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Arrest made in Watkins' shooting death; Suspect, 18, turns himself in to police; Town Board lauds police investigation

A Cheektowaga teen is scheduled to be arraigned this morning on a charge of second-degree murder in the fatal May 31 shooting death of Ira Watkins Jr. in Cheektowaga Town Park.

Dontre Jones, 18, of nearby Alexander Avenue, turned himself in to authorities Wednesday shortly after he was indicted by an Erie County grand jury in the shooting of the 19-year-old Watkins in the park after Watkins intervened in a scuffle involving a water balloon fight.

"Eight months and 22 days," said Cheektowaga Police Chief David Zack, reflecting on the elapsed time of his department's time-intensive, detail-oriented investigation that he believes has effectively netted the shooter.

"Jones was on our radar very early on in the investigation," Zack said. "I cautioned our community that these types of investigations take time. The crime scene was the Town Park and the side streets adjacent to it."

The chief said because of the large crime scene and the number of potential witnesses who were there -- about 100 people -- there were a lot of interviews to conduct, physical evidence to comb through, video to review, data to collect and files to review with prosecutors.

"That was just a huge, huge task going through all that stuff," Zack said. "That's why we said, 'It's not going to be hours and days, it's going to be weeks and months.'

"What we didn't want to do was rush to an arrest just to put a good face on it. We wanted to get a conviction, not just make an arrest," the chief added.

Watkins, of Buffalo, a second-year student at Erie Community College majoring in criminal justice, apparently tried to mediate a dispute that erupted in the park between rival gang members. The dispute arose after a group of people -- responding to invitations on social networking sites -- arrived there for a preplanned "water balloon fight," Zack said.

"You had this gang element show up," Zack said. "There was this confrontation among rivals. Ira attempted to mediate the dispute, gunfire erupted, and he was struck."

The shooting took place near the basketball courts in the rear of the park just before 8 p.m. Some of Watkins' friends who were with him picked him up and drove him across Harlem Road to the St. Joseph Campus of Sisters Hospital, but he was dead by the time they arrived.

Watkins' mother, Vanessa James, told The Buffalo News in the days after her son's death that the bullet struck him directly in the heart.

The 6-foot-3 Watkins was a 2009 graduate of Riverside High School, where he started as an All-High basketball player. He was also working as a manager at the Taco Bell in Walden Galleria and hoped to attend a four-year college after studying at ECC, with aspirations of entering area law enforcement or playing basketball professionally.

Family members said Watkins was always working to get ahead in life, whether through education, employment or caring for his young daughter. He went out of his way, they said, to avoid the dangers of street violence and instead became a victim.

Town officials, during their regularly scheduled board meeting Wednesday night, credited Zack and the 21 detectives who worked to solve the case.

"Yes, it took nine months, but we found the shooter," said Council Member James P. Rogowski. "It sends a message that if you're going to do a crime in Cheektowaga, we will get you."

Rogowski said Jones' arrest was important for town residents, too, because the Town Park is a place where families go for picnics, festivals and fun. They can rest assured it is safe, said Rogowski.

Watkins' fatal shooting in Town Park prompted Cheektowaga town officials in November to approve the purchase and installation of six high-tech digital surveillance cameras for the park, doubling the town's video surveillance at the park.

The new system is equipped with zooming video capabilities that will enable officers to more clearly identify criminal suspects.

News Staff Reporter Maki Becker contributed to this report.

email: tpignataro@buffnews.com