The mood was subdued in State Supreme Court Tuesday morning when Jeffrey J. Basil pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter. The defendant’s responses to Justice Penny M. Wolfgang were barely audible as he answered yes when asked if he had pushed William C. Sager Jr. down stairs on May 11, 2014, and yes, he did intend to cause him serious physical injury.
And yes, he answered, he did cause the death of the 28-year-old Air National Guardsman and Iraq War veteran.
Sager’s family and Basil’s parents sat in the courtroom for the brief proceedings and left quickly afterward.
Basil, 37, whose earlier conviction on a second-degree murder charge in the case was vacated, made the plea to the violent felony with the promise that he would not appeal the verdict.
Attorneys on both sides of the case seem satisfied with the outcome.
All of them referenced Basil’s previous conviction on the more-serious charge as a factor in the agreement. Before it was vacated due to possible juror bias, the former bar manager faced a possible sentence of 25 years to life. The Erie County District Attorney’s Office pointed out that the plea deal includes significant mandatory jail time, with the possible minimum sentence on the manslaughter charge raised to 15 years from the legally mandated eight. The maximum sentence was reduced from 25 years to 21.
Wolfgang set sentencing for at 9:30 a.m. July 22.
After court, defense attorney Joel L. Daniels said that he and co-counsel Andrew C. LoTempio had discussed the pros and cons of going to trial a second time.
“We already had a dress rehearsal, and it didn’t turn out well for us,” Daniels said. “We didn’t want to take the risk … You have to be realistic and you have to be practical.”
District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III was out of town Tuesday but issued a statement saying, in part, “We believe this plea – which will result in a lengthy prison sentence, prevent years of appellate litigation and give closure to the Sager family – is an appropriate disposition under all the circumstances.”
Prosecutor Christopher Belling deferred to First Assistant District Attorney Michael J. Flaherty Jr. to comment after the case. Flaherty said that the Sager family was consulted about the plea agreement and found it acceptable.
“This gave closure to them and a guaranteed sentence appropriate to the crime,” Flaherty said.
He called the agreement a “just result” for the victim’s family, but added, “We weren’t afraid to retry the case.”
In the first trial, the jury decided that Basil was intentionally trying to murder Sager when he angrily shoved the young man down a flight of stairs in Molly’s Pub on Main Street. Sager was there celebrating with friends following a stag party; Basil at the time was manager of the bar.
There was no evidence that the two men knew each other before Basil inexplicably attacked Sager. Sager sustained a skull fracture in the fall and died two months later.
Evidence at the first trial showed that Basil and two off-duty Buffalo police officers, Robert E. Eloff and Adam E. O’Shei, who were working security at the bar, attempted to cover up the crime rather than help the unconscious man lying on the floor.
One of the officers handcuffed Sager before both of them dragged him outside and left him in a nearby parking lot, bleeding from the ears and mouth. When a friend of Sager’s tried to help him, he was charged with trespassing, with Eloff as the complainant, according to police records.
The officers later were suspended pending the outcome of an investigation by the Buffalo Police Department. O’Shei testified with immunity before the grand jury and at the trial, telling the jury he saw Basil give Sager a two-handed shove without provocation and that he helped carry Sager out of the bar and looked after him until the ambulance arrived.
Eloff, 40, who was not granted immunity, has refused to answer questions about the night’s events. He is the subject of a federal criminal complaint of using his position as a police officer to violate the civil rights of more than one person at Molly’s Pub, including an incident Feb. 14, 2014, in which he is accused of handcuffing another patron’s hands behind his back, punching him and kicking him in the head.
If convicted of the charges against him, Eloff could face a prison sentence of more than 20 years.