Widow of Mario Scramuzza pleads guilty to plotting husband’s death

Gina Scramuzza
Gina Scramuzza

Clad in a striped jail jumpsuit and weeping quietly, a shackled Gina Scramuzza pleaded guilty Wednesday to first-degree murder for orchestrating the 2009 death of her husband by hiring three men who ambushed and then strangled him in their home.

Immediately after Scramuzza entered her plea, St. Tammany District Judge August J. Hand sentenced her to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Prosecutors originally had planned to seek the death penalty, but as part of the plea deal took death off the table, said Marion Farmer, Scramuzza’s attorney.

Scramuzza, 45, was the third of four defendants to either plead guilty or be convicted in connection with the case. She was accused of hiring three men — Carlos Rodriguez, Luis Starlyn Hernandez Rodriguez and Erly Yamil Montoya-Matute — to kill her husband, 48-year-old Mario Scramuzza Jr.. Each of the accused was charged with first-degree murder and the state initially intended to seek the death penalty in each case. Last year, Luis Rodriguez was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Montoya-Matute pleaded guilty to manslaughter and armed robbery in September and has yet to be formally sentenced. Carlos Rodriguez remains to be tried.

The men are accused of lying in wait for Mario Scramuzza at his house. After he arrived they tied him up and beat him before choking him to death.

Gina Scramuzza did not speak during Wednesday’s hearing except to answer the judge’s questions with a whispered “yes, sir” or “no, sir.” She said she had not been coerced in any way and that by pleading guilty, she understood that she was waiving her right to a trial and accepting life in prison.

She also acknowledged that by pleading guilty, she was admitting her role in her husband’s death.

Farmer said the decision to plead guilty had not been an easy one for Scramuzza. But the evidence against her was so overwhelming that the chances of a jury reducing her charge to manslaughter were virtually nil, he said. Ultimately, the decision was made Tuesday after a series of discussions with Bruce Dearing, the assistant district attorney prosecuting the case, Farmer said. The key was getting prosecutors to remove the death penalty, he said.

David Tate, a family friend of Mario Scramuzza’s family, offered the only victim impact statement.

“I want her to know and think about this every day,” he said. “We are suffering too.”

Tate mentioned the couple’s teenage son, saying that Mario’s family hoped to give the boy a better life.

“This never should have happened,” Tate said, his voice breaking.

During Tate’s speech, Mario Scramuzza’s sister, Valerie Dirks, sobbed. When the hearing ended, St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain enveloped Dirks in a hug.

“I just told her we loved her and we were here for her,” Strain said afterward.

Afterward, Dirks said the family did not yet have full closure.

“It’s a piece of the book that is closed,” she said. “There are more chapters to go.”

Dirks also said she didn’t believe that Gina Scramuzza’s courtroom tears were signs of true remorse and called the few minutes in court Wednesday morning the worst she had to sit through. Dirks also praised the work of the Sheriff’s Office and the district attorney for guiding them through the case.

Carlos Rodriguez, who investigators accused of tying up and then strangling Dirks’ brother as he was held down by another man, is due in court next month.

Mario Scramuzza was a well-liked emergency medical technician in St. Tammany Fire District No. 3 in Lacombe, said Patrick Sicard, a district assistant chief. Gina Scramuzza’s plea would give Mario’s former coworkers some closure after a “long and drawn-out” process.

Sicard said a memorial to Scramuzza still stands in the district’s administrative offices.