Bar manager found guilty in Molly's Pub murder
UB student and professor testify, Jeffrey Basil convicted of second-degree murder
UB students once stood in long lines outside Molly’s Pub on Friday nights waiting to get inside the University Heights' newest social destination.
Eight months later, one UB student stood outside a courtroom waiting to testify about the murder that shut down the pub.
Buffalo Police closed Molly’s Pub in May after an assault inside left 28-year-old Air National Guardsman William Sager in a coma, and later dead. A State Supreme Court jury reached a verdict last week, with the help of a UB student and a UB professor, finding bar manager Jeffrey Basil guilty in Sager’s death.
Basil was convicted of second-degree murder and of tampering with evidence on Jan. 21. Basil shoved Sager down a set of stairs inside the bar on May 11, 2014. Sager suffered a traumatic brain injury in the fall and died on July 31 at Erie County Medical Center.
Blake Lamagna, a junior communication major, bartended at Molly’s the night of the murder and testified during the trial. Lamagna declined to be interviewed and referred The Spectrum to Assistant District Attorney Christopher Belling, who prosecuted the case.
Lamagna testified that she did not see Sager’s fall. After pushing Sager, Basil asked her to come with him to nearby bar The Steer. Upon exiting Molly’s, Lamagna noticed first responder’s tending to Sager and asked Basil what was going on. She testified Basil responded, “I just … killed a kid.”
Lamagna did not tell the police about Basil’s statement when she was first interviewed because she feared they were friends with Basil. She said he made it clear to his employees he was friends with Buffalo Police.
Adam O’Shei and Robert Eloff, two off-duty Buffalo Police officers who were working security at Molly’s Pub the night of the murder, have been suspended as a result of the case. O’Shei testified after being granted immunity, while Eloff was not granted immunity and invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Eloff placed handcuffs on the unconscious Sager after the fall. O’Shei moved Sager from the base of the stairs to outside the bar, even though it’s against medical protocol to move someone with spinal injuries. O’Shei testified he moved Sager because he feared Basil would attack him again.
The FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office are investigating whether O’Shei and Eloff violated Sager’s civil rights. O’Shei’s immunity is only for state charges, not federal charges.
Belling citied the fact that Buffalo Police officers are no longer allowed to work off-duty as security at bars as a “significant change” brought by the case.
The biggest issue in the case was determining Basil’s intentions, according to Belling.
“I think the jury felt we were able to prove [intent] and I do think they made the right decision,” he said.
The prosecution argued Basil intended to kill or seriously injure Sager when he pushed him, while Basil’s defense argued he was acting impulsively and did not intend to seriously injure Sager.
The jury asked State Supreme Court Justice Penny Wolfgang for the definition of intent as it relates to second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter – the charges Basil was facing – during jury deliberations.
Basil admitted to pushing Sager and several witnesses testified seeing Basil give Sager a two-handed shove. Molly’s Pub’s video surveillance captured Sager’s fall but didn’t clearly show Basil pushing the Air National Guardsman.
“Right when we viewed the video of the launch and landing of the victim, in this case, it was a clear it was a hard push,” Belling said. “And it was also clear it would be helpful for the jury to quantify in some way that push.”
To do that, Belling contacted UB physics professor William Kinney.
Kinney admitted “it’s not very often you need a physicist in a murder trial,” but after viewing the bar’s surveillance video of Sager’s fall, he felt he could say something quantitated about the incident.
Kinney used the surveillance video and forensics to reconstruct the physical parameters of the fall, including how fast Sager was moving and how much force was used to propel him.
He said the physics research he used to recreate the fall was the same kind he would teach in introductory classes like physics 101.
Kinney did not wish to discuss the specifics of his findings, citing Basil is likely to appeal the verdict, but the professor testified in court Sager hit the floor in six-tenths of a second after Basil pushed him. He also testified Basil pushed Sager with 374 pounds of force.
“The physics itself doesn’t lie and it makes a particularly useful piece of evidence,” Kinney said. “I thought it was cool of the prosecutors to recognize it was an important piece of evidence because the physics will tell you what happened concretely. Science is the science no matter what the other circumstances are.”
Belling said Kinney’s testimony was helpful for the jury “to find out exactly what they were looking at” on the video. He also said Kinney’s testimony showed Basil’s intent to kill Sager.
“It showed the degree of force involved in the push,” Belling said. “It showed where the push started, which showed the defendant had to go 5-and-a-half feet before he pushed. It showed the force upon landing that was generated by the push and compounded by gravity. It was exactly what was needed to quantify intent.”
Kinney and the prosecution almost didn't get the opportunity to view the video.
Basil was convicted of tampering with evidence because he removed the bar’s surveillance video after pushing Sager down the stairs. A female patron testified she saw Basil leave Molly’s with a black box. Police later recovered the video in the garbage behind the bar.
Basil will be sentenced on Feb. 23. He faces at least 15 years in prison and could face 25 years to life.
Basil’s defense attorneys have said they will file an appeal. Belling said Basil would have to appeal the verdict to a multi-judge appellate court in Rochester, New York.
“All defendants appeal their verdicts,” Belling said. “I’ve been doing this a long time and I can’t think of many that don’t … We’ll see where it goes. That process takes years.”
Belling said Molly’s Pub’s lease was terminated by the owners of the property and is on the market to lease. He said he believes the New York State Liquor Authority suspended the bar’s liquor license.
“I think it would be a long shot if Molly’s itself would come back,” Belling said.