City surveillance cameras as well as some installed by businesses helped police detectives and prosecutors make the case against the two men who were sentenced Tuesday to lengthy prison terms for the July 2011 shooting death of a North Buffalo man, a prosecutor said.
"Without those cameras, it's highly unlikely, if not impossible, this case would have been solved," said James F. Bargnesi, head of the Homicide Bureau in the Erie County District Attorney's Office.
Brandon Harper, 21, convicted by a jury of first-degree murder for fatally shooting Joseph A. Hale, 35, of St. Lawrence Avenue, was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
At a separate hearing, Kevin Milon, 27, of Woodlawn Avenue, was sentenced to 25 years in prison on his plea of first-degree manslaughter.
"These were two killers walking around Allentown with a gun in their pants looking for a victim," said Bargnesi, who, with Assistant District Attorney John P. Gerken Jr., prosecuted Harper and Milon. "It's really no more complicated than that."
With the surveillance footage, police were able to "break the case wide open," Bargnesi said. The surveillance video showed the two men entering a nearby business before Hale was shot in the back at about 3 a.m. July 1 near Edna Place and Ellicott Street.
Police were looking for Harper when officers noticed him walking away from a vacant house Sept. 21. Harper had been on the porch with about a dozen other men and started walking away once he saw police.
He confessed while in police custody but then recanted and offered a different version of events at his trial.
"Not once has this savage ever showed remorse," Stephanie King, Hale's sister, said of Harper during her victim-impact statement to the court. "He was a coward with a gun."
Dana Hale said she has struggled to cope with the fact that her husband of seven years "lost his life on the sidewalks in the projects of the East Side."
"I'm angry and so sad," she said in court.
The couple's son was 4 when Hale was killed, she said.
She showed Senior Erie County Judge Michael L. D'Amico a photo of her husband and son dancing. It was the last photo taken of Hale before he died.
"My son still does it - but now he does it alone," she said.
During his trial, Harper testified that he and Milon were outside Jim's Steakout in Allentown when Hale first approached Milon about buying marijuana.
Bargnesi has described Hale as a friendly and outgoing - but naive - man as he walked into a fatal ambush.
Harper and Milon lured Hale about a mile to a neighborhood north of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, where they planned to rob him.
"You knew a robbery was going down," D'Amico told Milon.
Milon and Harper walked a mile with Hale - with Harper carrying a sawed-off rifle in his pants, prosecutors said.
After his arrest, Harper told police he was present when Hale pulled out $20 bills to pay for the marijuana, according to Buffalo Detective Sgt. Daniel F. Rinaldo, who testified during the trial about Harper's seven-page statement.
Harper told the detective that he "saw a wad of cash" and that Milon punched Hale in an attempt to take the money, Harper said during the police interview, according to Rinaldo.
Hale started to run, and "I chased the dude to Ellicott," Harper said in his statement.
When Rinaldo asked Harper if he pulled the trigger, Harper replied, "More than once, for sure," according to Rinaldo.
Harper later recanted his confession and accused Milon of shooting Hale.
The jury did not accept his new version and convicted him after deliberating for less than three hours.
Harper, who previously turned down a plea offer that called for a prison term of 20 years to life, had faced life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Defense attorney Joseph J. Terranova asked D'Amico to impose a lesser term.
"Twenty-five to life more reflects justice in this case," Terranova said in court.
"I agree it is difficult to determine what happened that evening," Terranova said. Despite a life tragically lost, "this [case] isn't one that merits life without parole," he said.
During his turn to speak, Harper told the Hale family he was sorry for their loss.
"I doubt very much you'll be paroled after 25 years," D'Amico told Harper. "I'm sure you'll do more than 25 years."
When Harper shot Hale, he elevated the crime "from a weed deal to felony murder," said John R. Nuchereno, Milon's defense attorney.
Half of Milon's life was spent selling marijuana, Nuchereno said.
But Milon does not have a violent past, he said.
"It was Mr. Harper who chased him," Nuchereno said of the circumstances surrounding Hale's murder.
"Take into account what was in Kevin's heart and mind," Nuchereno said to D'Amico.
Milon, who pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter before D'Amico in February, identified Harper as the shooter during his plea proceeding.
Milon previously agreed to cooperate with the prosecution against Harper but later decided not to testify against him.
Under the plea deal, Milon would have been sentenced to at least 15 years in prison but perhaps a few years longer.
Instead, D'Amico imposed the stiffest punishment on Milon: 25 years in prison.
"We're happy with how it turned out," King said of the sentences for her brother's attackers. "We hoped for more for Harper."