LOCKPORT - Dominick Cruz, a Buffalo man accused of shooting one man to death and seriously wounding another during a brawl in a North Tonawanda parking lot, testified Wednesday that he fired in self-defense, thinking one of the men involved in the fight had a knife.
The case is expected to go to the jury Thursday, the seventh day of the murder trial before Niagara County Judge Sara Sheldon.
In an unexpected move, Cruz, 40, of Amherst Street, took the stand and admitted that he shot and killed Mark D. Sternin Jr., 25, of the City of Tonawanda, and wounded Tyler P. Sadauskas, 24, of Middleport, on Jan. 10.
Cruz was with a woman and two other Buffalo men. He told Assistant Public Defender Christopher A. Privateer that their car had just pulled into a parking lot at Manhattan and Tremont streets in North Tonawanda about 1:30 a.m., when Cruz took exception to a man, whom he identified as Sternin, urinating against the side of a car a couple of parking spaces away. He and his friends, Sadauskas and Joshua Foeller, had been drinking all night as they went from bar to bar to celebrate Sadauskas' birthday.
Cruz said he objected to the public urination because he had a woman in his car.
"I was telling him it was disrespectful. He said it was none of my business," Cruz said. He said the response included an obscenity, perhaps with a racial slur added.
He and his two friends then exited their car and a six-man fight broke out. Cruz said he was knocked down and ended up on the pavement under Sternin while the others fought above him. He eventually extricated himself and ran back to his car, where he told the woman he was with to "pop the hood." That's because earlier in the evening, Cruz had picked up a 9-millimeter handgun at his home and stashed it inside the car's air filter. The woman ran away, so Cruz opened the hood himself and grabbed the loaded gun.
Cruz testified that Sadauskas and Foeller ran off, but Sternin stayed near his car. Cruz said Sternin "had this look in his eyes like, 'I don't care.' He looked drunk. ... I was scared. He rushed toward me. I pulled out a weapon. Normally when you pull out a weapon, it all stops."
But he said Sternin didn't stop coming on, so he shot Sternin at a range of about two feet "just to get him to stop."
Before he got the gun, Cruz said he saw "a glint" in Foeller's hand, and he heard someone say Foeller had a knife. Cruz claimed he saw the knife, but was unable to describe it. "It was too fast," Cruz explained.
He said as he shot Sternin, he saw the other two men coming back toward him, so he pivoted and fired again, shooting Sadauskas. Then Cruz and his two friends from Buffalo drove off.
Deputy District Attorney Doreen M. Hoffmann went to work on cross-examination to try to undermine Cruz's self-defense claim. She got Cruz to admit he could have moved his car to avoid the man urinating.
"You could have made a choice to just go into the bar and ignore them," Hoffmann said. Cruz agreed.
The prosecutor also questioned the knife story. "While three people are on top of you, you can see a knife in a dark parking lot?" Hoffmann asked. Cruz said he did see the knife.
Hoffmann said of the confrontation with Sternin, "You saw nothing in his hand, but you pulled the trigger and shot him anyway."
"Because he was trying to grab me," Cruz replied.
Hoffmann also got Cruz to admit that he stashed the gun in the air filter to make it hard to find if he was stopped by police; that he never tried to register the gun; and that he cut it up for scrap after he fled to Pennsylvania the next day. Cruz was apprehended April 1 in Lancaster, Pa.