BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – In court Monday morning, Bernard Grucza admitted he stabbed Larry Wells to death inside the back office of a Toys R Us store in Hamburg last June.
The 39 year old Grucza pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter as part of a plea deal. Wells’ murder remained a mystery for months, with the only evidence police had was a baseball cap with DNA on it. Three and a half months later, investigators arrested Grucza at his home in Allegany.
Grucza was the regional asset protection manager in charge of loss prevention for Toys R Us and was at the scene of the crime that day, hugging co-workers and chatting with police.
Defense Attorney Frank Housh said, “At the time that my client committed this offense, he was trying to get money to support his family. He did not anticipate encountering Larry Wells. The death was the result of an unfortunate encounter in an enclosed space. He knew Larry Wells. Larry Wells was a friend of his. He had no desire to see Larry Wells harmed.”
Housh says Grucza’s wife was battling cancer and the family was struggling financially and his client was there to steal. But police say no cash or merchandise was taken from the store on the days of Wells’ murder.
Grucza used his key to enter the store while wearing a disguise. He stabbed Wells twice in the manager’s office, where police say there is no safe or money kept.
Eventually, investigators were able to link the DNA left on the baseball cap to a sample provided by Grucza.
Hamburg Police Detective Scott Kashino said, “The hat was big. That Florida Gators hat we collected back in June. That was probably the biggest piece of the whole thing.”
Grucza was originally charged with second degree murder, but in exchange for a lighter sentence, he pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter. A murder charge could have sent Grucza to life behind bars, but with the lighter sentence, Grucza is expected to be sentenced to 25 years in prison and five years probation.
District Attorney Frank Sedita said there was enough evidence to prove that Grucza stabbed Wells, but proving that he intended to kill him would have been difficult.
Sedita said, “They are making it more difficult and more difficult and more difficult, particularly in stabbing cases where there are not a lot of stab wounds, to sustain a conviction for intentional murder. There has been a very recent appellate division decision called People Vs. Heatley that were worried about, or concerned about. In that case the victim was stabbed eight times and the appellate court held that, that was not enough proof to show intent to kill, it only showed the intent to injure.”
The DA said that is one reason why they decided on the plea deal. He said this is also what Larry Wells’ family wanted. They did not want to go through a trial. This will also keep them from having to go through several years of appeals.
“The family is happy with the decision that the defendant has pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the first degree, that he will spend 25 years in prison, which is not exactly a slap on the wrist,” Sedita said.
But is the plea deal enough for police, who worked for months to bring Grucza to justice?
Hamburg Police Chief Michael Williams said, “I guess the answer to that question would be that our job is to make arrests to present the case to the district attorney and have them handle the case as they feel is best.”
Chief Williams says he’s “extremely happy” Grucza will be behind bars for 25 years. Detective Kashino said, “The system is the system. You have to operate under the parameters of it. It’s probably better we didn’t have to go to trial, for the family and everyone else. So it is what it is.”
Grucza’s defense attorney said the case was “very defensible.”
“And my client has decided not to defend it partially because he wants there to be closure for the Wells family. I can tell you that my client is deeply remorseful for what happened, he knew Larry Wells, he was a colleague and a friend and blameless in this,” he said.
Grucza’s federal case involving weapons possession will be Tuesday. If he receives any time on that weapons charge, the sentences will be served concurrently.