CLEARWATER — Edward Graziano's arrest on charges that he paid a "hit man" $2,100 and a pizza gift card to kill his estranged wife could be good news for Hulk Hogan.
Graziano's 24-year-old son John is the centerpiece of a much-publicized lawsuit against the family of Terry Bollea, otherwise known as Hulk Hogan. John suffered catastrophic injuries in a car-racing crash blamed on Bollea's son. He will need medical and custodial care for the rest of his life.
The Grazianos' civil suit seeks millions of dollars for his care, and that may be easier to settle now that Edward is out of the way, according to two lawyers working the case.
"My hope is that his arrest is going to help us,'' said California attorney David Houston, who represents Terry Bollea. "I'm hoping we have a changing of the guard, so to speak, and move forward a bit more purposely.''
John Graziano's representatives, including his parents, are making excessive demands, Houston said. Edward Graziano may well be the dominating force in those demands if he is as abusive as his estranged wife's restraining orders suggest, Houston said.
Two lawyers who represent John Graziano in the lawsuit called that notion false and ridiculous.
Monetary demands, made by John Graziano's professional guardian, "are totally for John's care,'' said Tampa lawyer Kim Kohn. "The only difference in this case is the quality of care John should have.
"Our position is that John should have the best quality of care. Clearly that is not Mr. Houston's position," she said.
Neither party would reveal any settlement offers in the case, which is currently in mediation.
Edward Graziano, 53, was arrested Thursday after a 2 ½ month investigation by the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, which had received a tip that Graziano was trying to hire someone to bump off his estranged wife, Debra.
An undercover deputy posed as a go-between who could hire a hit man. In several taped conversations, Graziano laid out plans, the arrest record states. He wanted it to be a car accident, where he had a good alibi. He provided a schedule of his wife's movements, and ponied up $2,100 and a $13.06 gift card to Westshore Pizza.
In his first court appearance Friday on a solicitation for murder charge, Graziano said he had no money. A public defender was appointed to represent him. He entered a plea of not guilty and his bail was set at $200,000.
Authorities say they believe Graziano's motivation was financial.
Graziano may have hoped to gain by becoming his son's sole surviving parent, caregiver and heir, said Clearwater lawyer Kevin Hayslett, who represented Nick Bollea in his criminal case.
It's a bizarre scenario, Hayslett acknowledged, "but who would have imagined that a mother would pay an undercover cop to kill a cheerleader who was ahead of her daughter on the cheerleading roster?
"You can't make this stuff up.''
Kohn and Clearwater attorney George Tragos scoffed at the theory. Any money collected will go to John, not his parents, they said.
"This lawsuit is about getting care for John Graziano,'' Kohn said. "It is not about Ed and Debra Graziano.''
Bollea's attorney said it stands to reason that Graziano's parents would be likely candidates to care for him if he progresses enough to come home from the James Haley VA Hospital in Tampa, where he remains in a semi-conscious state.
That could mean a new house and possible payments as caregivers. Edward Graziano would collect it all if his wife were dead, Houston said, adding: "He would be cutting himself a pretty hefty paycheck."
The Grazianos have a long history of marital discord. She has filed for numerous restraining orders, alleging physical assault and murder threats.
She filed for divorce in 2004 but dropped the case.
In 2005, he secured a restraining order, alleging that she threatened to cut his throat or burn the bed as he slept.
She lives in a 2,300-square-foot-home in Dunedin that they mortgaged for $479,750 two years ago. He lives in a $950 a month two-bedroom apartment in Palm Harbor.
She declined to comment Friday, saying she hadn't yet digested the alleged murder plot.
"It keeps getting more and more surreal," she said.
The St. Petersburg Times could not determine what Edward Graziano does for a living.
In a 2005 court document, he listed his income as $3,000 a month in commissions from selling water purifiers.
He holds a funeral director's license from the state of New York and in a 2007 court document, his wife said he was last employed in a Brooklyn funeral home, but was "fired for anger.''
A press release from the sheriff's office says the murder plot stemmed from "a culmination of divorce related financial issues,'' though no divorce is on file.
Because John Graziano cannot handle his own affairs, the court appointed a professional guardian to handle his finances, including the right to pursue the lawsuit against the Bollea family.
Debra Graziano is her son's "guardian of the person,'' meaning she makes decisions about his living conditions and medical care. Guardians can collect fees for their time.
Under Florida law, Edward Graziano would be in line to become John's guardian if his wife could not fulfill those duties, but that is not guaranteed.
"If there were a possibility of an amount to be paid to a parent or parents, one may argue that a possible motive would be that he would have 100 percent of the pie instead of 50 percent,'' Hayslett said.
Times staff writer Keith Niebuhr and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.