It was a routine civil lawsuit that criminal defense lawyer Jake Pillsbury figured he could make fairly short work of.
The complaint had been filed in 2019 by a South Florida plastic surgeon who claimed that errors by his former employer’s insurance biller had prompted damaging online reviews—and at least one in-person protest—by an enraged cancer patient who called him a “butcher.”
As a result, Tomasz Kosowski, a Polish-born U.S. citizen with an impressive array of advanced degrees, claimed his reputation had been “obliterated” and his income dropped off by some $50,000 a month. He had since gotten a new job in Miami, working alongside physicians known as “Dr. Magic Mike” and “Dr. Level Up,” and lived in a $1.3 million waterfront home once used as a backdrop for a music video starring Patricia Krentcil, the briefly-tabloid-famous “Tan Mom.”
Pillsbury, who does not normally practice business law, said he got involved with the case last year, as “essentially a favor,” after a previous attorney had his license suspended and had to bow out. Now, Pillsbury would help bring the case in for a landing.
“And it’s like, it could not have gone weirder,” he said.
Pillsbury worked alongside attorney Steven Cozzi, who had been on the case since the beginning. Cozzi defended the medical practice while Pillsbury defended the medical biller Kosowski blamed for his woes. It should have been straightforward, but Kosowski seemed to revel in making things as difficult as possible, just because he could, according to Pillsbury. And as the case grew increasingly contentious, Pillsbury began to develop an intense dislike for Kosowski. Not because he was on the other side of the lawsuit, Pillsbury explained. Rather, Pillsbury said, “We didn’t like him because of how awful he was.”
“I’ve represented some people accused of some pretty terrible things,” Pillsbury told The Daily Beast in an exclusive in-depth interview. “And I’ve become pretty good at identifying people who are dangerous. And I was concerned about this guy pretty early on.”
Then, late last month, the unthinkable happened.
Cozzi vanished after getting up from his desk to use the restroom at his Largo law office. Four days later, Kosowski was arrested and charged with first-degree murder.
Surveillance video showed the 44-year-old breast reconstruction specialist sneaking into the building wearing jeans and black gloves, then leaving a couple of hours later with what appeared to be a human body wrapped in a blanket, according to Kosowski’s arrest affidavit. His left index fingerprint was discovered in a breaker closet adjacent to the toilet, it says, adding that forensic technicians “discovered a large quantity of blood that had been cleaned up from the bathroom floor.”
In Kosowski’s car, police found, among other things, a bag of masks, duct tape, brass knuckles, a taser, a ballistic vest with “a substantial amount of blood on it,” $280,000 in cash, and intravenous sedatives—namely, succinylcholine, a powerful paralytic. A temporary risk protection order filed by the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office said Kosowski owned upward of 200 handguns and rifles, and had thousands of rounds of ammunition on hand.
Cozzi, whose body has not yet been located, “had the patience of Gandhi” when dealing with Kosowski, according to Pillsbury, who said he “was much more of an asshole” to Kosowski, a Dartmouth-educated physician who was representing himself despite not having a law degree.
“I feel like I was going to be inevitably targeted by this guy, because of the way he treated us both throughout the case and how contentious it became,” Pillsbury said. “It’s very difficult for me to wrap my brain around the fact that this happened. I’m constantly retelling the story, but I can never make any sense of it.”
An increasingly contentious legal battle
As 2023 got underway, Kosowski’s lawsuit still hadn’t been resolved. And he appeared to be getting frustrated.
Kosowski accused Cozzi and Pillsbury of slow-walking things, and tried to get Cozzi sanctioned and booted from the case, filing a motion accusing the beloved 41-year-old of having “violated standards of professional conduct,” calling him a liar who refused to give him the documentation he had been requesting.
“Mr. Cozzi’s obstruction to Plaintiff’s access to evidence is unlawful and one of the main reasons this trial in [sic] now in its 4th year and still fraught with unresolved discovery disputes,” Kosowski wrote, asking the judge to boot Cozzi from the case “given his recurrent disregard” for the rules.
The two sides went back and forth, with Cozzi arguing it was Kosowski who should be punished for improperly questioning his integrity. He said in one filing that Kosowski didn’t understand legal procedure, and that he was now simply filing redundant calls for information and documents he had either already gotten, didn’t exist, or had no right to see.
On Jan. 26, things reached a turning point, Pillsbury said, providing the most detailed insight yet into what happened.
That day, the two sides were at a deposition at Cozzi’s law office that turned ugly, according to Pillsbury. Kosowski was mercilessly grilling an office worker from his old practice, spending more than three hours aggressively questioning a witness who Pillsbury said was not really central to the case.
