Longform

Virginia Larzelere: Sentenced to Death for a Murder She Didn't Commit

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So that morning, Gamell climbed into his car and drove through 37 miles of baking farmland to a weather-battered, beige house in DeBary, where he shook hands with a cherub-faced kid named Steven Heidle.

The 20-year-old, who shared an Orlando apartment with Jason and was paid by the Larzeleres to look after their troubled son, seemed terrified.

The detective listened to the boy talk for hours. Heidle said he performed household tasks for Jason and knew him better than most. Days after the murder, Heidle confessed he had climbed into his own mom's attic and retrieved a bag of cement and a sawed-off shotgun he alleged Jason had stashed there. Next, under the orders of Virginia Larzelere, a woman he claimed to have met only once before, he went to the Larzelere manor with the gun and cement.

Azure eyes big and glassy, Heidle stressed to police he did this only because of the control Virginia had over him. She was evil, he said. "She'd just had her husband killed," he later explained at trial. "She wouldn't think twice about killing me too."

When Heidle arrived at the Larzelere house that night, he joined Virginia and Jason, who was complaining about money. Virginia, sitting at the kitchen table, told Jason not to worry, Heidle claimed. Jason would get his $200,000 because he had "taken care of business."

Soon after that conversation, Heidle said, he connected with a chubby 22-year-old named Kris Palmieri, who had once worked at Dr. Larzelere's Edgewater office. At Virginia's direction, Heidle alleged, he and Palmieri took the sawed-off shotgun and a blue, .45 caliber Argentine pistol into the second-story bathroom. Crouching next to the tub, they wiped down both guns in muriatic acid to expunge the prints, he told police. They then stacked them in a plastic container and poured in wet concrete.

Next, Virginia told them to "dispose" of the guns. So Heidle and Palmieri left at dawn the following morning, driving north for hours. They finally discovered Pellicer Creek south of St. Augustine. There, they exited the car and tumbled the guns into its murky waters.

Heidle told police both weapons belonged to Jason; he'd even found a hacksaw resting next to a recently sawed-off shotgun at their West Orlando apartment.

The afternoon of Heidle's statement, Detective Gamell called Palmieri, who quickly buckled under interrogation. At 3:15 p.m. at the police station, she described how she and Heidle had dumped the guns. He had pulled the car over, she wrote in a sworn statement, telling police she followed Virginia's orders because of the control she had over her. "I took out my jack and spare tire and was making it look like we had a flat. I threw the cement container and guns over the side of the bridge, and it was about this time that I realized that maybe Jason did kill his father. Jason said he had killed his father for Virginia... He did not say why."

Heidle provided police with the motive: insurance money. He alleged he'd heard Jason say his mother had forged her husband's life insurance. "She said she's [forged] all of Norman's legal documents and it was no big deal," Heidle volunteered in his statement. And indeed, less than six months before the murder, Norman Larzelere had suddenly increased his insurance from $1 million to $2.1 million, according to court records. Heidle also accused Virginia of doctoring her husband's will, which, according to a copy obtained by New Times, left everything from Dr. Larzelere's estate to his wife and was signed within weeks of the dentist's new life insurance contract.

On May 3, a team of divers appeared at Pellicer Creek and searched its muddy bottom. Gamell stood above the water on the bridge, cradling a shotgun, watching for alligators. Heidle, his blond hair coifed and piled high on his head, pointed to where he'd deposited the weapons.

And sure enough, under ten feet of water and six feet of muck was a plastic container holding a rust-choked shotgun and a .45 Argentine pistol, which had been stolen from an Orlando gun shop. It was all the proof the cops needed. They granted Heidle and Palmieri immunity — meaning that unless they had pulled the trigger, they'd escape all charges.

The next day, police found Virginia driving out of town, with a purse stuffed with cash and gold. She swore she was innocent, but it was too late. "I've dealt with a lot of murders and a lot of deaths, and you know when someone mourns legitimately and when someone's overacting," Gamell said. "That's how she seemed."


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Terrence McCoy