Tina Berry knew the day would come, but she still cried when she learned earlier this month that one of the three men convicted of killing her daughter 17 years ago will be released from prison next month.
"I found out over the phone while I was at work, at 8:05 in the morning," she said Friday. "I had to leave work. It was a really bad day."
Kyle A. Cummings, 15 at the time of the crime, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the Dec. 14, 2002, killing of Jennifer Bolender, a 16-year-old from Niagara Falls. She was stabbed more than 40 times, with her throat cut, and left for dead on an expressway overpass in the Falls.
Cummings was sentenced to six years to life in prison.
"I didn't think that somebody would be capable of doing what they did to her," Berry said.
He's been parole-eligible for a decade. Over the years, Berry has attended about a half dozen Parole Board hearings concerning Cummings, now 32.
"It's just not fair," Berry said. "People think that Kyle's innocent. He's not innocent."
Cummings' brother, Christopher D. Cummings, then 14, and another man, Daniel W. Pardee, then 19, were more culpable in her death than Kyle Cummings, according to testimony in Pardee's 2003 trial.
But it was Kyle Cummings who gave Pardee a switchblade with which Pardee first stabbed Jennifer, said Niagara County District Attorney Caroline A. Wojtaszek.
Kyle Cummings helped Pardee drag the girl's body 137 feet from the base of the overpass to its apex.
Kyle Cummings also threw the switchblade into a sewer grate; it was never found.
He also accompanied his brother Christopher and Pardee back to the scene, where Pardee and Christopher Cummings again stabbed the girl. Then they buried their bloody clothes and Jennifer's coat in the Cummings' backyard on 72nd Street in the Falls.
"He didn't kill her, but he helped move her body. He provided the knife that initially attacked my daughter," Berry said. "What if he didn't provide that knife? They wouldn't have stabbed her. Maybe she'd still be alive today."
Kyle Cummings confessed everything to police four days after the slaying, entered an early guilty plea that forced his brother to do likewise, and served as a key witness at Pardee's trial.
Pardee, now 36, was convicted and is serving 25 years to life. Christopher Cummings, 31, who like his brother was a juvenile at the time of the murder, was sentenced to nine years to life, a sentence that was amended to 10½ years to life after he assaulted a prison employee, according to Wojtaszek.
Before the Parole Board
Berry moved to Florida 10 years ago and does clerical work in a dentist's office in central Florida. Every two years for the past decade, she has flown to Buffalo to testify in Parole Board hearings about the Cummings brothers.
Berry talked to the board in early August, while Kyle Cummings met with the board three weeks later.
Normally, the board considers a case every two years, but in Kyle Cummings' case, the interval had been cut to 18 months. Berry said some parole officials told her that might have been a tip-off that parole was in the offing.
"I tried to change it up a little bit," Berry said of her strategy for the August meeting. "I've always said what happened to Jennifer, what was done to her."
But she had access to the transcripts of Cummings' previous appearances before the board. So this time, she tried to use his words against him.
"He contradicts himself in some of it, so I tried to point that out to the Parole Board members," Berry said. "In one of them, he says he was raised with no morals, stuff like that, but he wants to go back to the same family. He's using that (to explain) why he did what he did."
Some Parole Board members, she said, told her they were under political pressure.
"I was told over and over again by different people, even some of the Parole Board members, they're trying to rehabilitate some of the younger offenders who commit crimes. They want them rehabilitated and out of the system," Berry said.
"I don't really feel that the Parole Board members can do their job if they have pressure coming from elsewhere, being told that they have to get these people out of jail, that they have to release more inmates," Berry said. "I feel like their jobs are on the line, you have to do what you're told or you're going to lose your job."
In an email, a Parole Board spokesman said its members are independent and confirmed by the State Senate.
Their decisions are based "on whether the standards for release are satisfied by law," the statement said. "Before making a final decision, the Board members must follow statutory requirements which take into consideration many factors, including statements made by victims and victims’ families, as well as an individual’s criminal history, institutional accomplishments, potential to successfully reintegrate into the community, and perceived danger to public safety."
A girl and her killers
Jennifer Bolender knew Kyle Cummings and Pardee. Berry said she remembers Kyle Cummings calling her home to talk to Jennifer a couple of times. A few days before the murder, Jennifer had an altercation with Kyle Cummings and Pardee at the Factory Outlet Mall in the Town of Niagara.
After an argument, Pardee grabbed her by her throat and shoved her against a wall, Berry said.
She does not believe Jennifer ever met Christopher Cummings – until he sliced the dying girl's throat with a kitchen knife, according to trial testimony.
The initial attack at the base of the LaSalle Expressway overpass was triggered by Jennifer's refusal to kiss Pardee, according to testimony. The attack came after another argument between her and Pardee that night at Beverly Lanes, a Niagara Falls bowling establishment.
Berry said she asked to meet with her daughter's killers to learn more about what happened, but the Parole Board and the state Crime Victims Board would not set up a meeting.
"I don't know if I would have seen something different in Kyle, but I was not given that opportunity," she said.
That, along with his parole, has left Berry bitter.
Normally, a parolee remains under supervision until his maximum sentence would have expired. Kyle Cummings was sentenced to six years to life, so theoretically, he could be on parole until he dies.
"Unfortunately, in New York State, every three years he has an opportunity to request that he be dismissed from parole," Berry said.
That's true, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision said in an email to The Buffalo News.
"Discharge will not be granted unless the Board of Parole is satisfied that such a discharge is in the best interest of the community and the parolee has made a favorable adjustment to parole or the period of post-release supervision," the statement said.
"So eventually, someday, he could be free of everything," Berry said. "I asked, would he be on an ankle monitor? No. How often does he have to report for parole? I believe it was in the first month, every week, and then after that, (the parole officer) didn't say, but I believe it would be once a month after that, which is ridiculous."
A parolee who violates the law or the rules set down by the parole officer could be taken before an administrative law judge, who decides whether the parolee goes back to prison and for how long, the DOCCS spokesman said.
"His parole officer did tell me while he's under his watch, (Cummings) will not do anything wrong or he'll be back in prison," Berry said. "How close of an eye is he really keeping on him? How many other defendants does he have to watch?"
After his release on or about Oct. 10 from medium-security Cayuga Correctional Facility, Kyle Cummings will live with one of his sisters in Niagara Falls.
Christopher Cummings is eligible for parole from medium-security Cape Vincent Correctional Facility in November 2020. Pardee, an inmate at maximum-security Green Haven Correctional Facility, isn't eligible for his first parole hearing until 2028.