May 30, 2018

Bobby Kent: Murder Between Friends

Bobby Kent in 1992 



". . . They should be ashamed of what they did."


On July 13, 1993, a group of six teen girls and boys from the pleasant community of Hollywood, Florida, a middle class suburb of Fort Lauderdale, gathered at a local Pizza Hut, as many do during the carefree days of summer.  This congregation, however, wasn't meeting up to nosh and socialize but to discuss how they were going to commit murder.

Their chosen victim was twenty year old Bobby Kent, the only son of Fred and Farah Kent, who had immigrated to the States from Iran, changing their surname in the process.  Fred was a successful stockbroker, allowing his family a privileged lifestyle.  Bobby -- popular, gregarious and handsome -- had graduated from high school and attended community college.  He was serious about bodybuilding and had entrepreneurial dreams -- although those dreams were of a questionable nature.
Bobby's best friend was Marty Puccio.  He and Marty had met in the third grade and developed a friendship that was dysfunctional at best.  Marty's parents would recall the young boy coming home, after spending time with Bobby, covered in bruises and, at time, bleeding.  The Puccios believed this was some form of roughhousing and encouraged their son to cut off contact with Bobby or at least limit it but apparently did not take any other kind of action.  Sadly.

This love-hate relationship -- with Bobby both being playful and punishing toward Marty -- continued into adolescence.  The bullying became so bad at one point that Marty begged his parents to move away from Hollywood so that he might escape.  His parents refused, leading their son to live temporarily with relatives in New York.  Before long, though, Marty returned to Florida and back into his cruel relationship with Bobby.  He seemed unable to break away from the abusive connection.

It was during their adolescent years that both young men took up bodybuilding, spending a great deal of their time at the gym.  It was also said that they both began taking steroids, causing Bobby's already volatile and aggressive nature to worsen.

In the 11th grade, Marty dropped out of school.  This added to the list of grievances Fred and Farah Kent had against him as they ironically believed Marty was a bad influence on their son and wished to stifle the friendship.  

At some point after Bobby himself graduated from high school, he entered the business arena as a filmmaker.  As the gay subculture was at the height of its popularity in south Florida, he came up with the idea to film men masturbating and sell the tapes.  The pornographic venture did not go as planned, however, as the generally poor quality of the films made them difficult to sell.  It was also rumored, after the events of July 1993, that Bobby had pimped his taller, muscular friend out at gay clubs.

Marty had met Lisa Connelly, a shy, overweight 18 year old high school dropout and the two had fallen quickly in love, spending all their time together.  Lisa quickly noticed how Bobby treated his so-called friend and hoping to take his mind off abusing Marty, introduced him to her friend, Alice "Ali" Willis.  Ali, like Lisa, was also 18; she had already been married and given birth to a child that her parents cared for.

While friends dating friends would have made for a cozy quadrangle, Ali and Bobby only dated for a few weeks.  Bobby began abusing Ali, subjecting her to "bizarre" sexual behavior and, according to Marty later on, threatening both her and her child's lives.

Meanwhile, Lisa discovered she was pregnant with Marty's baby.  Feeling her boyfriend, and now the father of her child, would never escape Bobby Kent's torture, she began to plot how she could eradicate Bobby from both their lives.  Permanently.

She recruited her friend Ali -- Bobby's most recent girlfriend -- and Marty, of course.  She also added Ali's new boyfriend, Donnie Semenec, Lisa's cousins Heather Swallers and Derek Dzvirko and Derek Kaufman to their murderous band.   Kaufman was 22 years old and claimed to be a mafia hit man; Lisa felt his so-called contract killing knowledge would come in handy for their plans.

They chose July 14 as the day Bobby would meet his maker.  One day after their Pizza Hut meeting in which all the future killers had attended with the exception of Marty.

Ali, the former girlfriend who Bobby had allegedly raped, was used as the bait.  Marty called Bobby and invited him to a remote canal near Weston, stating they were going to race cars.  As an added incentive he assured Bobby that Ali would be there and was anxious to have sex with him.   Bobby agreed and was picked up from his home by the seven who would kill him around 11:30 p.m.

Upon arrival at the chosen site, Ali took Bobby off to a more secluded spot, on the pretext she wanted to talk with him.  Those remaining assembled their weapons -- a pipe, an aluminum baseball bat and two knives.    

While Ali, and Heather Swallers, who had caught up to them, distracted Bobby, the five co-conspirators snuck up on him.

The body of Bobby Kent
Donnie Semenec, Ali's boyfriend, plunged a knife into Bobby's neck.  Seeing Marty, Bobby pleaded with him for help, apologizing for anything and everything he had done and begging for mercy.  Marty responded by stabbing Bobby in the stomach.  Bobby attempted to run but was outnumbered.  Donnie, Marty and Derek Kaufman hit and stabbed his torso.  Marty slammed Bobby's head into the ground and cut his throat.  It was Derek, the self-professed hit man, who dealt the final blow - - beating Bobby's head in with the aluminum baseball bat and making sure Bobby Kent was removed from this earth.

