Handyman pleads guilty to less serious charge in 2014 murder of Tarpon Springs doctor
The man arrested by police in the 2014 murder of a Tarpon Springs doctor pleaded guilty on Thursday, but not to murder.
Anton Stragaj, 44, pleaded guilty to one count of aiding and abetting after the fact and was sentenced to eight years in prison, a significant departure from the first degree murder charge for which he was arrested and which resulted in a life sentence if convicted.
With nearly seven years of credit for the time served, he could be released as early as next summer. He will then be deported to his home country of Albania, said his lawyer, John Nohlgren of the Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender’s Office.
“My goal all this time was to get the right outcome for the case,” Nohlgren said, “and in my opinion, we got there.”
This means that the investigation into who shot and stabbed Dr Steven Patlin Schwartz, 74, to death more than seven years ago, remains open. A Tarpon Springs police sergeant confirmed that the agency was still investigating the homicide and declined to comment on Stragaj’s plea. The Pinellas-Pasco state attorney’s office will continue to work with police if their investigation points to anyone else, a deputy prosecutor said Thursday.
“If the police uncover any evidence or bring us evidence that someone else was involved in this particular case, and we believe there is sufficient evidence to move forward, we will submit it to a grand jury, “Assistant District Attorney Doug Ellis said.
The Stragaj case was due to go to trial last year but has been delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Prosecutors accepted the deal after reviewing the facts of the case, although Ellis declined to go into details, citing the open police investigation. Stragaj was offered a similar deal in 2019, but rejected it because it would have required him to undergo a polygraph test. Thursday’s deal did not include any such provision because, Ellis said, Stragaj filed an affidavit in October for a trial stemming from Schwartz’s death.
Prosecutor René Marie Bauer also told Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Philip Federico on Thursday that family members had no objections to the deal, a family lawyer confirmed. Two of the doctor’s brothers were present at the hearing.
“This is obviously a first step, but it is not yet complete justice,” said their lawyer, Wil Florin. “The Schwartz family are calling for justice for all who were implicated in any way in the murder of Dr. Schwartz, and at this time this plea is not directed to all who were implicated in his murder. . “
Stragaj, who worked as a handyman at the doctor’s, and members of Schwartz’s family believe the doctor’s widow, Rebecca Schwartz, played a major role in his death.
In 2016, Schwartz’s grown children filed a wrongful death complaint against Rebecca Schwartz and Stragaj, claiming they had plotted to kill the doctor. According to the lawsuit, their mother-in-law also embezzled money and forced her husband to change his will to benefit her more than her children. She has denied the allegations and the trial is ongoing.
Then, a few months later, Stragaj told CBS News’ 48 hours that he thinks Rebecca Schwartz tricked him. She was never charged with her death, and her lawyer said at the time that all the evidence indicated that Stragaj was the “only killer”.
That lawyer, Denis deVlaming, said Thursday he was baffled by the plea deal and believed prosecutors should have taken the case to court.
“I’m shocked, and you can quote me on that,” deVlaming said. “For the life of me, I don’t understand the phrase, and I don’t understand the deal.”
Police gave this account of the day Steven Schwartz’s body was found:
On May 28, 2014, Rebecca Schwartz arrived at the couple’s home at 1310 Belcher Drive on the Anclote River. She noticed that the house was in a mess; several drawers in the bedroom were open and money, jewelry, and watches were missing. She called the police and a dispatcher told her to wait outside for the police to arrive. Police dogs found the doctor’s body in the garage.
The investigation lasted almost a year without any arrests. Then, in April 2015, the police arrested Stragaj. Detectives had found his DNA on Steven Schwartz’s shirt, and cellphone records did not corroborate his alibi. (Nohlgren said on Thursday that there had been a two-hour period that morning when Stragaj was not calling or texting anyone.)
In the 48 hours interview, Stragaj gave a different version of events:
He woke up that morning – his birthday – and was smoking a cigarette outside his Palm Harbor home when Rebecca Schwartz drove by. She said she had an argument with her husband and forgot her purse and asked Stragaj if he could pick it up. She waited at her son’s house while Stragaj drove to the mansion.
He entered the garage and saw the doctor’s body. He thought about calling the police but had several doubts. He had a work visa and hoped to get a green card, and immigration officials told him to stay out of trouble. He also felt that he had been trapped and would be arrested, jeopardizing his home, family and the financial stability he had spent years building.
So he picked up Rebecca’s Schwartz bag, which contained a knife and jewelry, and left. He confronted the widow, who told him: You know why I did it. Stragaj said he didn’t know his motive.
“I am not guilty of murder. I’m guilty of not calling the cops, ”he told the TV show. “I hope the truth will come out.”