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Man charged in slaying of Tarpon Springs doctor blames victim's wife in TV interview (w/video)

 
Anton Stragaj is charged in the 2014 murder.
Anton Stragaj is charged in the 2014 murder.
Published July 17, 2016

Anton Stragaj strolled toward the cameras and the spotlights dressed in orange coveralls.

The Pinellas County Jail inmate sat down and placed his hands on his lap. His knees bounced every so often. Deputies stood around as a microphone was clipped to his collar.

And then Stragaj, 39, told the CBS News TV show 48 Hours that he did not kill the man whose death he now sits in a cell for, awaiting trial.

"I made a few mistakes," he said, "but I never killed a man."

He faces a charge of first-degree murder in the slaying of Dr. Steven Patlin Schwartz, a 74-year-old doctor found dead inside his Tarpon Springs mansion in 2014.

Stragaj was a handyman who renovated Schwartz family properties before he was accused of fatally shooting and stabbing the doctor.

While Stragaj told his story, hoping to reach a primetime network audience, detectives recorded the June 5 interview, which was obtained by the Tampa Bay Times.

So who did it? Stragaj told 48 Hours that it was the doctor's widow, Rebecca Schwartz, who killed her husband.

She faces no charges in the slaying. She could not be reached for comment, but her attorneys denied the claims.

Stragaj, however, isn't the first to accuse Rebecca Schwartz.

• • •

Police records chronicle the moments leading up to the discovery of the doctor's body.

Rebecca Schwartz arrived home the night of May 28, 2014. She said she opened the front door to her Tarpon Springs home at 1310 Belcher Drive, walked into her bedroom, and noticed several open drawers. Then she called 911 about 9:25 p.m. Her call was recorded:

"I cannot believe this. It's just crazy," she said. "I mean, I had a lot of cash. It's gone. And I mean, some of my jewelry is gone."

The dispatcher told her to wait outside until Tarpon Springs officers arrived. Police dogs found her husband's body at the base of a stairway near the garage.

He was shot twice in the back of the head and stabbed several times, records state.

Eleven months later, Stragaj was arrested.

• • •

When Stragaj sat down with 48 Hours, he told a much different story to the TV cameras:

On the morning of May 28, his birthday, Stragaj said he made coffee and smoked a cigarette outside his Palm Harbor home.

Then Rebecca Schwartz, 55, pulled up in her white Mercedes. Stragaj said she told him she forgot her purse and had argued with her husband. She asked Stragaj if he would pick it up.

Stragaj said he got in the car. Rebecca Schwartz drove to her son's house. She stayed there, Stragaj said, while he drove to the couple's home.

Stragaj said he opened the door from the garage. He saw the doctor's body facing a wall.

"I touched the man and I'm trying to see if he's alive or if he's hurt or what's going on," he said.

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He said he saw blood. He realized the doctor was dead.

Stragaj said he considered calling police, but several doubts churned in his mind. Born in Albania, he had a work visa, but hoped to get his green card. Immigration officials warned him to stay out of legal trouble.

He felt he had been "set up," the handyman said, that he would be arrested. He feared losing his house, his wife and son, the economic stability he had spent years building.

He said he picked up Rebecca Schwartz's purse and left. Inside the bag, Stragaj said, was a knife and some jewelry.

When he got to her son's home, Stragaj said, he confronted the doctor's wife. He said Rebecca told him: You know why I did it.

Why would she kill him? Stragaj said he didn't know.

"I hope the truth will come out," he told the TV show. "I wish there was someone who could see through me right now and bring the truth out.

"I'm not guilty of murder. I'm guilty for not calling the cops."

Tarpon Springs police declined to comment on Stragaj's story because the slaying remains an active investigation.

• • •

Rebecca Schwartz's attorney, Denis deVlaming, said in an email that Stragaj "cannot explain away his guilt, so he is blaming Mrs. Schwartz."

"It is his only hope to escape conviction," he said. "All evidence points to him as the sole killer."

This isn't the first time Rebecca Schwartz has been so accused.

In May, Schwartz's brother, James Schwartz, filed suit against her on behalf of the doctor's three adult children.

The wrongful death lawsuit claims their stepmother and Stragaj conspired to murder Schwartz, whose estate is worth at least $10 million, for financial gain. They staged a "break-in," court records state, destroyed part of a door, took jewelry from the master bedroom and the hard drive of the home's surveillance system.

Rebecca owned a .22-caliber gun, according to the lawsuit. It also said that police determined that was the caliber of the weapon used to shoot Schwartz. A butcher knife in the kitchen was also missing.

The lawsuit also alleged that she was caught embezzling funds from her husband's Dunedin medical practice.

Rebecca Schwartz's attorneys filed a motion to dismiss the suit.

"Our plan is to vigorously defend that lawsuit," said attorney Andrew Brown, who also represents her. "We're certainly not aware of any factual basis for those allegations."

• • •

Stragaj's account conflicts with the state's evidence against him.

His DNA was on the doctor's shirt collar, court records state.

Stragaj said he had no explanation for that. But he did say this: two days before the slaying, Rebecca Schwartz asked him to fix the clothing rod in the couple's closet. Stragaj said he removed the clothes himself, potentially transferring his DNA onto the doctor's clothes.

He provided an alibi, which was not disclosed in court records. But his arrest warrant said that alibi did not match data from cellphone towers, which was used to track his movements.

Hours after Rebecca Schwartz's visit on May 28, 2014, the day of the slaying, Stragaj and his wife had dinner for his birthday. The wife told police that her husband "seemed normal and nothing appeared out of the ordinary," according to court records.

And Stragaj could also not explain to 48 Hours why, as the wrongful death suit stated, he called Rebecca Schwartz at least five times on the day the doctor was found dead.

"You add all that up," said 48 Hours reporter Peter Van Sant, "and you got yourself a murder suspect."

"I know," Stragaj said. "That's why I'm here."

Contact Laura C. Morel at lmorel@tampabay.com. Follow @lauracmorel.