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Handyman pleads guilty to lesser charge in 2014 murder of Tarpon Springs doctor

Anton Stragaj was facing first-degree murder in the death of Dr. Steven Schwartz. On Thursday, he pleaded guilty to a much lesser charge, leaving the homicide investigation once again up in the air.
Anton Stragaj, 44, pleaded guilty Thursday to a charge of accessory after the fact in the 2014 death of a Tarpon Springs doctor. Above, Stragaj is brought into a Clearwater courtroom for a hearing in January 2020.
Anton Stragaj, 44, pleaded guilty Thursday to a charge of accessory after the fact in the 2014 death of a Tarpon Springs doctor. Above, Stragaj is brought into a Clearwater courtroom for a hearing in January 2020. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Aug. 5

The man police arrested in the 2014 slaying of a Tarpon Springs doctor pleaded guilty Thursday — but not to murder.

Anton Stragaj, 44, pleaded guilty to one count of accessory after the fact and was sentenced to eight years in prison, a significant departure from the first-degree murder charge he was arrested for that carried a life sentence if convicted.

With almost seven years of credit for time served, he could be released as early as next summer. He will then be deported back to his home country of Albania, said his attorney, John Nohlgren of the Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender’s Office.

“My goal this whole time was to get to the right result for the case,” Nohlgren said, “and in my opinion we got there.”

That means the investigation into who shot and stabbed 74-year-old Dr. Steven Patlin Schwartz to death more than seven years ago remains open. A Tarpon Springs police sergeant confirmed the agency is still investigating the homicide and declined to comment on Stragaj’s plea. The Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney’s Office will continue working with police should their investigation point to someone else, an assistant prosecutor said Thursday.

Steven Schwartz
Steven Schwartz

“Should the police discover evidence or bring us evidence that someone else was involved in this particular case, and we feel there’s sufficient evidence to move forward with it, we’ll bring it to a grand jury,” Assistant State Attorney Doug Ellis said.

Stragaj’s case was set to go to trial last year but was delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic. Prosecutors agreed to the deal after reviewing the facts of the case, although Ellis declined to go into specifics, citing the open police investigation. Stragaj was offered a similar deal in 2019 but rejected it because it would have required him to submit to a polygraph test. Thursday’s deal included no such provision because, Ellis said, Stragaj had given a sworn deposition in October for a lawsuit stemming from Schwartz’s death.

Prosecutor Rene Marie Bauer also told Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Philip Federico on Thursday that family members had no objection to the deal, which an attorney for the family confirmed. Two of the doctor’s brothers were present at the hearing.

“This is obviously a first step, but it’s not complete justice yet,” said their attorney, Wil Florin. “The Schwartz family is looking for justice from everyone that was involved in any fashion with the murder of Dr. Schwartz, and at the present time, this plea does not address everyone who was involved in his murder.”

Both Stragaj, who worked as the doctor’s handyman, and Schwartz’s family members believe that the doctor’s widow, Rebecca Schwartz, played a major role in his death.

In 2016, Schwartz’s adult children filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Rebecca Schwartz and Stragaj, claiming they conspired to kill the doctor. Their stepmother also embezzled money and coerced her husband into changing his will to benefit her more than his children, according to the lawsuit. She has denied the claims, and the lawsuit is ongoing.

Then, a couple months later, Stragaj told CBS News’ 48 Hours that he believes Rebecca Schwartz set him up. She has never been charged in his death, and her attorney said at the time all the evidence pointed to Stragaj as the “sole killer.”

Related: Man charged in slaying of Tarpon Springs doctor blames victim's wife in TV interview

That attorney, Denis deVlaming, said Thursday he was baffled by the plea deal and felt prosecutors should have taken the case to trial.

“I am shocked, and you can quote me on that,” deVlaming said. “For the life of me, I don’t understand the sentence, and I don’t understand the deal.”

Police gave this account of the day Steven Schwartz’s body was found:

On May 28, 2014, Rebecca Schwartz arrived home at the couple’s home on 1310 Belcher Drive, on the Anclote River. She noticed the house was in disarray; several drawers in the bedroom were open, and money, jewelry and watches were missing. She called police, and a dispatcher told her to wait outside for officers to arrive. Police dogs found the doctor’s body in the garage.

Related: Tarpon Springs doctor is found slain at home

The investigation went on for almost a year with no arrests. Then, in April 2015, police arrested Stragaj. Detectives had found his DNA on Steven Schwartz’s shirt, and cellphone records didn’t corroborate his alibi. (Nohlgren said Thursday there was a two-hour period that morning in which Stragaj didn’t call or text anyone.)

In the 48 Hours interview, Stragaj gave a different version of events:

He woke up that morning — his birthday — and was smoking a cigarette outside his Palm Harbor home when Rebecca Schwartz drove up. She said she had argued with her husband and forgot her purse and asked Stragaj if he could pick it up. She waited at her son’s house while Stragaj went to the mansion.

He walked in through the garage and saw the doctor’s body. He thought about calling police but had several doubts. He had a work visa and was hoping to get a green card, and immigration officials had told him to stay out of trouble. He also felt he had been set up and would be arrested, jeopardizing his house, family and financial stability he’d spent years building.

So he picked up Rebecca’s Schwartz’s bag, which had a knife and jewelry in it, and left. He confronted the widow, who he said told him: You know why I did it. Stragaj said he didn’t know her motive.

“I’m not guilty of murder. I’m guilty for not calling the cops,” he told the TV show. “I hope the truth will come out.”

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)]