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Widow to husband's 'savage' attacker: 'You didn't just kill one life that day'

Jennifer Gross, right, fatally beat her estranged lover

Jennifer Gross, right, fatally beat her estranged lover before setting his family's Centre Island home on fire in November 2018. Credit: Composite photo: Kevin Madigan, left, and NCPD

A former judge’s wife who fatally beat her 75-year-old estranged lover before setting his family’s Centre Island vacation home ablaze will pay for her crime with a prison sentence of more than two decades.

On Thursday, acting State Supreme Court Justice Meryl Berkowitz sentenced Jennifer Gross to 22 years in prison in a proceeding amid the coronavirus pandemic in which some participants used Skype and others were in Nassau County Court.

Gross, 55, of Long Beach, previously pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the November 2018 slaying of Brooklyn man James Coppola Jr.

“You didn’t just kill one life that day,” Barbara Coppola, the victim's widow, told Gross on Thursday of the impact his death had on family and others who relied on him after the defendant "savagely" beat him.

Firefighters found Coppola’s badly beaten body near the front door of the Centre Island Road home after dousing the flames.

Gross is divorced from former Nassau District Court Judge David Gross, who went to federal prison in 2008 after admitting to conspiring with an accused mobster to launder more than $400,000 in proceeds linked to stolen jewelry.

Berkowitz said Thursday that Coppola had given the defendant money and tried to help her and her children at some point before his death because he felt sorry for her, but her actions had devastated and destroyed two families.

“I hope and pray that somehow you find something to get you back to where you were before you must have gone astray,” Berkowitz told Gross, who appeared by Skype from Nassau’s jail.

Law enforcement officials said Gross went to the victim’s North Shore property on Nov. 20, 2018, to ask him for money.

But she attacked him after he refused, according to authorities. They said she hit the victim in the head and body with an object that was in the house before setting the fire to try to cover up her crime.

Gross and Coppola had a 20-year relationship that included violence and “stealing of money,” according to police. They said Coppola had an order of protection against Gross when she killed him.

Gross’ attorney, Jeffrey Groder, previously said the divorced mother of two adult children had an on-and-off romantic relationship with Coppola for years in which he gave her financial support.

“No one is going to try to minimize the tragedy to the Coppola family,” he said during Thursday’s sentencing. “… Ms. Gross has done the only thing she could do under the circumstances, which is accept responsibility for her actions which have caused an untold amount of damage to the Coppola family, to herself and to her children.”

Investigators honed in on Gross as the slaying suspect after she pawned the jewelry that Coppola had been wearing that night. Before her manslaughter plea deal, she had faced murder, arson, burglary and robbery charges.

Nassau District Attorney Madeline Singas said in a statement Thursday that the case was "the violent end of an off and on relationship" after the defendant killed Coppola "in a fit of rage" before "calculated efforts to cover up the killing and theft by fire."

She added that the sentence "seeks to provide justice to the Coppola family."

Coppola’s family has said he was a hardworking man who ran his family's construction business and survived a quadruple bypass surgery and a kidney transplant before his slaying.

His widow also said Thursday in court that the beating Gross unleashed on her husband of 42 years came a time when he already was struggling with numerous health problems.

“You purposely struck him in his weakened chest,” she told Gross.

Coppola’s granddaughter, Alison Steullet, also had a message for Gross in court.

“We believe when judgment day comes, God will be waiting for you,” she said.

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