She had $13,000 worth of fur coats, a $27,000 diamond bracelet and a $3,000 pair of designer sunglasses. She bought True Religion brand jeans for more than $200 a pair.
She spent $500 a week on cocaine and heroin, money she said she made by selling drugs on the street, not at the East Side home where she took care of a 96-year-old church deacon before he was fatally beaten during a 2012 home invasion.
Paula Denise Goree Smith, a 56-year-old recovering drug addict, said the deacon knew she had a drug problem but never saw her selling or using drugs.
Four young men who believed that the house on Longview Avenue was loaded with drug money broke into the home on Nov. 24, 2012, leading to the vicious beating of Levi Clayton, who died nearly five months later.
A judge on Wednesday convicted two of the defendants – Shaquar Pratcher, 18, and Elhajji Elshabazz, 23, – of second-degree murder after presiding at the bench trial.
State Supreme Court Justice Christopher J. Burns said the proof established that the defendants’ actions that night set in motion a cascading series of events that led to the victim’s death on April 9, 2013.
The judge said he considered the medical testimony and evidence about the victim’s injuries, the treatment doctors gave him and his health before the home invasion in finding that the defendants were responsible for his death.
Joel L. Daniels, Pratcher’s attorney, said he would appeal the verdict, because he felt there is a question whether the injuries were responsible for Clayton’s death.
Joseph J. Terranova, Elshabazz’s attorney, said that while the judge found the assault was a contributing factor in Clayton’s death based on the testimony of Erie County’s former chief medical examiner, the defense had presented a gerontologist who testified that based on a review of the medical records, he found that Alzheimer’s disease “had taken the life of Mr. Clayton.”
Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III said prosecutors didn’t have to prove that the injuries were the sole and exclusive cause of death, only that they contributed to the chain of circumstances that caused death. He said that while Clayton’s dementia probably contributed to his death, another contributing factor “was the fact that he had his entire face broken by these sociopaths,” noting that Clayton suffered a dozen facial fractures.
The judge also convicted both defendants of two counts of first-degree burglary and found Pratcher guilty of second-degree criminal possession of a weapon.
They face a minimum prison sentence of 15 years to life and a maximum of 25 years to life when they are sentenced May 14.
The other two defendants – Justice Feggans, 19, a basketball star at Riverside High School, and Jordan McKinnon, 20 – had pleaded guilty to attempted first-degree burglary.
Prosecutors said Feggans was the one who came up with the idea of breaking into the home but didn’t want to go in. McKinnon was the getaway driver.
Both testified at the trial. They face up to 15 years in prison when they are sentenced May 14.
Smith, whose mother was a friend of Clayton’s, had moved in to take care of the deacon, who lived alone following the death of his wife, in 2006. Smith testified that she moved in after she was paroled from federal prison in Michigan where she had been serving a sentence for bank fraud.
In April 2012, federal drug agents raided the Clayton home, seizing shotguns, handguns and Smith’s drug paraphernalia for weighing drugs. She eventually pleaded guilty to two felony drug charges in Erie County Court and was referred to the judicial diversion program for drug treatment.
The home’s exterior had four surveillance cameras, which captured Pratcher and Elshabazz pulling up to the house the night of the break-in in a minivan with Feggans and Mc-Kinnon, according to Assistant District Attorney Michael P. Felicetta in his opening statement.
After Smith left the house with her brother to go shopping, Felicetta said, Pratcher and Elshabazz were seen on the security camera video in the backyard with a knife and a gun. One of them slit the screen on the window where Clayton’s bedroom was located, but they ran away when they saw Clayton, he said.
Pratcher returned to the backyard with Feggans, Felicetta said. Feggans boosted Pratcher up to the window, handed him the gun, then followed him into the bedroom, he said.
Clayton tried unsuccessfully to stop them from entering, throwing a lamp at them.
Once inside, Feggans testified last week, he went to open the side door while Pratcher stayed in the bedroom. When Feggans returned, he said he saw Pratcher standing over Clayton.
“I had to put the old man down,” Feggans said Pratcher told him.
Feggans admitted that he didn’t see Pratcher hit Clayton, who suffered massive facial injuries, including fractures of the jaw, a broken nose and a hematoma on the brain.
After Pratcher told Feggans about putting down Clayton, Pratcher unlocked the front door and let Elshabazz in. They searched the upstairs for drugs and money, while Feggans searched the downstairs. But after about 10 minutes, they ran out of the house when a neighbor pulled up in a car.
Feggans said they ended up getting only a couple hundred dollars apiece after finding a lockbox filled with cash.
He said they believed there was about $100,000 in the house because Smith’s brother was a big-time drug dealer and they had seen a rap video of him standing in front of the house flashing money.
When Smith returned home from shopping, she found the house ransacked and Clayton curled up in a fetal position on the bed and unable to talk.
He was rushed to Erie County Medical Center where he underwent surgery but never fully recovered, Felicetta said. He lost his mobility, his hearing and his sight and suffered post traumatic stress, cowering when nurses entered his room at a nursing home where he spent several months.
“He had lost his will to survive,” the prosecutor said.
He died at the Veterans Administration Medical Center.