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Lawsuit alleges wife of slain Tarpon Springs doctor conspired to kill him

 
A forensic science investigator with the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, right, takes equipment to the scene of the Tarpon Springs home where Dr. Steven Schwartz was killed. [DOUGLAS CLIFFORD | Times (2014)]
A forensic science investigator with the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, right, takes equipment to the scene of the Tarpon Springs home where Dr. Steven Schwartz was killed. [DOUGLAS CLIFFORD | Times (2014)]
Published May 26, 2016

The children of a 74-year-old doctor stabbed and shot dead two years ago inside his Tarpon Springs home are suing their stepmother, Rebecca Schwartz, claiming she conspired to kill him.

A year after Dr. Steven Patlin Schwartz was killed on May 28, 2014, Tarpon Springs police arrested his handyman, Anton Stragaj, 38, who is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit. He has been charged with first-degree murder.

Rebecca Schwartz, 55, has not been charged in the case. A 13-page complaint filed Wednesday in Pinellas County chronicles several claims against her, including that she helped Stragaj kill her husband, embezzled money from Schwartz and coerced him into changing his will to benefit her more than his three adult children. His estate is worth at least $10 million, court records show.

Wil Florin, the Palm Harbor attorney representing Schwartz's family, said his death has caused a "tremendous impact" on them.

"Not only did they have the emotional rug pulled out from under them, but they had the financial rug pulled out from under them," he said. "All of the support that (Schwartz) was providing, which was significant, has been terminated by Ms. Schwartz."

Rebecca Schwartz could not be reached for comment Tuesday. Her attorney, Denis de­Vlaming, said he planned to file a motion to dismiss the lawsuit and request that Florin show proof of the allegations.

"Mrs. Schwartz has vigorously denied having anything to do with the death of her husband," he said. "We're going to hold their feet to the fire."

Among the claims in the lawsuit:

Before and after his death, Rebecca siphoned "significant sums of money" from Schwartz's accounts. She was also "caught embezzling funds" from his practice, Main Street Medical in Dunedin. About one month before the murder, she hired a document shredding service to dispose of several boxes of paperwork that were "likely relevant to the embezzlement of funds," records state.

The lawsuit also claims that Rebecca told her husband to change his estate plan so that it benefited her rather than his children. The doctor accepted "under the threat of exposing information important to his reputation in the community."

Florin would not say what information she had. Last year, the Tampa Bay Times reported that Schwartz fatally shot a dentist in New Mexico about 50 years ago. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison, but was granted parole in 1971 and pardoned in 1977.

The lawsuit also provides details into Stragaj and Rebecca's "close personal relationship." In public, the records say, she referred to him as her "right-hand man" and said Stragaj, for $15,000, "will take care of anyone you want."

On the day Schwartz was killed, Rebecca told police she had arrived at the couple's 1310 Belcher Drive home on the Anclote River and found the house in disarray. Drawers in her bedroom were open and money, jewelry and watches were missing, according to court records filed last year.

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Rebecca called 911 and police dogs found Schwartz's body near the garage. Investigators found Stragaj's DNA on Schwartz's shirt.

But the lawsuit claims Rebecca and Stragaj staged a "break-in," destroying part of a door, removing jewelry from the master bedroom and taking the hard drive of the home's surveillance system. Rebecca also owns a .22-caliber gun, the suit says. The records state that police have determined the same caliber was used to shoot Schwartz.

Tarpon Springs police declined to comment on the investigation.

Schwartz's children live in Florida. Kelly May of Spring Hill did not return a call for comment. Casey Schwartz is in prison on a DUI manslaughter conviction, records show. Carter Schwartz is in medical school and referred a reporter to his uncle, James Schwartz, who did not return a reporter's call.

Rebecca, who married Schwartz in 2010, has two children from her first marriage.

Stragaj of Palm Harbor remains at the Pinellas County Jail awaiting trial.

Times staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Laura C. Morel at lmorel@tampabay.com. Follow @lauracmorel.