Living under the shadow of murder
It’s been nearly 20 years since a pack of wayward friends stabbed Bobby Kent in the neck and gut, beat him with a baseball bat and lead pipe, slit his throat and left the 20-year-old to die in a Weston canal.
The given motive: Bobby Kent was a bully.
One of his seven convicted killers, Alice Willis, now37, revisited a Broward County courtroom Thursday on an alleged probation violation. Her reappearance carries friends, family and participants back to the summer of 1993, when the county was rocked by one of the most gruesome spectacles of wasted suburban youth in memory.
Three of Kent’s killers are serving life sentences.
Willis and three others have regained freedom.
Outside prison, they struggle to patch up their lives. All are now parents. Three live out of state. One says he’s a devoted single father who has made peace with his past. Another, now a certified optician, says that while she’s living the American dream, she moves under a constant cloud: the fear of getting in trouble or exposed for who she once was.
“There is away to become a normal person and live a normal life, there is,” said Lisa Connelly, who served 11 years for her role in the murder. “You have to fight for it, though.”
Kent’s sister in Cooper City says she doesn’t understand it.
“It disgusts me that they have freedom after killing someone,” said Laila Kent, 41. “They’re horrible people, and they should be ashamed of what they did. They don’t even deserve to be alive.”
The brutal killing spawned the 2001movie “Bully,” whichwas filmed at least in part in Broward County.
Predicated on Bobby Kent’s domineering mistreatment of his best friend, Marty Puccio, the plot to end Kent’s life was hatched two days before the July 15, 1993, murder.
Kent and Puccio had been inseparable since third grade at Hollywood Elementary. They lived five houses apart in Hollywood Hills.
At trial, Puccio testified that he grew to harbor a daily dreadful fear of his best friend. Kent would beat him up, he said, for simply running out of gas or getting a flat tire, sicced his Doberman Pinscher on him, monopolized his time and threatened him with a lead pipe when Puccio said he no longer wanted to be friends.
Kent’s alleged abuse of others, including Willis, an ex-girlfriend, was a common theme throughout the trials.
Kent frequently hit Willis and engaged in “impulsive and bizarre” sexual behavior, forcing her to watch homosexual pornography that he and Puccio had produced— slapping her upside the head if she looked away, ridiculing her if she watched too intently, Willis’ defense attorney, Mike Dutko, said at trial.
Known at the time as “Ali,” Willis helped ignite the murder plot, untruthfully claiming that Kent had raped her. She helped lure him to the death scene.
Then19 and a mother, Willis was convicted of second-degree murder. Her 40-year sentence was reduced to 17 on appeal, to be followed by 40 years’ probation. She earned a high school diploma in prison.
Freed in September 2001, Willis is now a stayat-home mother living in Melbourne, Fla.
“She is living a very low-key existence with her husband and children,” Dutko, the attorney, said Thursday. “She’s making every effort to be a solid, productive member of society.”
Shewas arrestedMonday for not telling her probation officer that she had received several traffic citations andwas accused of— but not arrested for— shoplifting in 2009. On Thursday, a judge dismissed the probation related warrant.
“She’s a success story,” Dutko said. “She’s easy to supervise. She’s courteous. Whatever lessons her punishment was supposed to instill have clearly been learned.”
Defendant Derek Dzvirko, now39 and living in Missouri, says he doesn’t
“There is a way to become a normal person and live a normal life.”
Lisa Connelly, who served 11 years in Bobby Kent’s killing “It disgusts me that they have freedom after killing someone.”
Laila Kent, Bobby Kent’s sister
look back. Hewas three months away from his 20th birthday when he guided detectives to Kent’s mutilated body off South Post Road in Weston.
He pleaded guilty, received an 11-year prison sentence andwas released in October1999.
“Honestly and truthfully, I’ve made peace with this a long time ago,” Dzvirko said Wednesday. “I don’t have bad dreams about it, I don’t think about it, I don’t dwell on it, I don’t ponder it. I’ve moved on.”
Dzvirko said he gave up truck driving when he took custody of his daughter, and for the last four years she has been his focus.
“I’m trying to provide the best life possible for my kid,” he said.
At trial, prosecutors accused Puccio’s girlfriend, Lisa Connelly, of orchestrating the murder and persuading Puccio to turn on his tormentor. She gave birth to Puccio’s child in jail.
Connelly had her 40-year prison sentence reduced to 22 years and was released in February 2004.
Now38, Connelly lives in Pennsylvania, where she says she enjoys a hardfought life as a certified optician with a cleaning business on the side. She’s married and has a son, 6.
Her daughter with Puccio, now19, has graduated from high school, lives on her own in another state and is preparing for college, Connelly said.
“Every door that I ever knocked on was shut in my face because ofmy past,” Connelly said. “I had towork from the bottom, but I’ve eventually made it to where I can make a decent living and support my kids without having to live on minimumwage, andwe can live a normal life here.”
But there is always the cloud.
“I don’t live my life to the fullest, because I’m scared of everything,” she said. “I’m extremely scared to get in trouble.”
Connelly said jobs have been hard to come by. She has omitted her criminal past from applications only to get found out, and fired on the spot.
Prosecutor Tim Donnelly said he maintains contact with Kent’s parents with yearly Christmas card exchanges.
He also sometimes hears from the defendants and their families. The last word of Heather Swallers, 18 at the time of the slaying, was a card fromher mother a few years ago with pictures of Swallers’ young children, “little towheads,” he said.
Swallers got seven years for her guilty plea andwas freed in February 1998. She could not be reached for comment. She turned 38 on May 4 and nowlives in Georgia.
Puccio, who gutted his best friend with a diving knife, is now40. His death sentence was reduced to life. He is imprisoned in Arcadia and has reportedly gone into jail ministry.
Donald Semenec, who turned 18 on the day of the killing andwas the first to stab Kent, is now37. He is serving a life term in Clermont. While in prison, he has received 20 infractions for offenses, including drug and alcohol use, disorderly conduct, riot participation, fighting and possessing a weapon.
Derek Kaufman, who delivered the final blow with a baseball bat, turned 40Wednesday. He is serving his life term in a state prison southeast of Tampa. Over the years, he has amassed18 prison infractions including drug use, possession of contraband, lying and disobeying orders.
Donnelly, the prosecutor, said the misdirected defendants at the time of themurder seemingly “didn’t have any hope.”
“I don’t knowhow prison affected them,” he said. “It’s sad that three of the boys are going to die in prison. But then you go, it’s 20 years and Bobby Kent is dead every day.”
Bobby Kent was beaten, slashed and left to die in aWeston canal on July 15, 1993.
Lisa Connelly, left, is comforted by her attorney, Kayo Morgan, in court in 1995. Now 38, Connelly lives in Pennsylvania, where she is a certified optician.
During a 1993 arraignment, seven people appearedin court. In front row: Donald Semenec, left, and Derek Dzvirko. In back row, from left, Marty Puccio, Derek Kaufman, Heather Swallers, Lisa Connelly and AliceWillis.
AliceWillis revisits a Broward courtroom on Tuesday on an alleged probation violation. On Thursday, a judge dismissed the probation-related warrant.
Farah and Fred Kent, at right, parents of murder victim Bobby Kent, above, show their relief with the life sentence given to Donald Semenec in 1995.
Marty Puccio, above, gets a kiss from his mother, Veronica, during courtroom proceedings in 1994.