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Mar 6, 2013 9:07 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

New Plea, Reduced Sentence In 2003 Water Mill Murder

Mar 6, 2013 10:31 AM

Nearly 10 years after a gunfight left one man dead in a quiet residential neighborhood in Water Mill, the man accused of firing the fatal shot has reentered a plea of guilty to manslaughter in the first degree and will be sentenced next month to 13 years in prison.

With close to 10 years spent in prison already, Alberto Santiago could be eligible for release under the anticipated new sentence as early as next year. He will be subject to five years of mandatory parole.

Mr. Santiago, now 39, accepted a similar plea deal back in 2004 and was sentenced to 14 years in prison. But in 2010, an appeals court tossed out the plea, saying that the judge on the case, Judge Gary Weber, had been hostile toward Mr. Santiago and pressured him into taking the plea deal offered by the district attorney’s office.

After more than two years of renewed legal wrangling, a new plea agreement was settled upon last Thursday, February 28. Mr. Santiago, who spent most of the last 10 years at an upstate prison and is currently being held at Riker’s Island Jail in New York City, will be resentenced on April 17 by Judge Stephen Braslow.

The guilty plea to first-degree manslaughter again will dispense with the second-degree murder and attempted murder charges initially filed against him following the killing of James Garcia and shooting of a second man, Joan Rojas, in April 2003. Mr. Santiago also was shot twice during the confrontation.

Police at the time said Mr. Garcia and Mr. Rojas were suspected drug dealers and had, according to the account of the events given to police by Mr. Rojas, come to the Edge of Woods Road house where Mr. Santiago was staying to obtain $30,000 owed to them by the owner of the house, Alan Kutchuk. Mr. Kutchuk and two other people were in the house at the time of the shooting but were unhurt.

According to accounts of the incident by the various witnesses, it appears that Mr. Santiago was alone in a room when Mr. Garcia began pounding on the door and shouting; when Mr. Santiago opened it, a scuffle ensued, which ended when Mr. Garcia was shot and killed. But Mr. Rojas then engaged Mr. Santiago in a struggle and more shots were fired, at least one of which struck Mr. Rojas in the head and Mr. Santiago in his leg and shoulder.

Mr. Santiago had fled the scene of the shooting by the time police arrived at the house but was apprehended by detectives in Rhode Island two days later. Rhode Island police said Mr. Santiago was in possession of “a sock full of crack cocaine” when he was arrested at his girlfriend’s house in Providence.

Mr. Rojas was located at a New York City hospital the night after the shooting where he had sought treatment—apparently after driving himself from the Water Mill house where he was shot to New York City—for the bullet wound to his head.

Mr. Santiago’s initial plea came just one day before his trial on the murder and attempted murder charges was set to begin. If convicted of both charges, he faced 50 years to life in prison.

But a new attorney appointed by the court to represent Mr. Santiago, Barry Kamen, appealed the manslaughter conviction plea, arguing that the judge had pressured Mr. Santiago to enter the guilty plea to the lesser charge rather than letting the case go to trial. The New York State Appellate Court, 2nd Division, tossed out the plea, citing “hostility and bias” toward the defendant by Judge Weber.

According to a portion of the case transcript presented during the appellate arguments, Judge Weber was repeatedly impatient and combative with Mr. Santiago. During one exchange, Mr. Santiago said he wanted to plead guilty but wanted to explain what had happened in the house. “I don’t want to get into all of that—all I want is some simple answers,” the judge responded. “I’ve been putting up with you for days, and I’m sick of it.”

At another point, the judge warned Mr. Santiago that if the case went to trial, the prosecutors “probably are going to prevail on something that could wind up getting you more jail time than this plea deal. I’m reasonably sure of that.”

This week, Mr. Santiago’s new attorney, Anthony LaPinta, who picked up the case after the original conviction was overturned, said that considering the time Mr. Santiago had already served and the potential for a much longer sentence should he be convicted of the more serious charges at trial, accepting the new plea agreement and slightly reduced sentence made sense for Mr. Santiago.

“Now, since he has served so much time, it didn’t make sense to risk going to trial and potentially facing 50 years in prison,” Mr. LaPinta said. “He is looking forward to serving out the rest of his sentence and moving on with his life.”

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