It was one of the most grisly murders in Buffalo’s recent history.
A man walking his dog last summer found a charred body on an old railroad right-of-way near a popular Colvin Avenue frozen custard stand in North Buffalo.
Darren Brown was slain on the Fourth of July, his throat slashed and his body stabbed 54 times before one of his attackers set his corpse on fire.
The 16-year-old’s offense?
The night before he died, Brown had talked to Demetrius Huff, a teen who mistakenly believed Brown belonged to the same gang as he did – and the two smoked marijuana together on Hertel Avenue, according to prosecutors.
When a fellow gang member of Huff’s learned of the friendly encounter, he reacted furiously.
“Why did you bring him around here? If that kid comes back here tonight, we’re killing him, and you’re helping,” the gang member told Huff, according to Erie County Assistant District Attorney Michael P. Felicetta.
The story of how Brown died has been unfolding in a Buffalo courtroom the past week as prosecutors seek to convict 17-year-old Ezeiekile Nafi of murder.
But the case has been complicated by a couple of factors.
Huff, 18, a prosecution witness who previously pleaded guilty to a lesser charge in Brown’s death, clammed up when he got on the witness stand last week.
Another key witness who first told investigators how Brown died has himself become a target of retaliation for cooperating.
And the gang member accused of orchestrating the killing and beginning the vicious stabbing of Brown, according to Nafi’s police statements, has not been charged.
The testimony and evidence in the courtroom also lays bare how gang rivalry can become vicious and deadly over what might seem like minor, even trivial incidents.
Police were still at the crime scene collecting evidence when a homeless 24-year-old man named David Elliott approached a detective and told him he had information.
After a stint in jail for robbery, Elliott had spent the past three years “running the streets, 24-7” and getting into trouble with the police.
Now, he offered to tell police what he knew because he wanted help with his pending harassment and drug cases and to “start a new life.”
Elliott had met Brown the very day he died. He also had talked with the gang members after they killed Brown but before police knew about it, according to prosecutors.
“David heard from all of them what happened,” Felicetta said.
Elliott told detectives what he knew, and police arrested Huff and Nafi a week later.
Elliott, though, moved out of state in fear for his life after he was shot at in retaliation for cooperating with authorities. He returned to Buffalo last week and testified in Nafi’s trial before State Supreme Court Justice Russell P. Buscaglia.
But one part of the trial has not gone as smoothly as prosecutors had hoped.
Huff was allowed to plead guilty in early March to a lesser charge for his role in Brown’s killing. One condition of the plea was that he testify against Nafi, who has been his friend since childhood.
But when Huff took the stand Thursday at his co-defendant’s trial, he refused to tell jurors what happened last July in that wooded area off Colvin Avenue.
“I plead the Fifth,” Huff said, citing a Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
“You already pleaded guilty,” homicide prosecutor Colleen Curtin Gable replied.
The prosecutor asked Huff if he was present when Brown was killed.
“Not to my recollection,” Huff said, even though he already pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter for his role in Brown’s death.
Plea deal unravels
Curtin Gable asked Huff if he remembered making a statement to police detectives.
He said he did so “under coercion.”
How about the letters he wrote while in the Erie County Holding Center that offered an account of what happened, Curtin Gable asked, as she showed him the letters.
“That does not look like my handwriting,” Huff replied.
After Huff conferred with his lawyer, Curtin Gable offered him another chance.
“Did you stab Darren Brown?” she asked.
“No,” he replied.
“Mr. Huff, you have about one minute to tell the truth. Are you ready to tell the truth?” the prosecutor asked. “Do you remember pleading guilty?”
“No,” Huff replied.
“Judge, I’m done,” the prosecutor said.
As part of his plea agreement, Huff was to have been sentenced to a 25-year prison term. While that is the longest possible sentence for manslaughter, it spared him from a potential life sentence had he been convicted of murder.
Now that deal is off, and he will stand trial, Curtin Gable told him.
Meanwhile, the prosecution in the Nafi murder trial rested Friday.