She was “just being beat up in this deposition—and not in a way that made a lot of sense,” Pillsbury went on. “It was hard to watch, from a human perspective, because it was just unnecessary.”
Pillsbury said he and Cozzi reminded Kosowski “multiple times that this is not a trial,” and had to frequently cut in to keep the proceeding on track.
“He was just very unhappy about how much of his questioning was being objected to,” Pillsbury said.
During a break in the testimony, Kosowski got up and confronted Cozzi in the restroom, according to Pillsbury. The altercation was only a verbal one, as far as anyone knows. It is unclear what was said.
Over the ensuing days and weeks, things largely didn’t go Kosowski’s way. A previous ruling in Kosowski’s favor was set aside in February, and the case was referred to non-binding arbitration.
On March 20, a little less than two months later, a frustrated Kosowski wrote to the judge in his case, slamming the latest discovery materials he had been provided as “hastily prepared tripe which fail to provide good faith answers.”
The next day, Cozzi would be dead.
“Steve filed a motion that upset him and I think he just decided to go scorched earth,” Pillsbury told The Daily Beast. “That’s just my read on it.”
On March 21, immediately after he allegedly killed Cozzi, Kosowski joined a scheduled 10:30 a.m. court hearing via Zoom, from the parking lot outside Cozzi’s office. He and the others, including Pillsbury, waited for more than 30 minutes but Cozzi never showed, according to the arrest affidavit.“As soon as the defendant disconnects from the court hearing, video captures the subject at the crime scene beginning to move again,” it says, noting that Kosowski was seen on video “struggling to get [a] heavy cart into the bed of [his] truck.”
Cozzi was never seen leaving the building. When investigators asked his boss, Jake Blanchard, if Cozzi had any enemies, he said he gave them Kosowski’s name, telling police that the plastic surgeon was the only person he could think of that didn’t like Cozzi.
A beloved lawyer
“I’m not good at talking about my personal life, but to say we’re heartbroken, we’re befuddled, is just a classic understatement,” Cozzi’s mom, Lois, told The Daily Beast. “I think the best way to say it is, I feel like I’m reading a cheap novel, that, if I ever get to close it, it’ll all go away.”
Cozzi worked on Broadway as a wardrobe designer before going back to school later in life for a law degree. He had a strong belief in social justice and held a birthday fundraiser each year to benefit his local legal aid organization, according to his mother.
Cozzi and his husband Michael had just gotten married in October 2021, and were deeply in love, Lois continued, recalling her joy in helping Cozzi study for the bar exam.
“We would get sidetracked and go, ‘Why was this law written this way?’ ‘Why did this happen?’ He was just endlessly curious. Most people were glad to be his friend… I know I’m biased, but I think he was quite an extraordinary person.”
Cara Lea Powell, a family lawyer in Tampa who knew Cozzi professionally, told The Daily Beast she simply couldn’t understand what killing Cozzi might accomplish.
“I know of exactly zero cases where murdering your opposing counsel has resulted in your obviating the issues at hand,” she said.
Pillsbury said Cozzi was incredibly helpful in bringing him up to speed when joined the Kosowski suit, noting that Cozzi would even reach out to remind him of a deadline, for instance, “because he was just a nice man.”
Cozzi “honestly cared” about his clients, and was proud of the witness at the Jan. 26 deposition for handling herself so well under Kosowski’s pressure, according to Pillsbury.
The two became friends due to their “shared experience of dealing with this crazy plaintiff,” Pillsbury said.
“Everybody who comes into contact with him feels creeped out,” he said of Kosowski. “There’s something very off-putting about being around this guy.”
But that was not the person Kosowski’s old medical pals knew, with three former friends telling The Daily Beast they were dumbfounded by the allegations against a man they described as a nice guy with a big heart.
“I’ve never even seen him cranky, let alone angry,” a friend who roomed with Kosowski in medical school said. “When I was despondent over my wife leaving me and my first divorce, Tom was the person who made sure I ate. Called to check on me.”
Another med school pal remembered Kosowski as a “happy, kind of goofy, silly, informal guy,” describing the allegations as “completely out of left field.” And while police said Kosowski had hundreds of guns at home, the friend said Kosowski never expressed any interest in firearms at all, even though they were living in New Hampshire, where ownership rules are relatively loose.
Dr. Shaun Wason, a physician in Boston who trained as a resident with Kosowski, said, “I haven’t spoken to Tom in many years. But I can say, this was not something anyone would have expected.” And Anita Smith, a medical biller who last worked with Kosowski in 2019, said she didn’t recall Kosowski having any sort of violent tendencies. She called Cozzi’s death “Tragic. So sad.”
