When a fire engulfed a home on Long Island in November, it did not just take the life of a 75-year-old man.
After a nearly 10-month investigation, the police now say that it also ended a tumultuous 20-year relationship between the man and his lover, Jennifer Gross, that had been mired in violence, theft and numerous legal battles.
On Friday, Gross was arrested and charged with second-degree arson and second-degree murder in the death of the man, James Coppola. The police said Gross, 54, beat Coppola to death and then set his home in Centre Island on fire to cover up the crime.
She pleaded not guilty in First District Court in Hempstead on Saturday.
"They had a very contentious relationship with violence and stealing of money," Detective Lt. Stephen Fitzpatrick said at a news conference Saturday. "In this particular case, when she didn't get her money she wanted, she beat him and killed him."
Lawyers for Gross could not be reached for comment.
The police described Gross as a drifter who survived on odd jobs and money given to her by various men. Her sporadic relationship with Coppola lasted for nearly 20 years, they said.
But over the years, their relationship had become increasingly volatile - with large sums of money as a central dispute.
In 2012, Coppola sued Gross and her ex-husband, David Gross, a former district court judge in Nassau County, who was sentenced to 33 months in prison for money laundering in 2007.
Coppola claimed that Jennifer Gross owed him $276,000, and the lawsuit aimed to enforce a divorce agreement that he believed existed between the Grosses. By enforcing the settlement, Coppola believed, Jennifer Gross could pay him the money she owed him, according to court documents.
But in a separate lawsuit David Gross filed against Coppola's lawyers two years later, Gross claimed that his ex-wife had lied about the divorce agreement, falsely claiming she would receive $100,000 and ownership of their home in Long Beach, court documents show. Instead, Gross claimed, his ex-wife had waived her interest in the Long Beach property as well as her rights to Gross' retirement and bank accounts.
Coppola's case against the Grosses was dismissed in 2016.
Despite the legal battles, Gross and Coppola continued their on-again, off-again relationship, although by 2018 Coppola had tried to distance himself from her. Before his death, he had obtained a protective order against her, the police said.
But his effort failed.
Around 6pm on November 20, Gross arrived at his Centre Island home to demand money from him, in violation of the protective order. When Coppola refused to give her money, Gross beat him to death with a pot or pan, Fitzpatrick said.
The police said she then stole Coppola's jewelry, including items he was wearing at the time, before setting fire to the house. She fled the scene in a taxi at around 10 p.m., the police said. The blaze engulfed the single-family home, and it took many hours for numerous fire departments to extinguish it.
Gross later pawned the jewelry - which the police said led them to focus the investigation on her.
"Two sides to every story," Gross said as she left the courthouse Saturday, according to local news reports. She added, "The truth will come out in court."