LOCKPORT – Eugene Stewart, a Niagara Falls man who drew his first jail sentence in 1977, has been in prison most of the time since then.
On Friday State Supreme Court Justice Richard C. Kloch Sr. sent him back behind bars for 12 to 24 years for committing four burglaries in the Falls last year, including one after which he fought with a police officer.
Stewart, 56, started with a couple of one-year sentences for misdemeanors and entered the felony leagues in 1981 with convictions for attempted second-degree assault and attempted second-degree burglary. In 1983, he was convicted of first-degree manslaughter, and he had more burglary convictions in 2002 and 2005.
Stewart took the plea deal to four counts of third-degree burglary as his trial was to begin Jan. 12, with the prosecution planning to seek a life sentence for him as a persistent felon. As things turned out, there’s a chance he might not see freedom again until age 80.
“Don’t throw him away,” Assistant Public Defender Michele G. Bergevin urged Kloch. The defense attorney said she had long, philosophical conversations with Stewart at the Niagara County Jail and found him to be pleasant and intelligent, having earned a college degree in prison. She said he’s popular with the correction officers and sheriff’s deputies.
“Does he deserve to go to prison for the rest of his life for breaking into houses when there are people in his pod (at the jail) who have shot people, who are going to do seven years?” Bergevin asked. “He’s found God. He wants to be a thriving member of society.”
“I’m sick of doing time. It’s all I know,” Stewart said.
Kloch conceded that Stewart has been “a gentleman every time he’s been in court.” But he also read aloud a letter from one of the burglary victims, who said his home was burglarized three times in six months. The man said he thought Stewart was preying on him and demanded the maximum sentence.
“Sorry, but I’ve got to sentence you for these crimes,” Kloch told Stewart. The judge speculated that if one of the judges who handled Stewart’s early cases had tried him on probation, Stewart’s life might have turned out differently.
In another case, Kloch imposed a 10-year probation term on Clayton J. Kelkenberg Jr., 35, of Redwood Lane, Newfane, who pleaded guilty to second-degree course of sexual conduct against a child for molesting a girl in Lockport, where Kelkenberg then lived, from 2008 to 2013. She was under age 13 when the incidents began. Kloch spent 15 minutes reading conditions for Kelkenberg to follow. Violations could lead to a prison term of as long as seven years.
“I think probation is a tough sentence. I think it’s the best sentence,” Kloch said, explaining that there are consequences if defendants can’t handle rules.