Stanley Cohen: A Miami Fairy Tale Gone Wrong
It started out like any good Miami love story: Boy meets girl. Girl is half boy’s age. Boy has money. Girl is attractive. Boy dumps older fiancée for girl. Girl gets hooked on cocaine. Boy cheats on girl. And while such a tale is rather nondescript in the shallowness that is love on Biscayne Bay, it typically does not end in a high profile trial complete with celebrities, hitmen, and crooked cops. But this was the story of poor Stanley Cohen and the cast of characters that may or may not have done him in.
STRIKING IT RICH AT THE RIGHT TIME
Stanley Cohen moved to Miami from Long Island as a small child, and by the mid-sixties was running his own self-monogrammed construction company, SAC construction. His timing was impeccable, as just as his company was getting off the ground, the South Florida population boom began, and within a short amount of time he was a very wealthy man. With this wealth came multiple divorces, and eventually he found himself single in 1974.
Enter Joyce Lemay, a young single mother who had just moved to Miami that year and was working as a secretary at SAC. Joyce had grown up in and out of foster homes as a child, and married and had children very young. She was all of 24 years old, and the 40 year-old Cohen was smitten when he walked in to see her working in his office. So much so that he dumped his current fiancée and married young Joyce on December 5, 1974.
FAIRY TALE GONE BAD
But, as was expected, the South Florida fairy tale did not last long. As young women thrust into the high-end lifestyle of rich, older men tend to do, Joyce began to become slightly more appreciative of the finer things in life. She vacationed around the world with her husband, and sometimes without. She partied until all hours in clubs like the Champagne Room, and, since it was Miami in the 1980’s, she dabbled in cocaine. About once every 15 minutes.
Their lifestyle was that of any of the privileged down here at the time: Lots of drugs, lots of parties and endless conspicuous consumption. During the marriage, Joyce had gone to interior design school and she spared no expense in furnishing the couple’s Coconut Grove mansion. He bought a 650-acre ranch in Steamboat Springs, Colo., so they would have a place to ski. In Steamboat as well, Joyce was the constant party girl, becoming friends with the city’s elite including country star Tanya Tucker.
But as Joyce’s partying raged on, her marriage declined. She became perpetually unhappy and soon Stanley turned to an ex-girlfriend for love. While this enraged Joyce, she wanted out of the marriage for a variety of reasons, telling several friends that she just wished there was a way Stanley could end up dead. You see, Joyce had gotten used to her fast-lane lifestyle and did not particularly feel like going back to the welfare-line-and-clerical-jobs existence she had suffered through before 1974. And if she divorced him, well, she got nothing.
JOYCE GETS HER WISH
Around 5 a.m. on the morning of March 7, 1986, Joyce Cohen called 911 screaming about her husband having been shot. Paramedics arrived at their Coconut Grove home, finding three bullets in Cohen’s head and a fourth having grazed his scalp. Joyce said she had seen two men creeping around the house near the time of the murder. Strangely, her burglar alarm had been shut off and her guard dog had been locked in a back room with Mrs. Cohen. Investigators were slightly suspicious.
Joyce was taken to Miami police headquarters for questioning about the incident. When asked about the couple’s sex life, she realized she was then a suspect and got a lawyer. She returned to her home and kicked all the crime scene investigators out, forcing them to go back and get a search warrant. This bought her about eight hours.
While outside, police found a .38-caliber revolver sitting in some plants, wiped clean of prints and sporting some pieces of tissue in the trigger mechanism. Once they finally got inside the house, police found a tissue in the garbage which had mucus membrane and gun powder on it. Again, signs were beginning to point to Joyce.
Her story had more holes in it that her late husband’s head. She had called 911 after 5, but one witness claimed to have heard gunshots around 3. Because Joyce had kept police waiting outside her home, they were unable to accurately find the time of death. Joyce had powder residue on her hands, and more powder on the tissue she had used. And, while she claimed that the break-in had been some sort of robbery, nothing was overturned or missing. Odd, since the couple kept large amounts of cocaine and cash lying around the house.
The police still did not feel they had enough evidence to arrest Joyce Cohen. But a few days after Stanley Cohen’s murder, Broward police arrested a man name Frank Zuccarello for a series of home invasions in Dade and Broward counties. Zuccarello was the head of a large gang of home invaders, and was the first to be arrested. Desperate to avoid a long prison term, he started to sing.