The body was then rolled to the edge of the marsh.  They had chosen the location specifically on the belief that alligators would find the corpse and consume it, effectively destroying all evidence.  They tossed the baseball bat and knives into the ocean and decided they would all agree they had been together, hanging out, on the night of the murder while Bobby had been out on a date with an unidentified woman.

Bobby's family reported him missing when he didn't return home that evening.  Marty Puccio, as Bobby's best friend, was contacted by the police about Bobby's possible whereabouts.  Marty feigned ignorance about where Bobby might be and professed to be worried about his friend.  The cops may have had a gut feeling that something wasn't right but had nothing to go on.

However, like most teens, the seven killers could not stay quiet.

Lisa Connelly, who claimed that Bobby had raped her, confessed to her mother about the murder.  Her mother, in turn, contacted her own sister, who was Derek Dzvirko's mother.   The two sisters took their children to see their brother, who had friends in the police department.  They were then directed to Detective Frank Illaraza of the Broward County Sheriff's Office.  Dzvirko not only confessed everything to Illaraza, he led the detective to Bobby Kent's remains, still where his killers had left him.  The wallet in the pocket of the pants confirmed that it was indeed Bobby Kent.

Once Bobby had been found, the conspirators quickly cracked and began giving excuses as to why he had to die.  They claimed they were merely bystanders to what they had thought was going to be a simple beating.  Nope, they knew nothing about any murder.  The prosecutors dealt with it by trying each of the seven defendants separately.

Perhaps frighteningly, not one of the alleged killers displayed any remorse at trial.  Three of the defendants had not known or even met Bobby Kent prior to the evening of July 14, 1993, making their lack of remorse difficult to grasp.

The killers under arrest.  Top from left:  Puccio, Willis, Semenec, Swallers
Bottom from left:  Dzvirko, Kaufman, Connelly

Marty Puccio, the so-called best friend of the victim and who himself had been victimized by Bobby Kent for years, received the harshest sentence.  Charged with first degree murder, he was sentenced to death in the electric chair on August 3, 1995.  Bobby's mother, Farah Kent, believed justice had been served.  "Now he will fear for his life, as my son did for his," she remarked after sentencing.  In 1997, the Florida Supreme Court overturned his death sentence and commuted it to life with parole eligibility in 25 years.  He is serving his time at the Desoto Annex in Arcadia, where he has reportedly gone into the prison ministry.

Derek Kaufman, the 22 year old who had told the younger crowd he was in the Mafia in order to impress them, and who showed up for the murder party with a bat instead of the promised gun, was sentenced to life plus thirty years.  He is serving his time at the Gulf Correctional Institute in Wewahitchka, where he has incurred nearly twenty infractions, including drug use and disobeying orders.

As Donald Semenec's eighteenth birthday was on the day he helped to kill Bobby Kent, and having delivered the blow that started the frenzy, he was sentenced to life plus fifteen years.  He is serving his sentence, like Derek Kaufman, at the Gulf Correctional Institute in Wewahitchka.  Also like Kaufman, he has racked up an impressive count of infractions -- some twenty -- ranging from weapon possession to drug and alcohol use.

Derek Dzvirko was charged with second-degree murder and originally sentenced to seven years on May 12, 1995 but received an additional four years on his sentence for his attempt to lie on the witness stand after his initial sentencing, while testifying against the others.  He was paroled on October 1, 1999, after serving four years, and left Florida for Missouri, where he worked as a truck driver.

Lisa Connelly was sentenced to life plus five years.  Her sentence was reduced on appeal to nine years.  The alleged mastermind of the murder, she was paroled on February 3, 2004, after serving a total of nine years.  She gave birth to a daughter while incarcerated and is reported to live in Pennsylvania with her daughter and a younger son.  She has kept a low profile since her release, running a cleaning business and becoming a certified optician.

Alice "Ali" Willis was charged with second-degree murder and sentenced to forty years on May 31, 1995.  That sentence was reduced on appeal to seventeen years for the murder charge and fifteen years for the conspiracy charge.  She was paroled on September 16, 2001, after serving just over six years.  Despite being picked up in 2013 for retail theft, a parole violation, she did not end up back in prison.  She is said to live in Melbourne, Florida with her husband and children.  She will remain under community supervision until September 15, 2041.

Heather Swallers was charged with second-degree murder and sentenced to seven years.  When she took the stand on May 17, 1995, she did not follow Dzvirko's lead and lie and, in fact, turned in evidence.  She was paroled on February 14, 1998, after serving almost three years -- the first to be released from custody.  She reportedly resides in Georgia with her children.

