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Buffalo man convicted in shooting tied to gambling debt

An Erie County Court jury concluded on Tuesday that a 58-year-old shooting victim knew exactly who fired three bullets into him as it found the assailant guilty of attempted murder, assault and criminal possession of a weapon.

James R. Thomas Jr., 28, of Minnesota Avenue, allegedly was looking for payback on a gambling debt on Sept. 1, 2013 when he pulled a gun on Leonard Webb, a man he knew as a family friend.

During Thomas’ trial this week, Webb told the court that he had known Thomas since about April 2013 – the young man was the nephew of a man Webb had known since childhood. The trouble started a few months before the shooting, Webb testified, when they were gambling at the uncle’s house and Webb borrowed $1,000 from Thomas, whom he knew as “JT.”

On the first day of September, Webb said, Thomas and his uncle picked Webb up at his house in a silver Volvo and the three spent the afternoon driving around, stopping at a few places and talking.

And then, he said, Thomas pulled the car over at Brunswick Boulevard and Wohlers Avenue and told Webb, “You and me need to talk about this money.”

Webb testified that they were walking up the street and Thomas was suggesting ways he could work off the debt, but that Webb told him he would rather just pay it back.

“Then I realize I’m talking to myself, and I look back and I see JT reaching into his pants,” Webb said. When Webb saw that Thomas was pulling out a gun, he ran. He was brought up short when his foot got caught in a hole in some broken concrete and Thomas shot him in the back. Webb spun around and was shot in the abdomen and fell to the ground as Thomas came and stood over him with the gun.

“I’m asking him ‘Please don’t shoot me, please don’t shoot me again,’ and he says, ‘It’s time to die,’ and he shoots me in the face,” Webb testified.

Thomas took off and Webb was able to pull his cell phone out of his pocket and call 911.

Prosecutor Christopher Belling presented the call as evidence. Jurors could hear Webb, clearly in agony, tell the dispatcher that he had been shot. He can give his location, and moans, in words slightly garbled because of his broken jaw, “Oh my God, I’m going to die,” before he also gets out that it was his friend’s nephew, the man he knew as JT, who shot him.

One bullet hit Webb in the colon and another caused dangerous internal bleeding. A physician who treated Webb at Erie County Medical Center said the injuries easily could have been fatal if Webb hadn’t gotten help so quickly.

While Webb was recovering, Thomas was making himself scarce. The Volvo he was driving, which belonged to his girlfriend, was sold two months after the shooting, according to prosecutors, and it took police more than a year to catch up with their suspect as they made the arrest on Feb. 7.

Thomas faces the possibility of between five and 25 years in prison when he is sentenced by Judge Sheila A. DiTullio on Feb. 2.