In addition to providing information about a couple of other murders, Zuccarello told police that Joyce Cohen had hired him and two other men to kill Stanley. She had met them repeatedly, he told police, giving them a layout to the house, Stanley’s gun, and her assurance that the alarm and guard dog would be neutralized during the “invasion.” For their troubles they were to receive about $150,000 worth of cocaine.
THE BAD GUYS GET CAUGHT
With the testimony of the home invasion leader and the other physical evidence, police finally felt they had enough to charge Joyce Cohen. They flew to Chesapeake, Va., where she was living in a trailer park with her new husband, and arrested her for her late husband’s murder. Despite her now meager lifestyle (Stanley’s children had successfully gotten an injunction against Joyce getting any money, which had only amounted to $2 million anyway) she still maintained the services of famed Miami defense attorney Alan Ross.
Zuccarello’s alleged accomplices, Thomas Joslin and Anthony Caracciolo, were not as quick to admit as their cohort. Both men insisted they had nothing to do with the murder, but investigators continued to try and squeeze information out of them. Eventually, facing guaranteed long prison terms for the home invasions they too had been charged with, the men reluctantly pled no contest to the second degree murder charges. Caracciolo received 40 years in prison (since he was the alleged trigger man) and Joslin got 30.
But the men maintained their innocence.
After two and a half years of working on the case, Joyce Cohen’s murder trial began in October of 1989. Witness after witness came to the stand, friends, business associated, and even Tanya Tucker, telling of how Joyce had been hooked on cocaine and wanted out of her marriage. But the most damning was the testimony of home-invader-turned-star-witness Frank Zuccarello.
He told the jury of meeting with Joyce Cohen, of planning to commit the murder, of going into the house with Joslin and Caracciolo and watching the latter man pull the trigger. He said that the woman had wanted her husband dead, and he and his men had made it happen.
Six weeks after the trial began, Joyce Cohen was found guilty of first-degree murder and received life in prison.
CONVICTED BY A LIAR
But, as always seems to be the case in the South Florida criminal justice system, the story hardly stops there. In 1993, a couple of things happened that cast serious doubt on the official story of the murder of Stanley Cohen.
First, a book titled “In the Fast Lane, a True Storey of Murder in Miami” came out, written by attorney Carol Soret Cope. In it, she revealed that star-witness Zuccarello failed three separate lie detector tests during his interrogation about the Cohen murder, and changed his story several times. First he had been in the room, then he had been outside, then he had been creeping up the stairs. His story was in perpetual flux, and new doubts were arising in the case.
As a follow-up, WPLG reporter Gail Bright found out in an off-the record interview with lead detective Jon Spear that he felt that Joslin and Caracciolo might not be guilty. Essentially, he said police knew Joyce had committed the crime but didn’t have enough evidence to convict her. The only way they could bring her in was in conjunction with Zuccarello’s story, which was, as the book had implicated, far from credible.
Because polygraphs are not admissible in court, neither Zuccarello’s failing exams or the two hitmen’s inconclusive ones were allowed in. But in a 1998 Miami New Times article, extensive interviews with Spear, Joslin and Caracciolo indicate that police may have helped Zuccarello along in order to get the real villain, Joyce Cohen.
NEW TRIALS ABOUND
Alan Ross, of course, is also insisting that his client should get a new trial. Even though throwing out Zuccarello’s testimony would be most beneficial to the two hitmen, it may also open things up for Joyce. Dade County criminologist Gopinath Rao said the amount of powder residue on Joyce’s hands was consistent with someone who was near a gun being fired, but not necessarily that of someone who fired the gun herself. This of course, means that if there were not hitmen in the room, and she didn’t shoot Stanley, then she must be innocent. Or such is the logic of a defense attorney.
As it stands today, everybody is trying to get a new deal, but nobody has walked outside of a correctional facility. Everyone, that is, except Frank Zuccarello, who took a plea bargain and may have sent at least two “innocent” men to prison. While everyone else associated with the home-invasion gang has done their time by now, Joslin and Caracciolo still sit behind bars. As does Joyce Cohen, the unfortunate underside of a Miami fairy tale gone horribly, horribly predictable.
If you enjoyed this article, read more Miami true crime stories and shocking event written by Matt Meltzer.
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"Stanley Cohen: A Miami Fairy Tale Gone Wrong"