Cody J. Jeffords did not even know 19-year-old Justin Vanderwalker before he beat him to death in a parking lot in Cheektowaga last spring during a jealous rage.
But Jeffords learned more about the young man he killed before he was sentenced Wednesday morning to 24 years in prison on his manslaughter conviction.
When Colleen Vanderwalker stood up in Erie County Court, she said she was there to be a voice for her son. Setting a photo of Justin on the table in front of her, she proudly described her third and youngest child, a teenager who by his nature was selfless, giving and happy with what he had in life.
"He liked and wanted to be counted on," Colleen Vanderwalker said. "He never expected anything in return."
She told how Justin was happy to babysit his younger relatives and how he once took off his sweatshirt and gave it to a homeless man he saw outside on a cold night. He respected his elders, she said, and made a point of keeping company with a 92-year-old aunt at family functions.
She also told how that aunt died a few months before Justin was killed, and that because of the woman's age there were few people left to mourn her.
"He kind of joked that he hoped more people would come to his funeral," she said. "There were 800 people at my son's service."
She also spoke about the night they were called to the hospital because their son was badly hurt.
On May 25, Vanderwalker was visiting a young woman who invited him to her apartment on Slate Creek Drive in Cheektowaga. While he was there, Jeffords barged in. Jeffords was the woman's ex-boyfriend and he chased Vanderwalker outside and punched him in the head, knocking him to the ground. While Vanderwalker lay helpless, Jeffords brutally pounded him in the face and head.
Colleen Vanderwalker said that, when she and her husband arrived at the hospital, their son was unrecognizable.
"He didn't even look human," she told. "Medical personnel at the hospital said they had never seen so much damage done by bare hands."
And then they heard the worst. The doctor treating Vanderwalker said that his injuries did not appear to be survivable.
"We were told that if he did make it, he would not be the same Justin we had known," she said.
As the family struggled to come to terms with that information, they learned that Justin had lost all
blood flow to his brain. With their hope for him gone, they decided that the best thing would be to donate his organs.
"We take comfort knowing seven individuals received the benefits of Justin's last selfless act," she said.
Then, she turned to Jeffords, whose name she said she could barely stand to say. She told him that the night her son died he "crossed paths with evil," and that, while her family is "trying very hard not to be consumed with anger," she will never forgive him.
"You don't deserve it," she said, reminding him that just weeks after Justin Vanderwalker died, Jeffords and the woman involved were back together and announcing their engagement.
"He was making long-term plans," she said angrily before she asked the judge to consider the maximum possible sentence for her son's killer.
"Twenty-five years is not long enough," she said.
Attorney Brian Parker, speaking for Jeffords, did not excuse his client's actions, but did point out that Jeffords immediately admitted responsibility after he realized what he had done.
Jeffords also apologized and told the Vanderwalkers that he hopes God will help heal their pain.
Judge Sheila A. DiTullio acknowledged Jeffords' remorse and the fact that he had a troubled upbringing. His father died of a drug overdose when he was 8, and his mother was alcoholic and abusive.
However, the judge said, that didn't excuse what happened.
“No one should be subjected to the kind of violence you inflicted on Justin,” DiTullio said. "You got angry and your response to anger was to beat Justin Vanderwalker unmercifully. It is estimated by examiners that you punched the deceased more than 30 times before he passed away.”
"Violence is not the answer to anger,” she told him.