In 1998, Jim Schutze wrote a book on the case called Bully:  A True Story of High School Revenge.  Three years later, the book was adapted into a film by Larry Clark, also called Bully, which starred Brad Renfro and Nick Stahl.  .

In 2013, Bobby Kent's sister Laila spoke publicly on the decision to allow all three female defendants and one male defendant to be released from prison.  According to the Sun Sentinel she was quoted as saying, "It disgusts me that they have freedom after killing someone.  They're horrible people and they should be ashamed of what they did.  They don't even deserve to be alive."

Bobby Kent's family had his body cremated and his ashes were scattered.


Somewhat similar to the Kirsten Costas case I wrote about yesterday, the Bobby Kent case is about bullying, although the Kent case much more directly so.  Bobby Kent was and remains a much less sympathetic victim than Kirsten Costas as he not only verbally abused others (even those he claimed were his friends) but physically tormented them as well.  If two of the women who participated in his murder are to be believed, Kent sexually assaulted and raped them -- one of them being the girlfriend of his own friend, Marty Puccio.

Also in possible opposition to the Costas case, there was a clear conspiracy and plan to obliterate Bobby Kent.  His murder didn't happen during an episode of assault or immediately following but was a clear, thought out design.

While there is never any excuse for murder, in this case there does appear to be extenuating circumstances.  The abuse dealt to Marty Puccio is not under dispute.  It seems clear that he had a victim mentality and reacted much the way abused persons do.  That gives me a small amount of sympathy for him.

What I don't understand though is why no one thought to take Bobby Kent's abuse to the authorities before deciding to mete out their own version of justice.  Maybe Marty Puccio had been beaten down -- physically, emotionally and mentally -- over the years by his so-called friend but the others cannot attempt to utilize that excuse.  Of course I am seeing this from the viewpoint of a fully formed adult.  The girls in the case were eighteen; is it feasible that while they may not have wanted their friends and family to know that Bobby Kent raped them, they were okay with being part of his murder?  And Marty Puccio was twenty years old but do we know how old he was emotionally in 1993?  He had been abused by Bobby for more than half his life by that point.  Would he have had the wherewithal to approach authority figures, even his parents?

And what of everyone involved in this sordid mess but Marty Puccio, Lisa Connelly and Alice Willis?  They had no real connection or interaction with Kent and yet they decided to join in and participate, even tangentially, in the cold and brutal murder of another human being.

I find the sentencing and time served troubling as well.  Read anything about this case and you will see many accusations of the female defendants in this case getting much better treatment.  I believe they caught a break due to their gender.  One of them hatched the idea and put it in motion, recruiting everyone else.  The other used herself in order to lure the victim and kept him occupied so that her fellow conspirators could get into place, readying themselves to murder.  While none of the girls may have wielded a weapon, under the law they are just as guilty as if they did.  Heather Swallers' participation in the murder seems much less involved and given that she gave evidence truthfully, I don't have a real issue with her brief sentence.  Connelly and Willis may be a different story; although I would certainly have sympathy if they were indeed victims of Bobby Kent's abuse.

I am not pointing fingers at anyone because the parents of all these young people involved suffered but . . . it seems their attitudes towards their children's behavior were excessively and exceedingly casual.  Roughhousing during play, for boys, is one thing.  But bruising of the body and bleeding is quite another.  I can't help but wonder what might have happened if Marty Puccio's parents had taken this matter to Bobby Kent's parents when they were still young children.  Or, if necessary, to the authorities.  Would it have saved Bobby Kent's life and spared Marty Puccio from a life incarcerated?  And what of Bobby Kent's parents?  Did they know their son was exhibiting such violent behavior?  And while Bobby allegedly wanted to enter the business scene, he looked to be trying to do so in a scuzzy way.  Did his parents have any idea of his involvement with the pornographic movies?

This case is troubling for many reasons.  The fact that a cruel and sadistic predator was allowed to roam freely for so long is infuriating.  The extreme violence dealt to him, while partly understandable in the eyes of his victims, is horrifying.  As is the killers' utter lack of remorse.  Was it from a form of PTSD?  Or worse, was it because these privileged and indulged teens simply had no conscience?

Perhaps the biggest mystery of all to me is why Marty Puccio's defense team never claimed any type of mental defect as a result of years of abuse.  How he got sentenced to death while the other defendants avoided that punishment entirely.  Was Marty judged more culpable because he made the phone call?  Or because he was supposedly Bobby's best friend?  is Marty really that much different than a battered wife who, after years of abuse and threats, kills her spouse?  Or do we put a different light on things because Marty is a man?

Does the Bobby Kent case trouble you as much as it does me?  Please let me know what you think in the comments.

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