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Long Beach woman charged with murder and arson in deadly house fire

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A Long Beach woman was arrested on murder and arson charges on Sept. 20 in connection to a fatal house fire last year.

After a nearly 10-month investigation, Nassau County police charged 54-year-old Jennifer Gross with second-degree murder and second-degree arson for the deadly blaze in November 2018 that killed 75-year-old James M. Coppola.

According to police, Coppola was found dead in the blaze at 300 Centre Island Drive, a single-family home. The Nov. 20, 2018 fire occurred just after 10 p.m. 

Nassau County Police Department’s homicide detectives and the county fire marshal were investigating the incident and had long suspected arson due to the intensity of the blaze, which was extinguished with the help of multiple fire departments.

Gross, of Lindell Boulevard, was arraigned last Saturday in First District Court in Hempstead and pleaded not guilty. She told reporters "Two side to every story, the truth will come out in court," according to video from multiple news outlets. Her attorney, Jeff Groder, did not immediately return a request for comment.

Police said the victim was a resident of both Centre Island and Howard Beach.

Gross had been married to former Nassau County District Court Judge David Gross, who was sentenced to 33 months in prison in 2007 for conspiring to launder almost $400,000 in proceeds from stolen jewelry, according to the New York Times. They have two children together.

According to Newsday, last year’s fire took firefighters hours to extinguish. Det. Lt. Stephen Fitzpatrick, commanding officer of the Nassau County Police Department’s homicide squad, said that some circumstances of the case raised red flags, including how the source of the fire was discovered near the center of the home.

“We knew that the house was lit up on fire intentionally,” he said. “There was an accelerant used — the autopsy would show he didn’t die as a result of the fire.”

Fitzpatrick said that Gross had been involved in a tumultuous romantic relationship with Coppola on and off for nearly 20 years, but that Coppola had recently tried to distance himself from her.

“They had a very contentious relationship, with violence and stealing of money,” he said. “There were numerous case reports where they had [physical] fights with each other; she had stolen items from him. They had a current court case that was pending — she had an order of protection to stay away from him, obviously violating that on that night. She went there to confront Mr. Coppola for money.”

Fitzpatrick said that the confrontation turned violent, and that Gross used a pot or a pan to beat Coppola to death.

“They became involved in a physical altercation,” Fitzpatrick said. “She took something — a household kitchen item — and started to beat him with that. As a result of that beating, he expired. She then, to cover up the crime, lit the house on fire, and was taken from the scene by a tax cab. She subsequently pawned his jewelry.”

We had her on our radar,” he added. “And when that item showed up pawned, that it was the jewelry he wore on the night he was killed, obviously it pointed to her, and other things that would lead us to her and prove that she was the one in the house at the time.”

Gross had worked as a waitress, at a local veterinarian’s office and dry-cleaners in Long Beach.

Gross was arrested in 2016 by Long Beach police and charged with first-degree unlawful dealing with children, a misdemeanor, and for violating the city's social host law during a party at her home on Minnesota Avenue where attendees were being charged $5 to enter and minors were observed consuming alcohol. The outcome of that case was not immediately made available to the Herald.

Fitzpatrick told reporters that the confrontation between Gross and Coppola was unrelated to her ex-husband’s 2005 arrest in a money laundering scheme that involved members of the Genovese crime family. David Gross was once a prominent Democrat in Long Beach and Nassau County who published a book, “If the Robes Fit.”

The disgraced former judge also made headlines in 2000 when a neighbor complained about him showering nude in his backyard with his two young children present, and then sprayed a responding police officer with a garden hose.

According to The New York Times, Coppola had sued Jennifer and her ex-husband in 2012. Coppola claimed that Ms. Gross owed him $276,000, and the lawsuit aimed to enforce a divorce agreement that he believed existed between Jennifer and David Gross. The suit was dismissed in 2016.

“She was actually relying on [Coppola] for money and relying on other gentlemen for money,” Fitzpatrick said. “In this particular case, once she didn’t get her money, she beat him and killed him.”