Virginia Larzelere -“I was only guilty of “having an affair, partying, loose morals, but no matter what I did in the past, whether it was adultery, embezzlement … it does not make me guilty of taking my husband’s life.”
Norman Larzelere heard something — maybe a cough, a squeaky shoe or something scraping the wall — and peeked down the hallway.
He saw a man with a ski mask and a shotgun.
“No!” he screamed.
Larzelere ran toward the front of the building of his Edgewater dental practice and into the lobby before slamming shut the wooden door.
A shot was fired through the wood and buckshot pellets tore through his chest cavity.
Crime Flashback: Virginia Larzelere
His wife, Virginia, called 9-1-1.
Witnesses heard Norman say, “Jason, is that you?”
Virginia Larzelere didn’t want those words heard by anyone, according to the lead detective in the case. Jason was her 18-year-old son.
Crime Flashback: Virginia Larzelere
“Virginia went over to the doctor and placed her (lips) over his nose and mouth and smothered him so that no one else would hear the name Jason,” said then-Edgewater police detective Dave Gamell while on the witness stand during a pretrial hearing in June 1991.
A patient in the waiting room heard it and told the police.
Norman Larzelere died in the helicopter en route to the hospital.
News 27 years ago of the small-town shooting captivated a robust audience from the start, but as more details came to light, the more the national media consumed it. Mainstream news services put the stories in newspapers across the country, while outlets that thrived on sensationalism, particularly daytime talk shows, would thrust the Volusia County criminal case into people’s living rooms.
Dr. Norman Larzelere was less than three weeks from turning 40 years old when he was fatally shot on March 8, 1991 inside his own West Knapp Avenue dental practice.
When detectives questioned Virginia Larzelere, they suspected she wasn’t telling the truth. Her description of the gunman kept changing.
She insisted someone had come to rob the dental practice.
Police called the crime an “amateurish act,” but one with only one desired outcome — the murder of Norman Larzelere. There was nothing inside the building that led detectives to think it was anything other than a planned hit.
Eight weeks following the shooting, Virginia Larzelere was arrested. An arrest warrant also was filed for Jason, who turned himself in the following day.
The break in the case had come May 2, 1991, when Gamell received a call from 18-year-old Steven Heidle, who told him he knew the location of the murder weapon. Heidle, who worked odd jobs for the Larzelere family, said he and a female acquaintance, Kristen Palmieri, a receptionist at the dental practice, were ordered by Virginia Larzelere to rub acid on the murder weapon, encase it in cement and get rid of it.
Heidle and Palmieri drove 60 miles north to St. Johns County and dumped the evidence in Pellicer Creek. A dive team would recover it.
Cement was found inside the family home, which matched the cement used to encase the weapon.
Black widow tendencies
The News-Journal discovered that Norman Larzelere filed for divorce in 1989. Her husband sought full custody of all the children — their two young ones as well as Larzelere’s two from a previous marriage. Norman Larzelere had adopted Jason and Jessica.
In court filings, Larzelere described his wife as suicidal, drug-addicted and a thief. She also had operated under aliases, falsely claimed to have been a doctor or a financier or an heiress to a fortune. In spite of the accusations, Norman reconciled with his wife and dropped his petition in October 1990.
Virginia Larzelere had a history of failed marriages. By the time she married Norman Larzelere at 32, she had already married and divorced three times.
A native of Lake Wales, Virginia Larzelere grew up in a poor household where, she said, she was subjected to sexual and emotional abuse.
She got married as a teenager. Her first husband was Harry Mathis and they lived in a mobile home park in Polk County. One day in 1975, Larzelere, who at the time went by the name Gail Mathis, told her husband that her cousin was stranded along a rural highway. His car had broken down and he needed help. Mathis drove to the location and found the car. A stranger appeared and shot Mathis four times, once in the head, once in the arm and twice in the back. Mathis survived.
Polk County sheriff’s detectives wanted to question Larzelere, but she refused to cooperate. Detectives had always suspected Larzelere played a role in the shooting, but they were unable to move the case forward. By that time, Jason was born. Mathis ultimately decided not to press charges, telling the media later he didn’t want to split up the family.
The pair stayed together for two more years.
In 1982, Larzelere married a Florida Highway Patrol trooper. They got separated in November of that year. Larzelere accused him of pointing his gun at her, but he wound up being cleared of the allegations. The divorce was final in April 1983, more than two months after she had already married a former Volusia County building contractor.
That marriage also imploded. It ended in an annulment in August 1983.
Swinging, cheating and incest
A couple years into her fourth marriage, Larzelere was accused of embezzling thousands of dollars from builders in Ormond Beach and Flagler County. She paid restitution and the case was dismissed.
One of the biggest reasons for Norman Larzelere filing for divorce from his wife in 1989 — aside from her perceived lack of scruples when it came to stealing and lying — was her adulterous behavior.
One of the ways Larzelere salvaged her rocky marriage was to introduce her husband to a swinging lifestyle. It meant both could enjoy sex with other partners without deception, according to reports. Her husband agreed to it.
Larzelere still had affairs behind her husband’s back. One of her lovers was an exotic bird importer. She offered him $50,000 to kill her husband. He declined.
She also offered $25,000 and a new motorcycle to another man she had been sleeping with. He, too, turned her down.
There was one other sex partner Larzelere felt she could manipulate — her own son. Detectives said Jason didn’t refuse.
