Jeffrey J. Basil pleaded guilty Tuesday morning to first-degree manslaughter, reaching an agreement with the Erie County District Attorney’s Office after his second-degree murder conviction was overturned because of juror misconduct
Basil had been convicted of the more serious charge in January, when jurors found him guilty of intentionally trying to kill William C. Sager Jr. by shoving him down a flight of stairs in Molly’s Pub in May of last year.
Sager, an Air National Guardsman and Iraq War veteran, suffered a skull fracture and died from his injuries July 31. He was 28.
State Supreme Court Justice Penny M. Wolfgang accepted Basil’s plea Tuesday morning. Basil faces 15 to 21 years in prison when he is sentenced on July 22.
Basil’s defense attorney Joel Daniels, referring to his client’s murder conviction, said, “We already had the dress rehearsal and it didn’t turn out well for us.”
Prosecutor Christopher J. Belling had previously argued that Basil, the manager at the Main Street bar, deliberately targeted Sager, even though witnesses said Sager had not been bothering anyone.
Belling, senior trial counsel at the District Attorney’s Office, said Basil put down an item he was holding so he could push Sager with both hands.
Defense attorneys had argued that Basil was not trying to kill Sager, whom he did not know, when he gave him a powerful push down the stairs.
“It was done without thinking or reasoning in a fraction of a second, an impulsive act that resulted in the death of another human being,” Andrew C. LoTempio told the jury during the trial.
At the time, LoTempio advocated for a lesser conviction of second-degree manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide, both felonies, or the misdemeanor of second-degree reckless endangerment.
Basil’s assault on Sager was aggravated by follow-up actions that prosecutors say were intended to cover up the crime. Two off-duty police officers, Robert E. Eloff and Adam E. O’Shei, were working as security for the bar. One of the officers handcuffed the unconscious Sager and the two men then dragged the victim outside and left him a short distance from the bar, bleeding from the ears and mouth. When a friend of Sager’s tried to help him in the parking lot, he was charged with trespassing, with Eloff serving as the complainant, according to police records.
The officers were suspended after the incident 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, invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and 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 two victims from Molly’s Pub. The first incident took place on Feb. 14, 2014, when Eloff is accused of arguing with a patron, handcuffing his arms behind his back and taking him to the side of the bar, where he punched him in the face and kicked him in the head.
On the night Sager was attacked, Eloff arrested and handcuffed a friend of Sager’s when he asked for Eloff’s name and badge number. Investigators say Eloff falsely arrested the friend for a crime he never committed.
Eloff and O’Shei also are accused of standing by while Basil tampered with the bar’s surveillance recordings. U.S. Attorney William Hochul said O’Shei, who was granted immunity from state charges and testified at Basil’s trial, is unlikely to be charged by federal prosecutors because of the legal obstacles created by his immunity.
Eloff, meanwhile, faces three charges – two felony and one misdemeanor – that could send him to prison for more than 20 years.
Defense attorney Herbert L. Greenman declined to comment on the charges against his client but entered a plea of not guilty on his behalf.