The defense may call a witness or two today, and then lawyers are expected to make closing arguments and the jury could begin deliberating by this afternoon.
How will Huff’s abrupt change in testimony affect Nafi’s fate in court?
It might not make that much of a difference.
Emily Trott, Nafi’s defense lawyer, has already told jurors that Nafi was present when Brown was stabbed.
“I’m not going to tell you my client wasn’t at the scene, because he was,” Trott said in her opening statement.
But there was also a third person present when Brown was killed, prosecutors and the defense attorney told the jury.
Antoine Sanders, 20, also known as “Deuce,” was a participant in the crime, prosecutors said. In fact, he was the one who became furious when informed that Huff and Brown had been smoking pot. He was the one who told Huff that they would kill Brown if he came back again, the prosecutor said. And when Brown did return the next night, Sanders is the one who orchestrated the killing, according to Nafi’s statement to police.
But Sanders has not been charged in Brown’s killing. Trott called him “the unindicted co-conspirator,” and he is currently in the Erie County Correctional Facility on an unrelated charge.
When Nafi accompanied Huff, Sanders and Brown to the former railroad right-of-way off Colvin’s 500 block, he did not expect Sanders to start stabbing Brown in the back, defense attorney Trott said.
“All my client wanted to do was get out alive,” Trott told jurors. “My client entered survival mode. That night, my client did what he had to do to save his own life.”
In his first interview with Buffalo police, a couple days after the July 4 stabbing, Nafi told Homicide Detective Salvatore A. Valvo that he and Huff accompanied Sanders and Brown to the wooded area.
Sanders, Huff and Nafi were in the same gang; Brown was in a different one, Elliott told police.
The three met Brown on Hertel Avenue, walked along Virgil Avenue, and then made their way to a path into the wooded area.
Sanders told Huff and Nafi to beat Brown, telling them “to bang him in,” according to Nafi’s statement to Valvo.
Huff and Nafi fought Brown for about five minutes. After they stopped, Nafi lit a cigarette and watched Sanders and Brown fight, he told the detective.
At first, Nafi thought Sanders was just punching Brown, he told the detective.
But then he realized the blows were even more brutal.
“I realized he was stabbing him all those times,” Nafi said in his police statement.
Then Sanders knelt next to Brown and stabbed him in the back of the neck, according to Nafi’s statement.
A pathologist counted 20 stab wounds to the back of Brown’s neck. A large, slashing wound across the neck severed the carotid artery and the jugular vein. Other stab wounds to the chest and back pierced his lung, said Dr. Scott LaPoint, the pathologist who performed Brown’s autopsy.
In his first police interview, Nafi denied he or Huff stabbed Brown.
“Why did you do this?” Nafi said he asked Sanders, according to Nafi’s police statement.
Brown stopped talking and died just as Nafi asked the question, Nafi told police.
“Don’t worry about it,” replied Sanders, according to Nafi’s statement.
Sanders then warned Huff and Nafi not to tell anyone or “I will kill you,” according to Nafi’s statement.
Homicide detectives suspected Nafi played a bigger role in Brown’s death, and Detective Sgt. James Lonergan told him so when he was brought to Police Headquarters about a week later.
At the second interview, Nafi admitted stabbing Brown in the back five times with a small kitchen-like knife, Lonergan testified.
Nafi said Huff stabbed Brown a dozen times, Lonergan testified.
The knife has not been recovered.
Huff later returned with gasoline to burn Brown’s body, said Felicetta, the prosecutor.
Nafi had spit on Brown during the attack, and Huff wanted to ensure none of Nafi’s DNA remained on the body.
As for Sanders, police are not finished with him, even though he has not been charged.
Asked if police are still investigating the case, Lonergan said, “Absolutely, yes.”
During questioning by defense attorney Trott, Lonergan confirmed that Sanders remains a potential suspect and was interviewed last week.
In the meantime, jurors heard statements from others questioned by the police that cited different reasons for the attack: retribution for a stolen video game player and even a gang initiation.
“We may never understand the question of why,” Felicetta told jurors.