidle and Palmieri lied to cover up a relationship they shared with the perpetrators and others involved in teh day time burglary of the Office of Dr. Norman Larzelere.
Writer solved this murder by investigating the states evidence. The state identified Heidle and Palmieri as the persons that had possession and control of the weapons recovered in the river. These witnesses took authorities to the weapons after admitting they had encased them in concrete. The State with held the fact from the jury that Palmieri and Heidle told conflicting stories as to the origin and storage of the weapons before being disposed. Palmeri attested on a private statement to the prosecution team the weapons had been were stored in the Heidle home attic with a ski mask. Heidle attested they were stored in the home by Virginia and Jason. The conflicting stories were with held from the Grand Jury and because these witnesses consistently told conflicting and unbelievable stories the Orlando State attorney office kept no court reporter record of the grand jury. As the author of the article was told if a member of the original grand jury came forward the conflicts could be proven and Virginia would be free once the misconduct was exposed. In the alternative the state could expend approximately 500.00 and 40 investigative hours to take confessions or simple grant Palmieri immunity once again to tell the truth.
As to the surviving sons and children of Virginia and Norman Larzelere they deserve to see justice served. As a reader answer the question where does one go with prove of innocence and evidence that identifies persons that committed the murder of Norman Larzelere and stole more then 90 weapons that were sold to street person and reportedly used in at least one other murder and criminal activity?
Unusually poor reporting by the New Times. I lived near Edgewater when Dr. Norman Larzelere was killed and I followed the case closely. Thanks to the internet there is still a wide amount of material available for review.
She was found guilty of masterminding the plot, and as the mastermind faced the same penalty--death--as any actual first-degree murderer. Funny how you forget that fact in your article.
You glossed over the resentencing. She is no longer on death row. You did note that she is actually up for parole in a couple years but still, your headline does not reflect that development.
And you did not include tons of other available pieces of evidence easily available for all to see. Her first husband was shot 4 times and they never caught the shooter. Second husband, who was a cop, felt like he was set up by her to be shot and the last husband was shot & killed. Sorry, where there is smoke there is fire.
I especially like her own words here where she laments she has not seen her son Jason or her daughter Jessica in over a decade. Why didn't she comment on her other children, David and Benjamin? Dr. Larzelere was their biological father. Doesn't she miss them too?
Do you guys ever read the stories you right? This isn't a case of a failed justice system. But a case of poor judgment on her behalf. Why would you keep an incompetent lawyer? Who cares if it is a family friend a public defender would have been better in this case.
Incredible article (and well written). Nicely done. One thing I don't get (and maybe I missed it as I was watching Jose Fernandez pitch his final game of the season while reading this), was that if Heidle was the shooter, did he have any motive? Or was he just supposedly a violent and sadistic jerk?
Incredible article (and well written). Nicely done. One thing I don't get (and maybe I missed it as I was watching Jose Fernandez pitch his final game of the season while reading this), was that if Heidle was the shooter, did he have any motive?
@CybrdoogieThanks for your comment. This story was based on court records, police documents, and concrete charges. The claims you've mentioned never merited a single charge, and, as such, weren't of much consequence to this story. Virginia Larzelere is no longer on death row, correct. We mentioned that fact within the first 500 words of the story -- and again at the end. Much appreciation for your reading.
@FatHand There was no motive, he was just introduced as a suspect in Jason's trial to show that they didn't ID the shooter as Jason for sure. It wouldn't have been useful in Virginia's trial, since she was convicted of hiring someone to murder her husband. Whether she hired her son Jason or Steven is the "reasonable doubt" that they used to get Jason off the hook, but Virginia was still involved in both those scenarios.
I am sorry but the title of the article is pretty disingenuous. Yes, you did commment on her no longer being on death row but the title of the article does not reflect that development. You interviewed Virginia a few times for the article and could have easily asked her about the shooting of her first husband as well as the situation with the second husband. There are numerous newspaper articles widely available on the net referencing both situations. Didn't you do any research before writing this piece?
Instead of an objective article, your article sounds like a fluff piece demanding action for a wrongly-convicted woman. Virginia Larzelere is anything but that.
I would be interested if she mentioned David and Benjamin to you at all during your interviews. If not, like I said--very telling.