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Pain and the Prairie

Murder on the Treasure Coast
     By Brian DiMaio

Eugene Brancaccio and his wife, Lina, operated Roma's Italian Restaurant on Port St. Lucie Boulevard, and co-owned three other Italian restaurants in the city with relatives. They had come to Port St. Lucie in the early '80s from New York, and opened the first Roma's near the old Winn-Dixie shopping plaza off of US1. Today, the Roma's is still there, but Winn-Dixie is a gymnastics center, and the only commercial draw to the once-profitable center is a bingo parlor.

Their only son, Victor, was born prematurely on February 27, 1977. He was kept in an incubator for several weeks before being released, and it was thought he might have suffered slight brain damage because of the incident. When he was 18 months old, Victor fell into a lake and nearly drowned. He stopped breathing for five minutes, and was clinically dead. Doctors feared he might have been even more affected mentally from that as well. If only they had known how much.

Victor was enrolled in Port St. Lucie Elementary School when he was five, where he seemed different from the other children from the start. He often was caught stealing from the other students: toys, pencils, food and the like. School got no easier as he got older. By the time he got into high school, Victor had already been in the Savannas, a mental institution in the eastern part of the city, twice.

He was short for his age, just over 5 feet tall, and he weighed about 135 pounds. The Florida Department of Corrections now lists him as 5'4", 148, but he was smaller in 1993. He was muscular then, as he is now. He had black hair and a dark complexion. He had a nice smile, the rare times he displayed it, but dark and mean eyes. He dropped out of Port St. Lucie High School during his 9th grade year.

Mollie Mae Frazier, an 81-year-old widow and grandmother, had lived in Saint Lucie West, a small suburb west of Port St. Lucie, since 1988. She and her husband, Alex, retired there from Severna Park, Md. Alex died in 1989.

Mollie was involved with Young at Heart, an elderly women's group at First Baptist Church of Port St. Lucie. She enjoyed bowling and Bible study at her church.

She had been scolded by people at her church for taking walks late in the afternoon, as she often did. But Mollie told her fellow church members she lived in a nice, quiet neighborhood, and had nice people living around her.

She never had a problem with Victor and his family. They had been living just a few blocks apart since 1990. Mollie had short, curly white hair, wore glasses, and had a nice smile, which she showed often. She was shy around people she didn't know, but was very talkative around friends. She was frail but in good health. She enjoyed her walks.

Victor had come into contact with the police before that fateful summer. His father had filed a missing persons report in 1992 when Victor did not come home one night. He was afraid to come home and be disciplined by Eugene. He came home a couple days later.

Victor was released from Savannas in mid-May 1993, though he insisted to his doctors he needed to stay. He was suffering from depression, attention deficit disorder, alcoholism and an assortment of other problems. He had been put on the anti-depressant drug Zoloft, which affected his mood and behavior. He knew he was not ready to go, he still had violent thoughts. According to hospital records, he became "very loud" and was exhibiting child-like behavior and had become quick-tempered. One of his doctors told one of Victor's aunts he was a "walking time bomb."

On the night of June 11, 1993, Victor got into an argument with his mother over what they were having for dinner. Using a technique he had learned at Savannas to help control himself, Victor left the house to go for a walk and cool down before losing his temper around his family. He took along a small radio that played Dr. Dre's rap song, "Stranded on Death Row" and a plastic toy gun that looked like a .9mm Baretta.

A few minutes into his walk, he encountered Mollie, who was out for her daily stroll. She allegedly said something to Victor about the lyrics to Dre's song, telling him it was too loud and vulgar and he needed to turn it down. That only fueled his anger.

"I told her I was going to hit her," he said in a taped interview shortly after his arrest. "I told her to shut up or I was going to hit her." But Mollie did not shut up. The two began walking together, and a witness who testified she was the last person to see Mollie alive besides her killer said Victor was being very aggressive, but she never saw him hit her.

According to an interview transcript, Jan Simcsuk said she was driving with her son, who knew Victor, down Crabapple Cove in the Heatherwood subdivision, the road Mollie was killed on. "All…I remember the hand gestures, very, very aggressive …the hands out, the palms up, just being aggressive…" Simcsuk said.

Simcsuk said she did not see Victor hit Mollie.

But he did. He beat her with his fists and the Walkman he was carrying. And between the radio, the toy gun and his fists, Mollie's 81-year-old frame did not stand a chance.

The medical examiner who performed the autopsy on Mollie said she died during or soon after the beating. The official cause of death was multiple blows to her head and chest. The autopsy showed she was in reasonably good health and was not impaired at the time of death.

