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Trial of Cheektowaga man accused of fatally shooting friend begins

Friends and relatives of Joseph P. Lawrence filled the State Supreme Court courtroom Monday for the bench trial of Thomas M. Szczesniak, the man accused of fatally shooting Lawrence last fall in the driveway of a house the men shared in Cheektowaga.

The event shocked people who knew the two men, who had been friends for more than 40 years.

A few months before his death, Lawrence, 54, had moved into the upstairs apartment of Szczesniak’s Woodell Street home, and the two frequently socialized.

Witnesses testified Monday that on Oct. 24, the day of the shooting, the pair and another friend had spent the afternoon drinking in a nearby bar.

Szczesniak, 54, is charged with second-degree murder in Lawrence’s death. He has been held without bail since his arrest shortly after the shooting.

In his opening statement, Assistant District Attorney Gary W. Hackbush told State Supreme Court Justice Penny M. Wolfgang that Lawrence was gunned down outside his apartment by his friend because of a misunderstanding over a damaged lock.

Hackbush said that a company was foreclosing on Szczesniak’s house and had sent a person to drill out the lock on the door.

Apparently, neither man who lived there knew about the action.

Scott Shisley testified that when he was picking Lawrence up that day to work with him on a handyman job, Lawrence was examining the damaged lock and showed him the brass shavings.

“He wasn’t sure if we should lock that or board it up. He wound up calling (Szczesniak),” Shisley testified.

They went to their job and returned to the house in the early afternoon, Shisley said. When they went inside the side door, he said, Szczesniak came out of his downstairs flat.

“He was flashing his gun in his pants. That’s when he said if anyone tried to break into his house, he’d shoot first and ask questions later,” Shisley testified. He added that, while he wasn’t scared, he was shocked by the statement.

When Lawrence went up to his apartment to change his clothes, Shisley said, the defendant took him aside.

“He asked me if I knew if (Lawrence) had anything to do with drilling the locks. I told him I had no idea,” Shisley said.

The questions continued, he testified, when the three men were out drinking together that afternoon.

“He asked me two or three times if (Lawrence) had anything to do with it. It was sounding accusing,” Shisley said.

Even so, he said, Szczesniak and Lawrence otherwise seemed to be getting along and he didn’t notice any trouble between them. He left before the other two did, expecting Szczesniak to drive Lawrence home.

William Palmer, who lives next door to Szczesniak’s house, testified that at around 7 p.m. on Oct. 24 he heard a loud explosion – a “pop” sound – and detected a gunpowder smell wafting through his kitchen window.

He went out onto his second-floor porch and saw two men in the driveway below, one on the ground and the other appearing to console the fallen man.

He said he thought at first the sound could be from fireworks or from a weapon misfiring, but then asked if he should call an ambulance. Szczesniak said yes.

Susan Bull, a volunteer firefighter and second assistant chief with the Walden Fire District, was among the first on the scene. She testified that her team arrived within minutes of the call and she immediately asked Szczesniak what had happened.

“He said, ‘I shot him,’ ” Bull testified. “I said, ‘What?’ and he said, ‘I shot him’ again.”

Bull said she asked Szczesniak where the gun was and he revealed it in his waistband. Another firefighter removed the gun and turned it over to police when they arrived.

Lawrence, who was shot once in the abdomen, was rushed to Erie County Medical Center, where he died during surgery.

Szczesniak reportedly told police at the time of his arrest that he was acting in self-defense. In the opening statement, the defense made the case that both men were highly intoxicated at the time and that Szczesniak stayed with his friend until help arrived and cooperated fully with police.

Prosecutors expect to finish presenting their case on Tuesday.