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Jury convicts Cruz in North Tonawanda slaying

Dominick Cruz testified Oct. 12, 2016 at his own murder trial in Niagara County Court in Lockport, N.Y.

Dominick Cruz testified Oct. 12, 2016 at his own murder trial in Niagara County Court in Lockport, N.Y.

LOCKPORT - A Buffalo man was convicted Thursday of murdering one man and wounding another in a Jan. 10 shooting in North Tonawanda.

Dominick Cruz, 40, of Amherst Street, is to be sentenced Dec. 2 by Niagara County Judge Sara Sheldon for second-degree murder, attempted murder, first-degree assault and second-degree criminal possession of a weapon.

After a seven-day trial, the jury of seven men and five women deliberated about 2 1/2 hours before reaching a verdict that rejected Cruz' claim of self-defense.

Now Cruz faces a potential sentence of 25 years to life in state prison for the homicide, plus another 25-year maximum for the second shooting. He was ordered held without bail in the Niagara County Jail to await sentencing.

"Justice has been served," said Deputy District Attorney Doreen M. Hoffmann, who prosecuted the case along with colleague Peter M. Wydysh.

Cruz testified Wednesday that he shot and killed Mark D. Sternin Jr., 25, of the City of Tonawanda, because he thought Sternin was going to charge at him and renew a fight that had just occurred at about 1:30 a.m. in a parking lot at Manhattan and Tremont streets, near Crazy Jake's, a popular North Tonawanda bar.

He said he then saw two of Sternin's friends who had been in the brawl approaching from his left, so he turned and shot one of them, Tyler P. Sadauskas, 24, of Middleport.

Sadauskas, Sternin and a third man, Joshua Foeller, had been out celebrating Sadauskas' birthday and had been drinking heavily and using marijuana and cocaine. Cruz testified the fight started when he pulled into the parking lot and objected to Sternin urinating against the side of Sternin's car, although Hoffmann said no other witness offered that account.

Cruz claimed he said that was inappropriate because he had a woman with him, but he said he received a dismissive response, consisting of an obscenity that may have had a racial slur attached. Cruz said he and two male friends from Buffalo exited their car and a six-man fight began.

"Mark never would have said a derogatory thing about a woman," insisted Sternin's mother, Donna Sternin of Mesa, Ariz., who sat through the trial with about two dozen other friends and relatives.

The fight didn't go well for Cruz, who testified that he was quickly knocked down and was being beaten on the pavement. He managed to extricate himself and returned to his car, where he retrieved a gun.

Earlier in the evening, Cruz had stopped at home and picked up a loaded 9-millimeter pistol, which he had stashed inside the car's air filter. He testified that the gun was unregistered and that he kept the gun there to make it hard to find in case police stopped his car.

Cruz said he had heard someone say Foeller had a knife in his hand and claimed that he "saw the glint," although he couldn't describe the knife. Hoffmann noted in her summation that Cruz never claimed that the men he shot were armed.

Hoffmann told the jury, "Even under the defendant's version of events, neither was using deadly physical force. You cannot, ladies and gentlemen, shoot two unarmed individuals and call it justification."

In his closing argument, Assistant Public Defender Christopher A. Privateer admitted he was wrong when he said in his opening statement that the victims had been thrown out of multiple bars that night, but he said everyone involved was "intoxicated or extremely intoxicated."

And he told the jury to consider the effect intoxication might have had on Cruz' state of mind. He and the woman had been drinking earlier in the evening in the Seneca Niagara Casino in Niagara Falls.

Privateer said, "He was defending himself and his friends from three other men they engaged in a fight."

The defense counsel said the situation was akin to a bar fight, and he asked the jurors, "Is it reasonable for Mr. Cruz to believe that someone might have had a knife in the middle of a bar fight in North Tonawanda?"

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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