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

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Weeks after Virginia's conviction, inside a 12th-floor office overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway in West Palm Beach, a phone rang. Wearing sandals and a mustache, attorney William Lasley picked up. Tall and thin, he exuded self-assurance. He exclusively wore suits that cost more than $1,000, rented an oceanside penthouse condo, drove an all-white 944 Porsche Turbo, and accepted only murder-one cases.

Lasley had closely monitored Virginia's trial with mounting abhorrence — not for the state's allegations against her but because her defense was so awful. "It was just absolute incompetence," he said. "Wilkins wasn't a murder lawyer. Murder is the Super Bowl, and you don't go to the big game with your B team."

Now, he had just taken Jason Larzelere's defense. That same day, he placed calls to a dozen experts to dig into the state's evidence. What Lasley discovered over the next several weeks was shocking. Virginia Larzelere didn't forge the signature on her husband's will, according to handwriting expert Shirl Solomon from Palm Springs, Florida. Dated August 19, 1992, her assessment also showed the notary's signature was genuine. Then an insurance analyst confirmed the life insurance policies weren't excessive.

Heidle had also testified that Jason was obsessed with guns. He said the younger Larzelere owned a .45 Argentine pistol that Jason adored and that, before the murder, Heidle had seen a sawed-off shotgun sitting on a bed of metal shavings next to a hacksaw near the couch. When police had searched the apartment, they did, in fact, find metal shavings. But there was a problem, Lasley learned. Those slivers didn't match the alloy in the shotgun retrieved from Pellicer Creek.

Another bombshell soon arrived. At Virginia Larzelere's trial, Heidle and Kris Palmieri both testified they'd mixed the concrete at Virginia Larzelere's house. Police found concrete there inside a cooking pot, seemingly linking the older Larzelere to the murder weapon. But then, Lasley discovered, the concrete at Larzelere's place didn't match that found in the case with the guns in Pellicer Creek.

"This was vital exculpatory information," seethes attorney David Hendry, with the state Capital Collateral Regional Counsel, which has tried to get Virginia out of prison. "It would not only have impeached Heidle and Palmieri's testimony but it would have distanced Virginia Larzelere from the concrete-encased weapons. Had Wilkins presented [this], she would have been acquitted."

During the weeks before the trial, Lasley also built an unsettling profile of the state's star witness. Heidle was insecure, money-driven, and highly dishonest, his friends said. Four of them gave statements alleging he had lied to authorities. "Steve was always looking for money," said Sarah Gabrys, a drag queen living in Orlando who first met Heidle at a gay club. "It was his main topic of conversation. How he wanted money, how he'd get it, and what he'd do with it. Personally, I don't believe a word he says. People don't trust him."

Heidle also had a dark propensity for violence, friend Jeff Sansbury testified. One night at 2 a.m. months before the murder, in the parking lot of a gay club in Orlando called the Big Bang, Heidle pulled out a .45 Argentine pistol — the same gun he alleged was Jason's — and shoved it in Sansbury's face. So after the state filed murder indictments against the Larzeleres, Sansbury returned home, frantic, his 79-year-old grandmother, Hazel Johnson, recalled. "Jeff said, 'Steven's lying about Jason and Virginia,' " Johnson recalled.

On a separate occasion after leaving the Big Bang, another pal named Glenn Pace remembered Heidle melting into a rage, pulling a gun from the glove compartment, and waving it. "He said, 'Someone is going to die tonight,' " Pace recalled. "He was out of control." Pace also said the gun looked very similar to the .45 Argentine in state evidence.

So days before Jason Larzelere's trial opened in fall 1992 and more than a year after Norman Larzelere had been killed, the defense was ready. "There's no doubt in my mind that Heidle was the shooter," Lasley says. "Heidle had the murder weapon all along. It was in his house, and then he put it in the creek. And how often does someone who didn't commit the murder have the murder weapon?"

In the Palatka courthouse, near St. Augustine, Lasley settled at the defendant's table wearing a $500 pair of black leather shoes. Minutes later, he remembers, prosecutor Sedgwick materialized before him. "She loved to get in your personal space," Lasley says. "She bent over and was an inch away from me with her face. She said, 'I have won 32 straight capital cases. And this is going to be number 33.' "

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Terrence McCoy