GREENVILLE, SOUTH CAROLINA —Lawrence Joseph Florentine, 56, of Rock Hill, pleaded guilty in federal court to interstate domestic violence resulting in death, use of a firearm during a crime of violence to cause death, obstruction of justice, and use of fire during the commission of a felony.
Evidence obtained in the investigation revealed that Florentine married Nicole Zahnd Florentine in 2018. Video and audio recordings and the personal observations of Nicole’s family show the relationship was volatile. Beginning in December 2019, law enforcement in York County, where the couple resided, responded to multiple calls made by Nicole for emergency assistance. She reported that Florentine physically abused her and threatened to kill her, burn her, and bury her.
Florentine was arrested twice on domestic violence charges – one of which was dismissed, at least in part, at Nicole’s request before her death. On May 23, 2020, the couple’s Rock Hill home was destroyed by fire. Text messages and photographs Florentine sent to Nicole during the fire show that he intentionally burned her belongings and intentionally set the property on fire. Florentine is charged with arson in state court in connection with the fire.
An investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation determined that Nicole and Florentine were traveling by car together in North and South Carolina at least from June 2 to on or around June 11, 2020. Nicole and Florentine were last known to be together in Piedmont, South Carolina, from June 7 to on or about June 10, 2020. No calls to police or for emergency assistance were made by Florentine during this time.
Before the road trip, Nicole regularly communicated with her grandmother. When her grandmother stopped hearing from Nicole, she filed a missing person report.
On June 13, 2020, a groundskeeper for Hill Cemetery in Fredonia, Kentucky, discovered what appeared to him to be a makeshift grave. Officers with the Caldwell County Sheriff’s Office and the Kentucky State Police responded and recovered a partially charred female body from the shallow grave. A gas can was recovered from behind a tree near the burial site. No identification, cell phone, or other personal belongings were found. An autopsy identified the body as that of Nicole, that the manner of death was homicide, and the cause of death was a .22 caliber bullet wound to the head.
Eyewitnesses reported seeing a car matching the description of Florentine’s car around the cemetery before the body was discovered on June 13. A local hardware store clerk identified sale transactions on June 11, 2020, for a shovel and a gas can identical to the can found at the cemetery by a customer who matched Florentine’s description. Surveillance camera footage from a nearby gas station shows Florentine filling the gas can a short time later. Gasoline is commonly used as a fire accelerant.
No firearm was found; however, police recovered a lighter and .22 caliber cartridges in the center console and located Nicole’s blood on the rear exterior of Florentine’s abandoned car.
Sometime after June 11, 2020, Florentine fled Kentucky and arrived in Denver, Colorado. On June 23, 2020, he surrendered to the Denver Police.
This plea comes during Domestic Violence Awareness Month (DVAM). Although domestic violence is primarily a matter of state and local jurisdiction, federal laws provide tools for prosecuting domestic violence offenders in certain situations involving firearms and interstate travel or activity. U.S. Attorney Adair F. Boroughs joins the U.S. Department of Justice in commemorating DVAM, paying tribute to victims and survivors, and saluting the dedication of advocates, service providers, justice professionals, law enforcement officers, and first responders who tirelessly work in support of survivors. The US Attorney’s Office encourages anyone experiencing domestic violence to reach out for help. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is 1-800-799-7233.
“Domestic violence affects our community in a deep and enduring way,” said U.S. Attorney Boroughs. “And we who serve as federal prosecutors for South Carolina have a duty to use all the tools at our disposal—and leverage our partnerships with local law enforcement and prosecutors—to ensure victims have a viable path to safety and justice. May we honor Nicole’s memory as we work to address and prevent future domestic violence.”
Florentine faces a maximum penalty of life in federal prison. He also faces a fine of up to $250,000, restitution, and eight years of supervision to follow the term of imprisonment. United States District Judge Donald C. Coggins accepted the guilty plea and will sentence Florentine after receiving and reviewing a sentencing report prepared by the United States Probation Office.
The case was investigated by the Kentucky State Police, Caldwell County Sheriff’s Office, Greenville County Sheriff’s Office, York County Sheriff’s Office, Rock Hill Police Department, South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Leesa Washington and Benjamin Garner are prosecuting the case.
Veronica Hill, Public Affairs Specialist, firstname.lastname@example.org, (803) 929-3000