DA: NY shootings suspect staked out pharmacy

FRANK ELTMAN - Associated Press
AP
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FILE - In this June 23, 2011 file photo, David Laffer is escorted out of a police station in Patchogue, N.Y. Laffer, the man accused of killing two pharmacy employees and two customers during a holdup for prescription painkillers, is expected to plead not guilty in a Long Island courtroom on Thursday. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

RIVERHEAD, N.Y. (AP) — A New York man accused of killing two pharmacy employees and two customers during a holdup for prescription painkillers spent days looking for a target, and staked out the drugstore the night before, a prosecutor said Thursday.

David Laffer, 33, appeared in court Thursday on charges stemming from the June 19 shootings at Haven Drugs in Medford. About 15 officers ringed the courtroom, including at least four directly surrounding the handcuffed defendant, as he pleaded not guilty to five counts of first-degree murder and four counts of criminal use of a firearm. About two dozen relatives of the victims watched from the gallery.

According to the indictment, the five first-degree counts reflect the deaths of the four victims in the pharmacy, plus an umbrella charge for multiple murders. If convicted, Laffer faces life without parole on the murder counts and up to 25 years in prison on each of the weapons charges.

Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota said at a news conference that chilling security video showed the assailant, disguised in a scruffy beard augmented by mascara, shooting the victims; the first shot was fired with his weapon — a .45 caliber handgun — hidden in his backpack.

Then, "in the deadly silence of the pharmacy, we can see him packing the backpack with pills," Spota said.

It also showed the moments before the gunman walked into the store, and portrayed Jennifer Mejia, 17, engaged in small talk about attending Mass the night before and helping her mother shop for a dress to wear to the teen's high school graduation later that week.

Mejia and pharmacist Raymond Ferguson were working so that co-workers could get Father's Day off. "That generous gesture unfortunately cost them their lives," Spota said.

A 71-year-old man picking up medication for his ailing wife and a 33-year-old mother of two who was planning to be married this year were shot in the back of the head when they unwittingly walked in on the carnage, police said.

"More than any other event in recent memory, this horrific crime exposes one of our most basic fears." Spota said. "That fear is of a gunman who is willing — and in this case almost eager — to randomly and senselessly kill."

Laffer and his wife, 29-year-old Melinda Brady, were arrested in their home about a mile and a half from Haven Drugs three days after the shooting.

Brady is being held on $750,000 bail on allegations of driving the getaway car and police said she has cooperated with investigators.

Spota contradicted a police report that both defendants were high when they were arrested. He said Laffer was not under the influence of any drugs; he did not address Brady's condition. He declined to comment on earlier reports that Brady would likely face upgraded or additional charges in a grand jury indictment.

However, the prosecutor did say 1,000 pain pills were found in the couple's house.

Spota said investigators uncovered video taken from a nearby convenience store about a half hour after the killings that shows Laffer and his wife purchasing beverages. "We believe that they purposely did that — that they knew there was a video surveillance camera at the convenience store — so they can set up an alibi," he told reporters.

Prosecutors say Laffer left the pharmacy with painkillers "of the hydrocodone family." His fingerprints were found on a piece of paper left on the store's countertop, according to a prosecutor. But defense attorney Mary Beth Abbate has suggested Laffer was a frequent customer and could have left his fingerprints there some other time.

More troublesome for the defense is the surveillance video that captured the massacre, although the gunman wore a beard, hat and sunglasses. Laffer was clean-shaven when he was arrested.

Brady blamed her husband when she was led from police headquarters to a nearby precinct holding cell following her arrest last week. "He was doing it because he lost his job and I was sick," Brady said. "He did it. He did all of this," she told reporters.

In court documents, she told police that she and Laffer had plotted the robbery, but she insisted she was not aware that the plan included killing anyone.

She had previously posted messages on a website discussing her difficulty with painkillers.

Laffer served in the Army from 1994 until 2002 and attained the rank of private first class, said Mark Edwards, a spokesman for the Army Human Resources Command in Fort Knox. While in the service, he worked as an intelligence analyst.

Media reports have said he lost his job at a Long Island warehouse several weeks ago.

Laffer will be held without bail until his next court appearance, which is set for Sept. 8. The judge said jury selection for Laffer's trial would likely begin early next year.