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Man accused in 2014 killing of doctor won’t face trial until June

The judge delayed the case to give more time to Anton Stragaj’s public defenders, who until Wednesday thought he might hire private lawyers.
Anton Stragaj is led into a Clearwater courtroom for a hearing Friday Stragaj, 42, is charged with first-degree murder in the 2014 killing of a Tarpon Springs doctor. [CHRIS URSO  |  Times]
Anton Stragaj is led into a Clearwater courtroom for a hearing Friday Stragaj, 42, is charged with first-degree murder in the 2014 killing of a Tarpon Springs doctor. [CHRIS URSO | Times]
Published Jan. 10
Updated Jan. 10

LARGO — A man accused in the 2014 killing of a Tarpon Springs doctor was scheduled to go to trial next month. But now, Anton Stragaj, 42, charged with first-degree murder in the death of nephrologist Dr. Steven Patlin Schwartz, won’t stand trial until June.

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Philip Federico delayed the case Friday to give more time to Stragaj’s public defenders.

That’s because until Wednesday, it was unclear who would try the case. Stragaj had hoped to secure enough money from his family in Albania to hire private lawyers, but the money never came, leaving him with no choice but to move toward trial with his public attorneys.

Related: RELATED: Accused of murder, facing a trial with lawyers he says he doesn’t want

Stragaj has been in jail without bail since his arrest in 2015.

Investigators say Stragaj, who worked as a handyman for Schwartz, shot and stabbed the doctor. If convicted, he will be automatically sentenced to a lifetime in prison.

He has maintained his innocence, instead pointing a finger at Schwartz’s wife, Rebecca Schwartz. She has denied any involvement in her husband’s death.

Stragaj wanted private lawyers after he felt “betrayed” by his public defenders during fruitless plea deal negotiations last year, he wrote in an August letter to the judge.

The relationship between Stragaj and his lawyers soured after he offered to plead guilty to accessory to murder and accept an eight year prison sentence. With time served in county jail and credit for good behavior, he likely could have been eligible for release within two years. Prosecutors were willing to accept that deal, but required Stragaj to submit to a polygraph test so they could learn more about what happened to Schwartz six years ago.

Stragaj rejected the polygraph, tanking the deal. He blamed his lawyer.

Friday the judge asked Stragaj if he is cooperating with his public defenders. Stragaj said one of his lawyers, John Nohlgren, didn’t believe his version of events.

“I tried to cooperate with them until he tried to sell me out," Stragaj told the judge. "I’m going to sit next to him on the chair, so I’ve got no choice. But as far as trusting him and working with him, I’m not.”

Anton Stragaj, right, speaks during a hearing in his first-degree murder case on Friday before Pinellas-Pasco Judge Philip Federico. [CHRIS URSO | Times]

Federico told Stragaj he doesn’t have to trust him, but working with him would be to his own benefit.

“If they tell you it’s a crazy story, all they’re telling you is what they think a jury is going to think about it," the judge said. “Whether they believe you or not isn’t going to be the ultimate question. It’s whether 12 people agree or not.”

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Philip Federico listens as Anton Stragaj, charged with first-degree murder in the 2014 killing of a Tarpon Springs doctor, discusses his displeasure with his public defenders. [CHRIS URSO | Times]

Stragaj returns to court in February for another pretrial hearing.

CBS News’ 48 Hours aired an episode about the case.

In a strange twist, Schwartz was convicted of killing a dentist in New Mexico during a robbery in 1961. He was granted parole in 1971 and pardoned in 1977. He then went to medical school in Italy before opening his own practice in Dunedin.

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