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Cheektowaga landlord says he felt threatened before shooting tenant

Thomas M. Szczesniak felt threatened when he and his upstairs tenant, Joseph P. Lawrence, started arguing in the driveway of Szczesniak’s Cheektowaga home last fall.

“I needed to protect myself. I shot him in the stomach,” he told police during an interview later that night at the Cheektowaga police station.

“You’re a dead (expletive),” he said Lawrence told him after he shot his 54-year-old tenant.

Szczesniak, 54, is charged with second-degree murder in the Oct. 24 fatal shooting outside his home on Woodell Street.

A video of his police statement was played Tuesday during a pretrial hearing on whether the statement was voluntarily given and can be used as evidence against him.

The hearing is expected to resume next Wednesday before State Supreme Court Justice Penny M. Wolfgang.

Detective Donald Strozyk, who conducted the interview, along with another detective, said he read Szczesniak his Miranda rights and the defendant agreed to the interview.

Szczesniak told the detectives he was at work that morning at an Amherst auto dealership when Lawrence called him to report that someone had broken a lock on an outside first-floor door to the home.

He said he returned home to take care of the problem and report it to police. He said his tenant was not there when he arrived.

That afternoon, Szczesniak said he went to a bar where he ran into Lawrence, who had been drinking and was “hammered.” He said they had some drinks together, then went to a restaurant to pick up some food before returning home in Szczesniak’s truck.

They got into an argument in the driveway. At first, Szczesniak told detectives he had no idea what the argument was about, but he later said they were arguing over the broken lock and “stupid” stuff.

He said he was afraid of Lawrence, who was bigger than him, fearing that his tenant would beat him. At one point, he said Lawrence put his hands around his shoulders.

Szczesniak said he pulled out his gun, which he carried in a holster in his waistband and had a permit for. “I unloaded my weapon, one shot, into his stomach,” he said.

“I had to use my firearm to protect myself,” he added.

Emergency responders and police arrived at the scene around 7 p.m. following a 911 call.

Officer Jose Domenech testified that he and his partner found Szczesniak in the driveway where first responders were tending to the victim.

He said he checked Szczesniak for weapons and found an ammunition magazine in his pocket. He said one of the volunteer firemen at the scene gave his partner the gun.

After putting Szczesniak in the back of the patrol car, he said he asked the defendant if he was OK, and Szczesniak told him the victim had been giving him a hard time.

Later, as the defendant was getting out of the car at the police station, Domenech said Szczesniak told him he feared for his life that night and told his partner that Lawrence was trying to kill him.