As a State Supreme Court jury prepares to decide today whether Robie J. Drake is guilty of murder in the 1981 shooting deaths of two North Tonawanda teenagers, an Amherst man is reminiscing about one of the victims.
Steve Galbraith, a 46-year-old construction worker, said he was a friend of Steven Rosenthal, who died Dec. 5, 1981, at age 18.
Rosenthal and his girlfriend Amy Smith, 16, were riddled with rifle bullets fired by Drake, then 17, as they sat in Rosenthal's parked car in a factory parking lot off River Road in North Tonawanda.
Drake, now 45, testified last week he was merely trying to vandalize what he thought was an abandoned car. That's the same story he told police after his arrest at about 1 a.m. Dec. 6, 1981, as he tried to stuff Smith's nude body into the trunk of the car at the nearby Niagara County landfill.
Rosenthal's corpse already had been placed into the trunk by Drake, who was convicted of two counts of second-degree murder at an October 1982 trial.
However, Drake fought 27 years for a new trial, and he finally won. In January 2009, the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals decided the guilty verdict was tainted by prosecutorial misconduct.
Then-Niagara County District Attorney Peter L. Broderick Sr. used a purported expert witness who peddled a psychological motive for murder that the federal court dismissed as "quackery."
The so-called expert also grossly inflated his resume, the court said. For example, he said he worked on thousands of cases in the Los Angeles County coroner's office when his real job was cleaning up their laboratory. Galbraith said when he heard of the new trial, "I was pretty much stunned. I thought it was over and done with."
Galbraith said he was in Drake's sixth-grade class at Gratwick Elementary School but didn't see much of him after that. They went to different junior high schools.
At North Tonawanda High School, Galbraith said, Drake was noticeable because of his military attire.
"The thing I remember about him in high school was his camouflage clothing. That was kind of weird. You could pick him out by that," Galbraith said.
Drake testified Thursday that he wore his older brother's former olive green Army shirt and jacket the day of the slayings.
Galbraith said, "I was shocked when it happened. I just couldn't believe it." The killings occurred on a Saturday night. "I didn't go to school on Monday because I just couldn't deal with it," recalled Galbraith, who like Drake and Rosenthal, was a senior at the time. "To know one of [my] own classmates did it was the bigger shock."
Galbraith said he knew Rosenthal for two or three years. "I remember the first time I met him, his family owned a house across the street from us [on Niagara Street in North Tonawanda], a rental, and he was digging a hole, fixing a sewer," he recalled.
Rosenthal's family owned a construction company, for which Galbraith worked after graduation.
"Nothing was handed to that kid. Everything he got, he worked for," Galbraith said.
Rosenthal was planning to go to college to study business.
Galbraith said he bought a 1970 Chevrolet Nova about the same time Rosenthal bought a 1969 Nova, the car he and Amy died in. Galbraith said, "We weren't in the big mainstream. About four guys used to hang out together. We were the car guys. We didn't fit in with the jocks or the nerds."
Among their activities were running the cars on Sunday afternoons near the landfill where Drake would be caught with the bodies of his victims.
"I'm familiar with the area," Galbraith said. "I knew that if your car broke down out there, it was probably going to
get shot up."
Drake testified that he often went to that area to shoot at construction vehicles and other debris. Police testified that stolen cars were sometimes abandoned near the landfill. But Rosenthal's attention wandered from old cars after he met Amy.
"The last two weeks of his life, I hadn't seen much of him," Galbraith remembered. "I guess he had just started dating her, and you know how it is. A girl comes into the picture and you forget about your friends."
But Steve Galbraith said he will never forget Steven Rosenthal.
"I think of him often. Every milestone in my life, I think about what he missed," Galbraith said.