In a hushed courtroom Thursday, Jill Wells described the pain she and her two young daughters are still experiencing a year after her husband was fatally stabbed in his office at the Toys R Us store in Hamburg at the hands of an executive for the toy store chain.
“I lost my husband, my best friend, the man I love so much,” she told the judge in a shaky voice as she fought back tears.
“We were supposed to grow old together and watch our children grow,” she added, referring to her husband, Laurence C. “Larry” Wells II, the Hamburg store’s assistant manager, who died at age 35.
She said her daughter, who was four years old at the time of the slaying, has been left without “the daddy she loved so much” and cries for him. She said her newborn daughter will never know her father.
She said she couldn’t understand how Bernard T. Grucza, a regional vice president for loss prevention, could kill a fellow employee and friend.
“No family should have to go through this,” she said. “Nothing will bring Larry back.”
Grucza, 39, did not address the court before State Supreme Court Justice Penny M. Wolfgang sentenced him to 25 years in prison followed by five years of post-release supervision.
It was the maximum prison term she could impose after Grucza pleaded guilty in April to a reduced charge of first-degree manslaughter in the June 29, 2013, slaying.
Grucza originally was charged with second-degree murder, which carries a maximum sentence of 25 years to life.
But prosecutors agreed to the plea to the reduced charge because an appeals court ruling in another fatal stabbing in Buffalo would have made it difficult to prove Grucza intended to kill Wells.
The plea was contingent on Grucza receiving the maximum sentence for first-degree manslaughter.
Frank Housh, Grucza’s attorney, spoke for him at sentencing.
He cited the circumstances that he said put his client in a desperate situation. His wife had breast cancer, and the medical bills were bankrupting the family.
But the attorney said that doesn’t excuse what happened. “A good man was lost,” he said.
Housh said Grucza wanted the Wells family and the court to know that he was deeply sorry for his actions and that he will have to live with what he did for the rest of his life.
“All he can do is admit his guilt and come clean,” he said,
The judge told Grucza he took the life of a husband and father who was respected and well-liked by his fellow employees.
Wolfgang said the killing devastated the Wells family and the community. “No words can express the outrage they feel,” she said.
She noted that although Grucza was receiving the maximum sentence for first-degree manslaughter, it was less than the life sentence he could have received if he had gone to trial and been convicted of murder.
Because of the plea, she said, the family did not have to go through a trial and hear the sordid details of the slaying, while Grucza will spend years in prison thinking about what he did.
Authorities believe Grucza went to the store at McKinley Parkway and Milestrip Road at about 4:30 a.m. on the day of the crime to steal money.
But he unexpectedly ran into Wells, who showed up to unload a truck.
At the time of Grucza’s guilty plea, his attorney said the two men were fighting 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.
In the hours after the slaying, Grucza was photographed at the store consoling fellow employees and talking on his cellphone within feet of investigators.
The slaying stunned Hamburg. A $25,000 reward was offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the killer. DNA evidence on a hat and an electric power cord in the office resulted in Grucza’s arrest on a murder charge four months later.
After Grucza pleaded guilty on April 7, Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III said prosecutors could have used DNA evidence to prove he stabbed Wells twice.
But to support a murder charge, prosecutors must prove that the defendant intended to kill the victim.
Sedita said proving Grucza entered the store intending to kill Wells would have been difficult, noting a state appeals court ruling overturned a murder conviction in Buffalo because of a lack of intent, even though that victim had been stabbed eight times.
If a victim dies during the commission of a crime – robbery, burglary, sexual assault or another felony – the criminal actions can provide the legally required intent needed for a murder conviction, Sedita said.
In this case, police found no evidence of a robbery, burglary or theft, and Grucza did not reveal his motive for going to the store.
But during the plea, Housh left no doubt his client went to the toy store to steal. “My client at the time was in desperate financial straits,” he said. “They were in bankruptcy as a result of his wife having breast cancer. He was still supporting three kids.”
Grucza also was in the process of getting a divorce while trying to provide for his family in Elma.
Sedita said the Wells family supported the plea deal because it puts Grucza in prison for more than two decades. Even with accrued good time, Grucza cannot be released until he has served at least 22½ years.
Sedita also cited statements by Hamburg police that Grucza did not intend to kill Wells.
“If you plunge a knife into someone’s chest, to me that is intent to kill,” he said. “But the courts have held that is not enough to prove intent under certain circumstances. I disagree, but I must follow the law as interpreted by the courts.”
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. He was arrested in October.
A day after Grucza’s guilty plea in state court, he pleaded guilty in federal court to possession of a firearm while facing an order of protection that his estranged wife, Heather, requested after an alleged domestic incident in June 2013.
Grucza faces a likely prison term of 12 to 18 months when he is sentenced Aug. 6 on that charge. That sentence would run concurrently with his state court sentence.
At the time of the federal plea, Grucza admitted stealing more than $200,000 in cash and merchandise from Toys R Us stores and then selling the merchandise on eBay. He also admitted stealing about $19,000 in cash from three Toys R Us stores in Pennsylvania.
Federal prosecutors said the thefts occurred after the Wells slaying.
As part of his plea agreement on the gun charge, Grucza will pay $223,000 in restitution to his former employer. Most of that, about $191,000, is a reflection of the high-priced electronic equipment he stole from Toys R Us stores in Pennsylvania and then sold on eBay.