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Wife’s plea bargain angers friends, family of slain ex-cop

The prosecutors and judge called the plea bargain a “fair and just” decision.

But an audience teeming with former police officers said it wasn’t even close.

Last year, Carole LaRossa was charged with murder in the stabbing death of her estranged husband James. In an emotional hearing Friday that drew onlookers to the Mecklenburg County Courthouse from three distant states, LaRossa pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter.

Originally facing life imprisonment, she was sentenced to between 38 and 58 months.

In the end, prosecutors said they could not prove that the 50-year-old Waxhaw resident and New York transplant had not acted in self-defense when she stabbed her husband to death in April 2012.

Carole LaRossa said she feared for her life that day, that she had been sexually assaulted and that James LaRossa had cut her breasts with a knife.

“This is where the evidence has led us,” said Bill Stetzer, head of the homicide team for the Mecklenburg County District Attorney’s Office. “We believe we convicted her of the crime she was guilty of.”

Yet the prosecutor’s decision to allow Carole LaRossa to plead to a lesser crime outraged the victim’s family and supporters. They say the violence LaRossa displayed undermines her claims of self-defense.

They also resented how James LaRossa was presented in court by both sides.

“When the district attorney got up to speak, you would have thought he was representing her, for godsakes,” said John Sabato, a longtime friend of the couple. “It was like she was the victim and he was the defendant.”

“Jimmy” LaRossa was a veteran New York City police officer. After retiring to Charlotte in 2008, he volunteered with the “Charlotte 10-13” club – the numbers are code in New York precincts for an officer in danger or needing help.

Indeed, a wide blue line of former New York cops filled the courtroom of Superior Court Judge Robert Bell on Friday. Many wore buttons with the victim’s photo.

Yet once the hearing began, they heard LaRossa described as an agent of violence in a volatile marriage. Assistant District Attorney David Kelly said LaRossa also had been bounced from a pain-treatment program after testing positive for cocaine.

As the defense team of David Rudolph and Sonya Pfeiffer introduced more details of Jimmy LaRossa’s alleged violent outbursts, a group of Mecklenburg deputies lead a muttering and visibly angry Sabato from the courtroom. He slammed the door to the chambers as he left.

After the hearing, he said a deputy had overheard his comment on how his friend and NYC police partner was being portrayed.

“This is horse----,” he had said.

A shattered glass

According to attorneys on both sides, the LaRossa killing started with a dog.

Carole LaRossa claims she went to her ex-husband’s south Charlotte apartment to pick up dog food because she had agreed to watch her husband’s pet while he played golf the next day.

During the visit, she said she told LaRossa he had to move the rest of his belongings out of the Waxhaw house they once shared.

The retired police officer, who had been drinking, grew angry and started jabbing her breasts with a knife.

Carole said she broke a wine glass over Jimmy’s head, and he dropped the knife. She said she picked up the knife and stabbed him twice in the chest. Kelly, the prosecutor, said either one of those wounds could have been fatal.

When Jimmy fell to the ground, Carole kept stabbing him. In all, investigators counted 19 wounds.

Prosecutors said that while Carol LaRossa had used “excessive force,” the evidence they gathered could not disprove her claims of self-defense.

They offered the plea bargain in January.

LaRossa’s relatives and friends responded by sending dozens of letters to Judge Bell, insisting that manslaughter was too lenient and that the prosecutors had ignored important evidence.

For Friday’s hearing, they traveled from as far away as New York, New Jersey and Texas to be in Courtroom 5370. Their slogan: “Remember Jimmy.” Their hope: Persuade the judge to reject the plea bargain and force prosecutors to take the murder charge to trial.

Before the hearing, Carole LaRossa sat alone between her lawyers and a few family members. She did not speak.

Lauren Cox, Jimmy LaRossa’s niece and godchild, read an emotional statement to the judge. The daughter of a NYPD officer, Cox said the killing had ripped a family apart.

“I want my Aunt Carole to know,” she said through sobs, “... her time on earth will one day come to an end.

“When that day comes, my uncle Jimmy will be standing at the Golden Gates to greet her, as God turns her away.”

A fresh start

Before sentencing, the judge spoke to the victim’s family and friends. He told them because of their letters, he had taken the unusual step before the hearing of meeting with attorneys for both sides to examine the evidence.

He said the accounts he had received about Jimmy LaRossa “spoke volumes” about the person he had been.

Still, he said, the law must be based on facts and not emotion. “This resolution is appropriate,” he told them.

Defense attorney David Rudolph had sounded a similar theme in court.

“This is a tragedy for everyone,” he said. “The truth has been found to be somewhere within the extremes of what people believe. No one is happy here.”

After sentencing, the family and former police officers filed into the hallway. Some were already teary-eyed. Others grumbled that 15 uniformed deputies were needed to control a room filled with former cops.

Cox said she found Bell’s words contradictory. If her uncle had the qualities cited by the judge, “Why do you believe he was a big enough monster to abuse his wife?”

Reached later at his Waxhaw home, Sabato said he “had lost two friends.”

He had known the LaRossas since the late 1980s, when he and Jimmy became partners on the NYPD. In the 12 years they worked together, he said, he never saw LaRossa behave like what he heard in the courtroom.

When Sabato moved to the Charlotte area in 2007, he suggested his friends follow.

A year later, the LaRossas bought a home nearby.

They were looking, Sabato said, for a fresh start.

Researcher Marion Paynter contributed.

Gordon: 704-358-5095
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