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JURORS HEAR ACCOUNTS OF 17 SECONDS OF TERROR
City Grill trial opens with dramatic testimony from grieving widow, victim

The City Grill massacre started with five quick gunshots.

After a brief pause, three more shots. Another pause, and then the shooter fired the final two rounds.

The terror lasted 17 seconds -- seemingly an eternity for those frantically running away from the gunman around 2:30 a.m. last Aug. 14 outside the downtown Main Street restaurant.

The heartbreak still lasts.

In his opening statement Friday at defendant Riccardo M. McCray's quadruple-murder trial, prosecutor James F. Bargnesi called the fatal shooting of four people and the wounding of four others "a simple case of disgusting and senseless terror and gun violence."

"Eight total victims from this scene of death and injury on a level this city has never seen," Bargnesi said in Erie County Court. "Lives destroyed and families torn to shreds in a matter of 17 seconds."

Bargnesi previewed the evidence against McCray: footage from two surveillance cameras, eyewitness testimony from those inside and outside the restaurant, and jailhouse informants who claim McCray has spilled details about what happened while locked up with them.

But for all of the emotional testimony and eyewitness identification on the trial's first day, there were also signs the prosecution has its challenges.

One of the wounded victims had to be arrested this week and brought into court in handcuffs and shackles because he didn't want to testify.

That's the kind of witness Bargnesi had in mind when he told prospective jurors earlier this week that "we're going to swim in the mud for the next couple of weeks."

In the defense's opening statement, Joseph J. Terranova, McCray's lawyer, said he questions the reliability of eyewitness testimony in such a chaotic scene and the truthfulness of other witnesses. He said he would point out the criminals who will be getting deals from prosecutors in exchange for testimony against McCray.

"There are some pretty disreputable characters who will come in here and purport to take an oath and testify about what they say happened," Terranova told jurors.

"I'm not swimming in the mud," he said. "I'll be the guy with the fire hose. I want to clean them up so you can recognize them for what they are."

Bargnesi revealed surprising details from when police conducted an aggressive search for McCray in the weeks after the shootings.

McCray fled to North Carolina while law enforcement officers ranging from the Buffalo Homicide Squad and SWAT personnel to special agents from the FBI looked for him. During the manhunt, while McCray was on his way back to Buffalo, a New York State trooper pulled over the car in which McCray was a back-seat passenger. McCray claimed he did not have any identification on him. The trooper, unaware McCray was a wanted man, let him go.

McCray also telephoned a Buffalo detective during the manhunt.

"While the hunt is ongoing and intensifying, this defendant himself called [a] detective of the Buffalo Police Department," Bargnesi said. "They actually talked on the phone."

The detective offered to meet McCray anytime and anywhere and said that he had nothing to fear.

McCray said he was headed back to Buffalo and would surrender in four hours.

"But he never does," Bargnesi said. "This defendant never contacted police upon his arrival in Buffalo."

Rather, he surrendered 11 days after the shooting at Channel 4's studios on Elmwood Avenue, where Bargnesi said he lied in an interview.

After Friday's opening statements from the prosecutor and defense lawyer, the first witnesses took the stand, two of them offering dramatic testimony about what they saw while at City Grill.

Tanisha Mackin of Austin, Texas, told of how she and her husband Danyell arrived at City Grill around 12:45 a.m., paying a $20 admission fee, to celebrate with friends on the first floor of the restaurant.

But when arguments broke out on the second floor -- apparently sparked by champagne being sprayed from bottles -- the restaurant shut down all of the parties and ordered patrons out of the building.

She was following her husband out of the building and toward a parking lot across Main Street where they had parked.

"I just heard a gunshot and ran back into the City Grill," Tanisha Mackin said Friday.

Her husband didn't make it back inside, however.

Later, she saw him lying on the ground, on his stomach, looking around. He got up and walked back across the Metro Rail tracks toward the restaurant.

"He was sluggish. He was shot," she said.

But for him, more terror was to come.

As the gunman ran back across Main Street toward the parking lot, he encountered Mackin again, Bargnesi said.

Danyell Mackin, who had already been struck by one of the first bullets, was struggling to get up off the ground, Bargnesi said, citing the surveillance footage.

As he sees his assailant coming for him again, he gets back down on his stomach and covers himself, hoping the gunman will run past him.

"But this defendant wasn't finished with this horror just yet," Bargnesi said. "You'll see the defendant, as he runs past the groom, this defendant deliberately bends down and places his hand on the upper back of Danyell Mackin."

Not to take anything or to check on him.

"Instead, as he bends down, he fires his gun for the final time, this time directly into the back of that victim at nearly point-blank range," Bargnesi said.

A tearful Mackin, on the witness stand, described her husband's final moments.

"His eyes were starting to roll to the back of his head," she said. "He cocked his head to the side, and he died."

One of the wounded victims also took the stand Friday -- but not willingly.

James Robbs Jr. was arrested this week and put in the Holding Center to ensure he appeared in court, where he showed up in handcuffs and shackles.

Robbs recounted how he held in his arms his dying friend, Willie McCaa III, during the moments after the shootings. He also admitted lying to police days later when he said he could not identify the shooter.

Robbs said he "didn't want to be put in this situation" of testifying. "I didn't want to come to court," he said.

Pressed by Terranova to explain his reluctance, even though Robbs himself was shot and his close friend killed, Robbs said life "is different in my world and your world."

Though he remained a reluctant witness, Robbs identified McCray as the City Grill shooter.

Robbs said he knows McCray by McCray's street name, "Murder," and admitted lying to police four days after the shootings.

"I said I didn't know who it was," Robbs said during questioning from Bargnesi. "I didn't want nothing to do with this case, this court proceeding. Nothing."

But after talking to his girlfriend and the mother of one of the victims, Robbs was more forthcoming when detectives again interviewed him 10 days after the shootings.

He identified McCray in photographs, writing "shooter" on the ones that showed McCray.

Robbs also wrote, " 'Murder' is the person who shot me,' " and signed one of the photographs prosecutors have from the scene.

When Bargnesi asked Robbs in court who shot him, Robbs replied, "Murder."

Robbs said he has known McCray, at least by his street name, for more than a decade from seeing him in his Grider Street neighborhood. He also talked to him on the dance floor inside the City Grill, where hundreds of party-goers had gathered for a party sponsored by a promoter. Robbs said he saw McCray with a gun after the restaurant shut down the party and people were heading outside the building.

"I heard the shots but didn't see him fire," Robbs said.

Robbs said he held McCaa for what "seemed like forever."

Robbs grew emotional and had to wipe tears away as he haltingly testified about holding his friend.

Some of the family members and friends watching the proceedings left the courtroom, visibly upset during Robbs' testimony and when prosecutors showed video footage of the City Grill crowd running from the shooting scene.

News Staff Reporters Matt Gryta and Joseph Popiolkowski contributed to this report.

e-mail: plakamp@buffnews.com

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