Longform

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

Page 4 of 7

To work the case, the state called in special prosecutor Dorothy Sedgwick, a round-faced woman from Orlando. She's a methodical, calculating lawyer and can be cold and aggressive. Or as one opposing attorney called her, "not a likable person" and "remorseless."

For her defense, Virginia enrolled Jack Wilkins, a prominent Orlando-area lawyer who was a friend of her family. At age 44, he was handsome, scruffy, and looked better-suited for a reshooting of Boogie Nights than a courtroom.

Which, all things considered, often suited his clientele. In 1990, Wilkins became one of the most recognizable and flamboyant attorneys in the state when he argued, unsuccessfully, before the state Supreme Court that a Polk County cinema called Varsity Adult Theatre had a constitutional right to sell porno. Wilkins, who had a reputation for hard partying and recently told New Times he drank nearly every night during that time, also banked more than $250,000 annually representing accused drug dealers. "And they paid me cash," he remembers.

Behind dark sunglasses, he embodied the persona of a rock-star attorney. "But I'd never done a capital murder case before," says Wilkins, who claims he tried to turn down the case three or four times. "My primary work was drug importing and distribution."

If statements entered by Wilkins' office manager and three former clients are to believed, however, his inexperience wouldn't be his most crippling problem. At the time of Virginia's trials, appellate records say, Wilkins was putting back a liter of vodka every day, snorting cocaine — even smoking meth.

Wilkins, who installed a bar in his Bartow office, allegedly told one client, Dennis Harris, that he bought meth by the "quarter pound," was on the prowl for a "cheaper drug supplier," and it would "keep him up wired for 6-7 days," court documents filed in a Larzelere appeal show. Another client, Ronald Bilbrey, testified he dealt Wilkins an ounce of coke per month at the time of Larzelere's trial and saw him snort some. And finally, there's Bernadette D'Alvia Eady. She testified that around the time of the trial, she and Wilkins had gone to the bathroom together at a "South Florida nude bottle club." Inside a stall, they drank vodka, smoked meth, and snorted coke off a toilet seat. Wilkins also allegedly confessed he bought meth at $2,000 an ounce.

The partying possibly even spilled over into trial, which began in early 1992 with Dorothy Sedgwick striding across a Daytona Beach courtroom in a blazer. While she was busy making the case that Virginia Larzelere was a cold, manipulative killer over 13 days of prosecution testimony, six trial attendees — including two prosecutors — remembered they smelled alcohol on Wilkins' breath, court records show. Sedgwick, who didn't immediately alert the court, later expressed dismay because, she said, it was "such a serious case."

But there were other serious concerns for Wilkins. In mid-February, at the height of the trial, he received a Florida Bar complaint that claimed he refused to refund a client a $25,000 retainer. What's more, the federal government later learned, he had substantially underreported that money on his income taxes — in addition to many other significant inconsistencies on his tax returns. (On September 22, 1995, Wilkins pleaded guilty to 16 federal charges that included the laundering of drug money, income tax evasion, perjury, and obstruction of justice. A federal judge in Tampa sentenced him to four years in federal prison, and he resigned from the state bar.)

It got worse. A 1992 report in the Daytona Beach News-Journal showed that the wayward Wilkins was also in a romantic relationship with the trial court reporter. According to that report, Sedgwick knew of the affair but didn't report it, though she'd been "somewhat concerned." ("She was my girlfriend," Wilkins claims.)

So maybe it was the booze, the alleged drug use, or the financial misdealings. Perhaps, even, it was the sex with the court reporter. But whatever the reason, Jack Wilkins reported he spent less than $3,000 on Larzelere's defense, according to court records. Then, after the state entered more than 70 pieces of evidence, Wilkins countered with exactly one day of defense. Worse, he didn't enlist even one expert to refute any of Heidle's claims, which were the crux of the state's case.

"There wasn't really much an expert could testify to," says Wilkins, who today lives in Spanish Fort, Alabama, with his wife. "And I've never used drugs in my life. I don't know where that came from. It's a bunch of bull... If you watched the trial tape, you'd see I didn't do a bad job."

His confidence wasn't born out in the result. On February 24, after just one hour of deliberation, the jury found Virginia Larzelere guilty of first-degree murder. But it didn't know Steven Heidle had lied about a few important things.


KEEP NEW TIMES BROWARD-PALM BEACH FREE... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Terrence McCoy