One day in court, tears streamed down Larzelere’s cheeks as Gamell described her secret life of incest, infidelity and drug abuse.
Larzelere told Gamell she slept in the same bed as her son. Her daughter, then-14-year-old Jessica, also told Gamell that her brother and mother were living together as husband and wife, according to court testimony.
Jason had a homosexual fling with Heidle, who wound up becoming one of the state’s most critical witnesses. Heidle, who committed suicide in 1999, had told investigators that Jason would threaten him if he ever revealed his role in the killing. Gamell testified that Jason left a message on Heidle’s answering machine saying, “You know what the consequences are of screwing up.”
Two trials, two outcomes
Dorothy Sedgwick, a special prosecutor from Orange County, was lead counsel for the state.
Virginia Larzelere and her son were represented by Jack Wilkins, of Bartow, and John Howes, of Fort Lauderdale. The judge in the case ordered them to be tried separately. The mother went first.
During her opening statement, Sedgwick told jurors, ”(Virginia’s) very real, invigorating lust for money motivated her to use her son Jason as the gunman. Jason was a very willing participant, eager to earn his $200,000 for taking care of business.”
Larzelere’s former lovers took the stand. All of them described her as abusive, manipulative and hell-bent on eliminating her husband. Larzelere sat coolly at the defense table, popping breath mints into her mouth.
Wilkins admitted Larzelere had a spotty history and was unfaithful to her husband, but insisted she never conspired to kill her husband.
The litany of lies Larzelere told in her life were described to jurors. They also learned that Norman Larzelere was insured for $2.1 million — which was set to be inherited by his wife. The motive couldn’t have been more obvious.
On Feb. 24, 1992, jurors convicted Virginia Larzelere of first-degree murder. On March 5, they recommended a death sentence.
Afterward, it seemed possible, even likely, that Jason would enter a guilty plea to avoid the same fate as his mother. Instead, he risked it all for an acquittal. He liked his chances better without Wilkins and Howes.
“It has come to my knowledge that there are to (sic) many conflicts of interest for you to remain on my case,” he wrote to his attorneys. “As of this date 3-30-92 you are fired.”
Jason was never specific about those conflicts of interest, but information came to light about Wilkins that showed the defendant had a working intuition.
Wilkins had panache. He had big brown hair that looked permed and he always wore a pair of dark-tinted glasses in court. He looked like a movie character — similar to Sean Penn in “Carlito’s Way.”
Like the fictional attorney, Wilkins had a drug problem. According to a 2013 story in the Miami New Times, Wilkins had installed a bar in his Bartow office and also enjoyed many dalliances that involved vodka, meth, cocaine or all three. The same article also disclosed that Wilkins showed up in the courtroom during the Larzelere’s trial smelling of liquor. He denied that claim.
Wilkins later would be convicted of tax evasion, money laundering and other charges and would serve time in a federal prison. Larzelere’s appellate attorneys leaned on Wilkins’ suspected drug and alcohol abuse as a reason for a new trial.
In the spring of 1992, Wesley Lasley took over Jason Larzelere’s case. The trial was moved from Daytona Beach to Palatka. Putnam County jurors would be paneled for Larzelere Part II.
A fellow jail inmate of Virginia Larzelere’s, Bonnie Gilbert, claimed to have been her lover. She also claimed to have heard Jason say out loud that he killed his father. By then, it seemed no breaks were going the way of the defense. A woman who didn’t even pull the trigger was likely headed for death row and now more witnesses were coming forward to further implicate the suspected gunman, Jason.
Spectators believed the state had even more evidence against Jason than his mother.
Lasley forged ahead, calling Gilbert “a paid snitch.” He had a stockpile of ammunition to accuse Heidle and Palmieri in the killing.
Lasley was hard on witnesses during cross-examination. That included Emma Lombardo, the dental office employee who was heard on the 9-1-1 call and who told authorities and others that she swore it was Jason behind the mask. Lasley poked holes in her testimony. How could she be sure the gunman was Jason when he was covered from head to toe?
On Sept. 20, 1992, jurors acquitted Jason Larzelere. The courtroom was left in stunned silence. Jason turned and hugged his attorney.
When he rode away from the courthouse in a deputy’s squad car, he yelled out, “I’m free! It’s the best feeling I’ve ever felt in my life.”
On May 11, 1993, Virginia Larzelere was sentenced to die in the electric chair.
She spent 15 years of her life on death row. For a time, she was one of four women on death row and three of them were from Volusia County — Aileen Wuornos, Deidre Hunt and Larzelere.
Wuornos, one of the most infamous serial killers in America, wasn’t friendly to Larzelere, at least not initially. Gamell said the two got into a fight over a fellow inmate. Wuornos was crushing on the inmate while the inmate was crushing on Larzelere. The fight was stopped before anyone got seriously hurt, but Gamell said one of Larzelere’s breast implants got ruptured.
Wuornos eventually was executed. Hunt had her sentenced reduced to life. Larzelere got hers reduced, too, in 2008.
The Miami New Times reported in 2013 that Larzelere had not heard from her children in more than a decade. The locations of her oldest son and daughter were not known. Norman Larzelere’s parents gained custody of the youngest children.
Larzelere, now 65, still maintains her innocence. She famously said that she was only guilty of “having an affair, partying, loose morals, but no matter what I did in the past, whether it was adultery, embezzlement … it does not make me guilty of taking my husband’s life.”