Bernard T. Grucza avoided the possibility of a life prison sentence by admitting Monday that he fatally stabbed the assistant manager of a Toys R Us store in Hamburg last summer.
Instead, Grucza will be sentenced this spring to 25 years in state prison in return for his guilty plea to first-degree manslaughter.
If he had stood trial and been convicted of his original charge of second-degree murder, he would have faced 25 years to life in prison.
Grucza, 39, a regional vice president for loss control for Toys R Us at the time of the attack, said he used a knife to stab Laurence C. “Larry” Wells II, 35, of Blasdell.
Off to the side of the courtroom, members of Wells’ family, including his widow, Jill, quietly wept.
Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III said his prosecutors could have used DNA evidence to prove Grucza twice stabbed Wells in his store office.
But proving Grucza went to the store intending to kill Wells would have been harder, Sedita said.
Sedita cited a recent appeals court ruling that overturned the conviction of Todd R. Heatley, whom jurors convicted of second-degree murder for fatally stabbing a Clarence teenager.
The appeals court reduced the conviction to first-degree manslaughter, ruling that Heatley only intended to cause serious physical injury even though he inflicted eight stab wounds.
“The court ruled that eight stab wounds were not enough to show someone had the intent to kill. In this case, we had two stab wounds,” Sedita said. “In addition, police officials who would have been called to testify surely would have been questioned about their public comments, and the one in particular that they said was they didn’t believe the defendant had the intent to kill.”
“That is one heck of a hump for a prosecutor to get over,” Sedita said.
Wells’ family supported the plea deal because it puts Grucza in prison for more than two decades, Sedita said. Even with accrued good time, Grucza cannot be released until he has served at least 22½ years.
“The most obvious thing here is the defendant is guilty, and now his chances on appeal are very, very much diminished,” Sedita said.
Authorities in the case believe Grucza went to the Toys R Us store at McKinley Parkway and Mile Strip Road at about 4:30 a.m. June 29 to steal money. But he unexpectedly encountered Wells, who showed up to unload a truck.
If a victim dies during the commission of the crime – robbery, burglary, sexual assault or another felony crime – the criminal actions can provide the legally required intent needed for a second-degree murder conviction, Sedita said.
But in this case, police found no evidence of a robbery or theft. And Grucza did not reveal his motive for going to the store.
“In my opinion and the opinion of most, he probably went in to commit a robbery, but there is no proof to back up that theory,” Sedita said.
Without that kind of evidence, a plea deal for 25 years in prison – the maximum term for first-degree manslaughter – proved an acceptable resolution, given the family’s support, Sedita said.
In a trial, there would be a risk of jurors being given the opportunity to consider lesser charges rather than only second-degree murder. And Grucza could have ended up with a sentence of far less than 25 years, Sedita said.
Defense attorney Frank Housh left no doubt his client went to the toy store to steal.
“My client at the time was in desperate financial straits,” Housh said. “They were in bankruptcy as a result of his wife having breast cancer. He was still supporting three kids.”
And Grucza was in the process of getting a divorce while trying to provide for his family in Elma.
Wells left behind a young daughter and another child that was due to be born last December, his family said.
“He’s taking responsibility for what he did, and part of the reason he’s doing it is to bring closure to the Wells family,” Housh said.
Housh declined to discuss how the fatal encounter began, but he said the two men engaged in a physical encounter when the stabbing occurred. The knife was never recovered.
At about 5:45 that morning, other employees arrived and discovered Wells bleeding in his office chair.
He was taken to Mercy Hospital, where he died.
Sedita, at a news conference following the plea hearing, said he found it “creepy” that Grucza returned to the store hours after the killing to console workers.
“That’s really creepy, returning to the scene after taking a person’s life, killing his own friend and hugging people,” Sedita said.
Housh, however, said Grucza was following an order from his bosses.
A grainy surveillance video showed the killer arriving at the store and heading into the manager’s office at 4:36 a.m., wearing a University of Florida Gators cap and holding a knife. The video was sent to the FBI’s crime laboratory in Quantico, Va., but the image was too blurry to identify the suspect.
A break in the case came when traces of DNA were found on the hat, which was left at the scene, and on an electric power cord for the store camera surveillance equipment in Wells’ office. The surveillance system was disabled at 4:43 a.m.
But it took time to find Grucza, who had taken a leave of absence and disappeared. He was found after help from a relative, and authorities took a sample of his DNA. The sample matched what was found on the hat and cord.
Sedita credited Hamburg detectives for their investigation that uncovered other evidence, too.
State Supreme Court Justice Penny Wolfgang scheduled Grucza’s sentencing for May 19.
This morning, Grucza faces federal gun charges and is expected to take a plea deal.
Indicted by a grand jury in February, he was accused of making false statements to federal agents and two different gun dealers and possessing a gun while the subject of a domestic violence order of protection.
Court records indicate he’s expected to change his not guilty plea during an appearance before Chief U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny.