Hit or Mrs.?

Sitting in custody in the Broward County Jail the night of March 11, 1986, 21-year-old Frank Zuccarello was scared. Although he'd been arrested before, he was now facing the most serious charge of his life -- accused of a home-invasion robbery in Fort Lauderdale. He also knew that charge was just the tip of the iceberg.

Zuccarello had anticipated that this moment would arrive. The Fort Lauderdale police detective who arrested him had collared Zuccarello's girlfriend for the same robbery. That arrest came two months after police received anonymous tips: A female had telephoned Hollywood police and said that Zuccarello was part of a gang that eight days before had committed a home-invasion robbery in North Dade. Then Cooper City Police got a letter informing them that three of Zuccarello's pals were involved in a robbery crime wave. (Zuccarello's girlfriend later admitted she was the tipster.)

Trying to stay unfazed, Zuccarello kept working at his trade. Monday, March 10, 1986, he helped his friend Anthony Caracciolo, disguised as a postman making a morning Express Mail delivery, burst into a Lighthouse Point home. Caracciolo took down the man of the house, rammed a .45 against his temple, and threatened to shoot unless he and his wife produced all their expensive jewelry.

Just hours before Fort Lauderdale police arrested Zuccarello March 11, they executed a search warrant on Caracciolo's Hallandale apartment.

Fort Lauderdale police were a bit surprised by Zuccarello's demeanor; he had a pleasant manner, unlike a typical thug. He was handsome, with carefully styled, jet black hair and a trimmed mustache, and he lived with his grandparents in Hollywood. But Hallandale police informed Fort Lauderdale detectives of their running feud with Zuccarello. They'd arrested him for carrying a concealed weapon, aggravated assault, and aggravated battery on a police officer.

Probably realizing that the rest of his friends would be arrested soon, Zuccarello knew that the first person to cooperate with police can usually make the best deal on pending charges. Wasting no time he began to talk that same evening he was detained. He admitted he was part of a gang that had committed dozens of violent home-invasion robberies in Broward and Dade, targeting drug dealers for drugs, cash, and cars. Zuccarello added, however, he personally had never used violence.

Quickly, robbery detectives from police departments all over Broward and Dade queued up to listen, hoping Zuccarello could close some unsolved cases. Joe Gross, a Metro-Dade police detective, took the lead. Zuccarello outlined for him 29 home-invasion robberies he said he and/or his friends had done -- as well as a few murders about which he had heard something.

Much of his robbery information turned into arrests and convictions. But Zuccarello made his name famous for what he initially said his friends merely had an obtuse connection to, something that had commanded local headlines in the four days before his arrest: The murder of builder-developer Stanley Cohen in his landmark Coconut Grove home. From the start Stanley's wife, Joyce Cohen, had been a prime suspect in the murder. But at her trial in 1989 the prosecution had gambled on Zuccarello as their star witness. He testified that she had hired three hit men to kill her husband and he'd been one of them. A jury convicted Joyce of conspiracy and murder, and a judge sentenced her to life in prison. She won't be eligible for parole until 2014, by which time she'll be 64 years old. Prosecutors took two years to negotiate second-degree murder pleas with the other two men, each of whom received a 40-year sentence.

The state eventually offered Zuccarello full immunity in the Cohen case and a sweet deal for the robberies he'd admitted to. With that guarantee he confessed his involvement in the slaying. By the time of Joyce Cohen's murder trial, he'd served two years in prison on the lesser charges and was already free.

Then in August 1993, a book about the case was published. Written by Miami attorney Carol Soret Cope, In the Fast Lane: A True Story of Murder in Miami disclosed information not previously reported -- namely, that Zuccarello had failed three police lie-detector tests. With that the case was in the news again.

Details from the book, as well as an appeal prepared by Joyce Cohen's trial attorney Alan Ross, laid the foundation for WPLG-TV (Channel 10) reporter Gail Bright's revisitation of the case in a high-profile series of reports that would air during the November ratings sweeps. Ross' appeal included newly sworn affidavits by Zuccarello's alleged accomplices: Guilty pleas notwithstanding, they had not killed Stanley Cohen. One of the convicted men, Anthony Caracciolo, had already told Bright on camera that he and his partner had entered guilty pleas rather than risk exposure to the death penalty.

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Arthur Jay Harris