A former University at Buffalo student, who badly burned a Hamburg teenager when he tried to set vodka on fire at an off-campus party in Fredonia nearly three years ago, has pleaded guilty to felony assault.
Joshua J. Benton, now 22, of Indian Lake, Hamilton County, was sentenced to probation Monday in Chautauqua County Court for his role in the accidental burning of Taylor L. Meckley, who spent more than three weeks in Erie County Medical Center undergoing treatment for her injuries.
“This was alleged to have been a reckless act, not an intentional act,” District Attorney David W. Foley said Tuesday.
The case against Benton progressed slowly over the past 32 months, because of procedural delays and time spent on plea negotiations that didn’t bear fruit until Monday, eight days before a trial was set to begin with jury selection.
Benton’s mother, Donna, said in an interview that her son tried to reach out to Meckley immediately after the incident to tell her how sorry he was.
“He is very remorseful and apologizes to Taylor and her family. It’s a very unfortunate accident, and these last few years have been very difficult for him,” Donna Benton said.
The case against Benton stemmed from a party held May 1, 2010, at a house near the Fredonia State College campus during the annual Fredonia Fest, though Benton and Meckley were not Fredonia students.
Authorities say Benton, then 20, at one point poured Devil Springs brand vodka on top of a can and lit it with a lighter.
The stream of liquid caught fire, startling Benton, who quickly got rid of the bottle, causing the flaming liquid to land on Meckley and Patrick Bettcher, who sat nearby.
Meckley, then 19, suffered third-degree burns over her legs and also was burned on her hair, shoulders and arms.
She was flown by Starflight to ECMC, where she was treated for 23 days, most of that time in intensive care, and endured a lengthy and painful recovery from her wounds. Bettcher suffered less-serious burns on his calf and hand.
Benton was arraigned in June 2010 in Village Court on the second-degree assault charge, but felonies have to be handled in County Court and Benton wasn’t indicted there until November 2011.
Part of the delay stemmed from the time it took the Probation Department in Hamilton County, Benton’s home, to conduct a pre-plea investigation.
This report was the preamble to lengthy plea negotiations, which broke down over Foley’s insistence that Benton plead guilty to the felony charge. Benton also considered changing lawyers before staying with Joseph A. Price, of the county Public Defender’s Office, a period that led to further delay.
“There were some issues with the case, as time passed,” Foley said, noting that at least two student witnesses no longer could be found.
Foley agreed to the plea deal because Meckley had told his office she wanted the case resolved, with an admission of fault from Benton and without having to testify if possible.
“She wants to put this behind her,” the DA said.
Meckley, now 21, could not be reached and her lawyer, Craig R. Watson, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Benton faced up to two to seven years in prison on the second-degree assault conviction.
He was sentenced by County Judge John Ward to one year of interim probation. After a year, if Benton has complied with the conditions of his probation, he can withdraw his plea to second-degree assault and plead guilty to third-degree assault, a misdemeanor, Foley said.
Benton left UB, where he was an engineering student, without graduating and moved home, where he is enrolled at a community college and working full-time, his mother said.
In addition to the criminal case, Fredonia State College suspended the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity following the incident, a suspension that remains in effect, college spokesman Michael Barone said Tuesday.
Three members of the fraternity lived at the house and were among the hosts of the party, and other members of the fraternity also attended the gathering, Barone confirmed.