Victor dragged Mollie over a berm near the side of the road and continued beating her with his fists and the toy gun and the radio. As she began bleeding badly from the blows, Victor apparently became afraid for his own safety. He asked her, "You got AIDS, bitch?"

When Victor stopped the beating and saw what he had done, he got scared and ran home. He first thought about telling his mother he had come across Mollie's body while walking, thinking his mother could get her help. But he changed his mind and thought otherwise, deciding to say nothing. When asked by his mother where he had been for so long, Victor said he went to McDonald's.

However, Victor was not too afraid to tell his friends or brag about what he had done. About 9:00 that night, Victor called a friend of his, Kristen, and told her he had just hit an old lady. She did not believe him. Later that night, at a friend's house, he told his friend Tina how he had beaten up an old lady. She did not believe him either.

The next day, Victor saw another friend, Angel Pellot, and told him. According to Pellot, Victor bragged about what he had done and showed him blood on his shoes. Later that morning, Victor told one of his father's employees, Jack Zeccheo, who did not believe him. He even took Zeccheo to the crime scene, but Zeccheo did not see the body. But the more Victor spoke about the incident, providing more details, the more Zeccheo began to believe Victor.

Zeccheo and his girlfriend returned with Victor to the crime scene, and this time, Victor revealed Mollie's body. Zeccheo allegedly asked Brancaccio if he was concerned about the police finding his fingerprints on the body. This prompted Victor to return later that day and spray red spray paint on Mollie in an attempt to conceal the prints. After that did not work, Victor would later attempt to burn the body to get rid of the prints.

Lynette Winchester, Zeccheo's girlfriend, brought her brother, Larry, to see the body two days later. Larry Winchester immediately called the police. The next day, the police found Mollie's body. Besides the trauma to her head that killed her, Mollie's injuries included two black eyes, a broken nose, crushed chest, and defensive injuries to the upper extremities. About 95 percent of her body was covered with a thick coating of red spray paint.

The police also found Mollie's eyeglasses, hearing aid and contents of her purse tossed about. Genetic tests matched a section of hair attached to a piece of a shattered toy gun found under and around Mollie's body.

On Monday, June 14, the police arrested Victor after interviewing Angel, Kristen, Lynette and Jack on Sunday night and early Monday morning. Victor had just left his house to begin mowing yards with a friend's father when police pulled over the pickup truck he was riding in. Detectives searched his home later that day and found a pair of bloody shorts, spray paint and shoes that linked Victor to the scene.

Victor at first denied being involved, but then later confessed on tape without an attorney present or his parents being notified.

On July 13, a grand jury in St. Lucie County indicted Victor as an adult on a charge of first-degree murder and a charge of kidnapping with a weapon.

The town was shocked. This was not Miami, or West Palm Beach. This sort of thing did not happen in Port St. Lucie, especially in affluent Saint Lucie West.

His trial started in 1995 in Fort Pierce, the county seat of St. Lucie County. Juan Torres of Fort Pierce was the lead attorney for Victor's defense. Medical experts were called in to testify about the effects of Zoloft, and how it could affect Victor's behavior. Friends and families of both Victor and Mollie testified. All said they were both good people, and they could not believe something like this could happen.

The defense claimed Victor was not responsible for Mollie's death because he suffered from involuntary intoxication caused by Zoloft. Experts testified that the drug made Victor lose control of his actions and changed his personality.

The State argued there was no evidence of involuntary intoxication due to Zoloft because there was no evidence that Victor took the drug before killing Mollie. Prosecutors argued Victor was still able to form the intent to commit the crimes.

In the two years between the arrest and the trial, the Brancaccios, who had to sell their house and restaurant to pay for their son's defense, won the Florida Lottery. They split $16 million with seven other winners for a take of just under $2 million. Some were afraid Victor would be able to buy himself a 'Dream Team.' The O. J. Simpson trial was still going on when Victor's trial began, and the public did not want the same rich treatment that Simpson received.

He did not.

On October 10, 1995, the jurors convicted Victor of first-degree felony murder and kidnapping. Despite the State's asking for the death penalty, the jury recommended life without parole for 25 years. The judge later sentenced Victor to two life sentences.

Victor sat motionless as the verdict was read, as he had been during most of the trial. His mother and aunts broke down and yelled at the jurors.

But the conviction was overturned on appeal, and in 1997 Victor was granted a new trial on the grounds that the court gave a flawed jury instruction on involuntary intoxication.

This is what the defense wanted in the instruction:

"Involuntary intoxication relieves the criminality of an act committed under its influence. The test of involuntary intoxication is whether there was an absence of an exercise of an independent judgment and volition on the part of the accused in taking the intoxicant."