Kosowski’s home in Tarpon Springs, tucked away at the end of a quiet road lined with ritzy spreads, appeared to sit empty on a recent weekday afternoon, with no lights visible from the massive windows that overlook the Gulf of Mexico and a glistening pool in the back.
A neighbor, who asked to remain anonymous, told The Daily Beast that she rarely saw Kosowski outside, so they spoke only a few times in the five years she estimated he lived there.
Kosowski was “really quiet” and “minded his own business at the end down there,” she said. When he’d pass by in his car, she said he was seemingly always driving alone.
Kosowski has pleaded not guilty, and his dogs are safe and with friends, his defense attorney, Bjorn Erik Brunvand told The Daily Beast.
In an email, he wrote, “Beyond the not guilty plea and the presumption of innocence, there is not anything that I can add at this time.”
Kosowski may have assembled a top-notch academic pedigree, but his professional life hasn’t been particularly smooth.
Nearly three years into his lawsuit against his former practice, Kosowski was sued for malpractice over a botched Brazilian Butt Lift.
In a Jan. 2021 civil complaint filed in Pinellas County Circuit Court, the patient said she was just 19 in 2019, when Kosowski DMed her out of the blue on Instagram (@Dr.TampaBay69) with a solicitation for a discounted BBL. The teen checked out Kosowski’s profile and scheduled a consultation with him at the practice he sued later that year, according to the complaint.There, he “told her that she was a great candidate for a BBL,” it continues, noting that Kosowski—who is not board certified, an official with the American Board of Plastic Surgery told The Daily Beast—told the young woman to provide him with pictures of celebrities she wanted her body to resemble. But while the patient shared the requested photos with Kosowski, the lawsuit claims Kosowski “never discussed with [the patient] whether he could realistically and safely model her body to look like celebrities she identified.”
“It was a disaster,” a source with direct knowledge of the situation told The Daily Beast, emphasizing how “weird [it is] for a doctor to be soliciting a 19-year-old girl for surgery.”
The complaint says Kosowski over-injected the patient’s buttocks with fat, which led to a “large, open, painful wound and infection.” This caused the patient, who declined to comment and whose name The Daily Beast is withholding for her privacy, “pain, numbness, and significant scarring,” according to the complaint.
“Kosowski explained to [the patient] that the wound was caused by a surgical tool being too deeply and aggressively inserted during the BBL procedure in the location where the wound formed,” it states.
But try as he might, Kosowski was unable to fix it, according to the complaint. When Kosowski then left the practice amid his insurance-and-defamation lawsuit, he gave the young woman his cell number and said to text him in a couple of weeks. Kosowski said he’d continue to treat her if things didn’t get better soon, and when the patient began to experience further complications, including cellulitis, she contacted him. Kosowski, the complaint says, never responded.
Wound-care specialists at an area hospital finally got involved, and were able to reverse some of the damage. But when the patient began to consider a lawsuit and called the practice to request her medical records, the records were nowhere to be found, according to the complaint, which said Kosowski had “refused to allow” anyone else at the practice to photograph the results of the procedure. The case is still listed as open on the docket, but the source said it was settled out of court. They said they were not allowed to discuss the terms of the settlement.
Kosowski has never been board certified, and his eligibility for certification expired in 2019, Cassandra Kosielowski, an official with the American Board of Plastic Surgery, told The Daily Beast.
‘We all lose here’
Today, Kosowski sits in the Pinellas County Jail, facing a potential death sentence. He has a balance at the detention center commissary of $193.53, according to booking records.
A friend of Kosowski’s, reality TV producer Adam Barta, said he’s “praying that this somehow comes to some sort of resolution.”
“It doesn’t seem like it’ll be any kind of good resolution,” Barta told The Daily Beast, “but we’ll just have to wait and see.”
Joseph Giacalone, a retired NYPD detective sergeant who now teaches at New York City’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said this case is not an outlier.
“Nobody’s immune to murder as a means to an end, no matter what class you are, no matter what job you have,” he said. “Is it unusual, in the amount of violence you have? Yes.”
Meanwhile, Lois Cozzi continues to live out what she described as a bad dream, noting that Cozzi’s dad remains too traumatized to talk about the situation.
“We’ve all been robbed,” she said. “My husband and I have been robbed of our son, Steven’s brother has been robbed of a brother. And Michael’s been robbed of the love of his life.”
Pillsbury, for his part, will now have to finish out his defense of the Kosowski civil case without Cozzi. It is uncertain where things go from here; six days after Kosowski’s arrest, an arbitration hearing scheduled for April 11 was postponed indefinitely.
“We all lose here,” said Pillsbury. “I genuinely think the world was better when Steve was in it. It hurts. It hurts a lot. And the fact that we don’t know where he is, is so devastating.”
—with additional reporting by Josh Fiallo