on August 26, 2013 - 11:15 AM
A mother’s words reached out Monday to seek justice for her son, who died in a May 2011 shooting in Cheektowaga Town Park.
“I pray that I live to see my son’s murderer brought to justice,” wrote Vanessa James, whose 19-year-old son, Ira Watkins Jr., died when gunfire was directed into a large crowd May 31, 2011.
But James died that October from an illness, several months before Dontre Jones of Cheektowaga was charged with second-degree murder in Watkins’ death.
Jones, now 19, subsequently was found guilty of first-degree manslaughter and second-degree criminal possession of a weapon following a bench trial this past spring before Erie County Judge Michael F. Pietruszka.
The plea for justice by Watkins’ mother, read in court by her sister, Jennifer Washington, was answered Monday when Pietruszka sentenced Jones to the maximum 25 years in prison on the manslaughter charge – the range was 5 to 25 years – and 15 years for the weapon. The sentences will run concurrently.
“I would like to commend the Town of Cheektowaga Police Department,” prosecutor James F. Bargnesi, head of the Homicide Bureau in the Erie County District Attorney’s Office, said in court. “There were very strong, difficult issues to overcome with regard to cooperation.”
Watkins’ father and sister and other relatives were present in the courtroom.
“Judge, the murderer took my only son away from me,” James had written. “I keep waiting for Ira to come home ... to walk through the door and say ‘Mom, I’m home.’ ”
“Through my illness he never complained when he had to help me,” James wrote, saying her son “was a good kid and a wonderful young man.”
Watkins was a college student and managing a fast-food restaurant at the time of his death.
“Now we are left to grieve what might have been instead of celebrating the milestones of his life,” his mother wrote.
James also expressed anger that Jones’ family still will be able to see and talk to him.
“I have no pity on the murderer,” she wrote. “It is my hope that the murderer will be imprisoned for the maximum time allowed without parole.”
Defense attorney Andrew C. LoTempio said Jones had been willing to accept a plea bargain and take responsibility for his actions. But they took the case to trial to seek a lesser sentence of 18 or 19 years.
Jones was reared by an aunt; his mother was a drug addict with whom he had limited contact and he has no idea of his father’s identity, LoTempio said.
Jones had no criminal record before the shooting, according to his attorney. “That’s almost a huge achievement, and that’s a sorry thing to say,” LoTempio added.
A large crowd had gathered at the park for a planned water balloon fight on the day of the shooting, but an earlier dispute between two Buffalo gangs reignited on the basketball courts.
Police have said neither Jones nor Watkins was involved in the earlier incident.
Jones, using a gun that someone else had brought to the park, fired several shots into the crowd.
Jones has expressed remorse about what happened, LoTempo told the court, before Jones accepted an opportunity to speak directly.
“I would like to say that my heart goes out to the family of Ira Watkins,” Jones said. “He won’t have a second chance to be able to talk to family and friends.”
As the proceeding got under way Monday morning, the judge referred to a letter written last week by the defense attorney.
LoTempio apparently thought an adjournment might be appropriate, given media reports on telephone calls that Jones made from behind bars to three teachers at Cheektowaga Central High School while he was awaiting trial.
Cheektowaga police have characterized those conversations as “inappropriate” and intended to release their contents before being threatened with legal action by attorneys for the teachers. The teachers were placed on paid administrative leave while district officials investigate their conduct.
“I didn’t know the content of those discussions,” LoTempio told the judge Monday, saying he was aware that Jones had a “close relationship” with the teachers.
Despite those earlier concerns, “It really shouldn’t have any effect on sentencing,” LoTempio said.
The conversations didn’t break any laws, authorities have said.