The instruction actually given by the trial judge was the standard insanity instruction:

"An issue in this case is whether Victor Brancaccio was insane when the crime allegedly was committed. A person is considered to be insane when: 1) he had a mental infirmity, disease or defect; 2) because of his condition he did not know what he was doing or its consequences, or although he knew what he was doing and its consequences, he did not know it was wrong."

In the new trial, Juan Torres was out and Roy Black took over for the defense. Black was more of a high-profile defense attorney in South Florida, and the Brancaccios could afford his services because they won the lottery a second time. This time they won about $2.7 million, which could pay Black his fees, and perhaps get a better defense than Torres provided.

The defense argument was the same, but this time Victor was suing Savannas Hospital and two doctors for alleged negligence in his treatment. He alleged that the hospital knew about his adverse reaction to Zoloft and refused to put him on another medication. He also claimed the hospital was negligent for allegedly releasing him from the hospital prematurely.

The trial began in January 1999, with Black at the helm. This time it was held in Vero Beach, about a half hour north of Fort Pierce in Indian River County. And once again the families testified and experts testified and everyone relived the same nightmare they relived 3 ˝ years earlier.

The trial lasted about two weeks, and the different jury returned the same verdict.

Victor was once again convicted and sentenced to the same consecutive life sentences. He fiddled with his fingernails and looked down at the table where he was sitting when the verdict was read.

And Black said he would appeal. And the process will probably continue for a few more years before Mollie Mae Frazier rests in peace.

And Victor's suit against the hospital and doctors that released him is still pending at this time. And his family, who won't speak to reporters about their son or nephew or cousin any more, are still heartbroken.

So Victor Brancaccio, Florida Department of Corrections Inmate number 306050, sits in prison in the Liberty Correctional Institute in Bristol, Florida, a city about 40 miles west of Tallahassee.

Not too many people in Port St. Lucie speak about the murder anymore, not like they did in 1993 or 1995. It's just one of those legends that all small towns have that older people tell younger people on the rare occasion it gets brought up.

And the stories always start the same: "I remember where I was when I first heard…"

Victor Brancaccio and I were both in Mrs. Patton's kindergarten class in 1982. I remember he was small then, quiet, but not really withdrawn. I don't remember if he was particularly slow, but I remember he stole things.

I never really spoke to him, and after the school year I never gave him much thought.

And then our paths crossed again my sophomore year at PSL High. He was a freshman, he had been left back in elementary school. We were in the same phys. ed. class. He was a punk, and his friends were punks, but I never thought he was capable of taking another person's life in such a cold-blooded manner.

He stopped showing up for class about eight or nine weeks into the school year. It turned out he quit school. I later found out he was sent to the Savannas.

During the summer of 1993, after my sophomore year, I went to my friend Thom Bourbonniere's house for his birthday one afternoon. A reporter from the Palm Beach Post called looking for his sister. She was the student body president at PSL High, and the reporter wanted a quote about a student who killed an old woman a few days ago.

Thom's sister was not home, but he gave a quote. Back in November, he had a run in with Victor at school, and they almost got into a fight after school. It was broken up, but the next few days were tense between my friend and Victor. Victor was not missed when he dropped out.

As Thom spoke on the phone, I asked what the reporter wanted.

"He wants to talk about Victor Brancaccio," he said.

"Victor?" I asked. "Why? What did he do, kill somebody?" I was trying to be funny, but in retrospect I regret asking that.

Thom's eyes widened to the size of silver dollars. He nodded slowly. I couldn't say anything. When he hung up, he gave me the story as the reporter told him. Victor had been arrested and charged with murder, and the reporter was doing some background on him.

It was all over the papers the next day, and none of us could imagine that this could happen here in Port St. Lucie. One of our classmates was in jail for killing someone.

I followed the trial when it began two years later. I remember when the verdict came back that he should spend the rest of his life in jail. It was not a great surprise. I remember when the family won the lottery and the uproar it caused.

By the time the second trial started, I was already at UF. I had to get the information from a few friends who still lived at home.

And when the verdict came back the same, again no one was really surprised. Hopefully, this ends soon.

I saw Mrs. Patton at the Oaks Mall here in Gainesville this summer. She was in town with her family visiting some friends. I hadn't seen her in several years, long before the murder.

She asked where I was in my life, and when I told her I was getting married and graduating from UF, she mentioned that she was glad to see some of her students were making good with their lives.

"I'm glad things are working out for you," she said. "It's good to see my old students who are doing something positive with themselves, instead of…" She stopped.

She didn't come out and say his name, but I knew who she meant.

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