"Scary," "dangerous," and "killer" are some of the words people have used to describe Clarence Zacke -- one of Brevard County's most notorious criminals -- who will go free in a few months.
But some say it's the words Zacke himself has used that should keep him from tasting his freedom again.
Zacke's disputed testimony helped keep an innocent man behind bars for 22 years. Another man was executed, thanks, at least in part, to Zacke's statements against him.
Zacke was convicted four times of conspiring to kill witnesses against him. He pleaded guilty to killing the brother of an assistant state attorney. He has been accused of lying on the witness stand in attempts to have his sentence reduced.
But, thanks to deals he cut in exchange for his testimony against others, the man prosecutors once described as "disrespectful" and "dangerous" is months away from being released. Some say questions about that testimony should keep him from going free. Others go further. They say his statements under oath are so dubious, they're calling for an investigation of the prosecutors he dealt with.
A few months after state attorneys called for the courts to put Zacke away for 180 years, he became Brevard prosecutor's star witness in trials against Gerald Stano and Wilton Dedge -- two cases in which the state had poor luck in first trials.
Stano's first trial for the murder of a Brevard County woman ended in a mistrial. Dedge's 1982 conviction for the rape of a Brevard County teenager was overturned by an appeals court.
Then, a curious thing happened: Stano and Dedge spent just enough time with Zacke for him to testify against them -- saying they had confessed their crimes. Second trials for both ended in convictions.
Dedge spent 22 years behind bars, unwaveringly proclaiming his innocence. He was freed in August, after DNA evidence cleared him. Stano, who some say was mentally ill and confessed to things he did not do, was not as lucky. He was executed in March 1998.
Dedge's attorneys say Zacke was hand-picked by prosecutors in the case, coached on what to say and then lied to convict Dedge.
"We're going to prove in court the conspiracy that put him there," Cheney Mason, one of Dedge's attorneys said recently, adding that he was preparing to sue those who put Dedge in prison.
Zacke's contact in the state attorney's office in both the Dedge and Stano cases was John Dean Moxley, now a judge. Moxley declined to be interviewed for this story.
Nina Morrison, another Dedge attorney with the New York–based Innocence Project, said there are not too many places where Zacke could have received such detailed information regarding her client's case.
"When you look at the wealth and type of detail he had, there are only three places that he could have received that information from: Wilton, Wilton's attorneys or from prosecutors," she said. "We know it didn't come from Wilton or his lawyers. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to connect the dots."
Dedge himself had little to say about Zacke after his release except that he was totally blindsided by the convicted felon's testimony.
"I couldn't believe it," Dedge said. "I lost a lot of faith in people. He got up there and lied and he knew things that I didn't know."
Zacke refused to be interviewed by FLORIDA TODAY without compensation. He wanted free newspaper subscriptions and copies of photographs taken by the paper. FLORIDA TODAY does not pay for its interviews and turned him down.
"Too bad. No deal!" Zacke responded in a letter to the newspaper. "Your (sic) on your own. Ya'll missed out on learning a new fact that never came up at trial. One that only Dedge and I know about that took place in that van."
Ordering the hits
Clarence Zacke was once a successful West Melbourne junk dealer.
But in May of 1980, he ran into trouble. Police arrested him for smuggling marijuana from Jamaica. Zacke panicked. Instead of taking his chances in court, he decided to have witnesses against him eliminated.
He was found guilty of trying to hire a man to kill Kenneth Merithew, a police informant who helped foil Zacke's drug smuggling operation. But the hired assassin, Richard Lee Hunt, lied to Zacke. He told him he had killed Merithew and his two twin boys. In truth, they had been placed under police protection.
"Business is business," Zacke chillingly replied, according to wiretaps of the conversation.
Then, weeks before he was to testify against Zacke, Hunt vanished. Years later, Zacke accepted a second-degree murder plea for Hunt's death. It was there that Zacke learned he could get his sentence reduced by testifying against others.
Zacke also was found guilty of ordering a hit on Brevard's chief prosecutor at the time, Douglas Chesire. In all, four juries found Zacke guilty of conspiring to commit murder. He was sentenced to 180 years. His sentence was reduced to 60 years in exchange for fingering the two hit men involved in the Hunt murder.
Ironically, the drug charges against Zacke were dropped because of a technicality. He would have gone free.
Geraldo Stano, who already had been convicted of eight murders elsewhere in the state, went on trial in 1982 for the Brevard County murder of Cathy Lee Scharf. But the case ended in a mistrial when Stano's confession did not match details of the case.
Some familiar with the case say Stano was a serial confessor whose mental capacity should have been questioned.
"It's my understanding that Stano was mildly retarded," said Sandy D'Alemberte, a former state legislator who is working to secure compensation for Dedge.
Still, a judge ordered a retrial in the Scharf case.
Enter Zacke, who claims he struck up a friendship with Stano while behind bars.
During the retrial in 1983, Zacke testified that Stano confessed the murder to him in the prison courtyard. This time, the details matched the murder and Stano was convicted.
Later, though, Zacke may have recanted his testimony in an interview with a freelance journalist. The interview became a critical part of a bid for a new trial in the Stano case.
The freelancer, Nash Rosenblatt, gave Stano's attorney tapes of the conversation. According to court documents, they showed that "Zacke told him in a telephone interview that Stano never really confessed to killing Scharf. Zacke also stated in the interview that Stano's prosecutors offered him certain rewards in exchange for his testimony against Stano. . . . prosecutors then coached Zacke on what he should say."
In its decision denying the new trial, the Supreme Court of Florida said it didn't consider the argument because Zacke was not under oath when he spoke to Rosenblatt.
Transcripts of the interview, obtained by FLORIDA TODAY, quote Zacke saying he was "programmed" by the State Attorney on what to say.
"What was the State Attorney's name?" Rosenblatt asked.
"Chris White and Dean Moxley," Zacke replied.
After Zacke testified against Stano, then-Assistant State Attorney Moxley wrote a letter to the Department of Corrections asking that Zacke be put somewhere safe. He would be needed again.
"Given the fact that Zacke has testified against Gerald Stano and will testify against others, I'd appreciate any assignment decision which will protect him," Moxley wrote.
Zacke was back in Brevard the following year to testify against Wilton Dedge.
Citing problems with dog scent evidence used to convict Dedge in 1982, an appeals court ordered a new trial in 1984. Prosecutors Chris White and Moxley needed more evidence to go with a pair of blonde pubic hairs and shaky eyewitness testimony.
Enter Zacke, again. He wound up on a transport van with Wilton Dedge.
Zacke testified that Dedge talked to him and confessed, saying he "had cut some old hog." He also said that Dedge told him he would kill the rape victim if he ever got released.
Critics, though, insist Zacke must have been spoon-fed information about Dedge and Stano -- especially since DNA evidence irrefutably cleared Dedge later.
Prosecutors deny wrongdoing.
State Attorney Norman Wolfinger, though, said there never has been any evidence supporting wrongdoing in the cases. Dedge, he said, would have been convicted even without Zacke's testimony.
"Zacke knew how to use the system," Wolfinger said. "It makes sense to me that perhaps Dedge spoke to Zacke after the first trial and then Zacke exaggerated the story."
Prosecutor Chris White said "Zacke was promised nothing for Dedge."
White's theory: "Zacke is a big man in the DOC and has some certain folklore to him in Brevard County. Maybe Dedge wanted to look like a big man in front of Zacke. Who knows? Sometimes people will admit to a crime to look tougher."
Dedge attorney Nina Morrison insists that an investigation is needed.
"This is the criminal justice system's equivalent of a major disaster," she said. "We have been calling for one but so far there has been no response."