Tonawanda News

November 28, 2007

Man gets 20 years in 'Internet love triangle' killing

By April Amadon

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Despite a last-ditch effort to withdraw his guilty plea, Thomas Montgomery was sentenced Tuesday in State Supreme Court to 20 years in prison for the 2006 killing of a Lockport man.

Montgomery, 48, of Cheektowaga, pleaded guilty Aug. 20 to first-degree manslaughter in the September 2006 death of 22-year-old Brian Barrett, a Starpoint grad.

Justice Penny Wolfgang ordered Montgomery to serve 20 years in prison with five years post-release supervision.

“This is a totally senseless killing,” Wolfgang said. “This young man has been cut off in the prime of his life. ... All of this for absolutely no reason.”

Montgomery, 48, shot Barrett three times as Barrett sat in his pickup in the parking lot of Dynabrade Corporation on Sheridan Drive in Clarence, where both men worked.

Police have said the killing was motivated by an Internet love triangle involving both men and a West Virginia woman, identified as Mary Sheiler.

As the sentence was read, Montgomery stared down at the table in front of him, his face showing no emotion.

Brian’s father, Dan Barrett, read a statement before the sentence was handed down.

He read from a letter written by one of Brian’s teachers at Niagara-Orleans BOCES, Scott Brauer, who wrote of Brian’s “infectious smile,” his leadership skills and his dedication to learning and becoming a teacher.

“My wife and I don’t understand how this could happen to our family,” Dan said, glancing at Montgomery. “We don’t understand how such evil could exist in the world. To gun down a boy over simple jealousy does not make sense.”

The Barretts had hoped Montgomery would receive the maximum sentence of 25 years.

“We were hoping for more, but to be honest with you, we were prepared to take the 20 if we had to, which obviously we did,” Dan said. “We were glad to see that the judge didn’t prolong this any longer and give (Montgomery) more rights than my son ever got.”

Motion denied

Montgomery had made a motion to withdraw his guilty plea, which was entered Aug. 20, and take the case to trial.

Wolfgang denied that request, saying Montgomery had entered the plea “with full understanding of the consequences.”

Montgomery first wrote of his desire to take back the plea shortly after he entered it, said his attorney, John Nucherino. After the plea hearing, Montgomery was placed in the special observation unit at the Erie County Holding Facility because of mental health concerns.

As soon as he had access to pen and paper, Montgomery wrote up a petition to file for a reassignment of counsel. In his state of mind, he had an “automatic right” to do so, his attorney, Nucherino said.

Nucherino said Montgomery’s motion to take back the plea was “a reflection of his lack of knowledge about the basic concepts of the plea.”

Montgomery’s first attorney, John Molloy, was relieved of his duties Oct. 29 at Montgomery’s request.

“(Montgomery) swears he was told by (Molloy) that he could take it off the table at any time,” Nucherino said, calling the language in the plea “ambiguous.”

Nucherino told Wolfgang that Montgomery had already changed his plea once — from not guilty to guilty — and assumed he could do so again.

“To an inexperienced defendant, if you can change it one way, why can’t you change it another?” he said.

Deputy District Attorney Frank Sedita disputed the notion that Montgomery did not understand the finality of the plea, telling Wolfgang that Molloy and Montgomery had spent the entire weekend discussing the plea before the Oct. 29 hearing.

“I wonder what they talked about, judge,” he said. “They talked about the plea.”

During the sentencing hearing, Montgomery swore under oath that he understood the plea and the possible sentence, never once indicating he was confused, Sedita said.

Nucherino said Molloy pressured Montgomery into taking the plea, telling him the case would be tough to win at trial.

“That’s pressure,” Nucherino said. “For an attorney to state to a defendant that a case is hopeless and indefensible, it’s pressure.”

Also at issue were Montgomery’s two teenage daughters, who were prepared to testify at trial that they were with their father at the time of the murder. Nucherino said Montgomery was pressured into taking a plea for fear his daughters' words would be picked apart on the stand.

Such pressure “takes away a man’s free will,” Nucherino argued.

Sedita said Montgomery’s motion and affidavit were both “chock full of lies.”

“It’s a lie designated to manipulate the process in his favor,” he said. “I’ve prosecuted more vicious people than the defendant. I don’t think I’ve ever prosecuted anyone more manipulative than the defendant.”

Internet manipulation

Sedita said that manipulative nature was evident in the transcripts from the online conversations between Montgomery, Brian and Sheiler.

In Montgomery’s conversations with Sheiler, “you could see his attempts of manipulation,” Sedita said. “It was almost predatory.”

Sheiler had used her daughter’s photos and information online with both men, telling them she was an 18-year-old named Jessica.

Montgomery had also been passing himself off as an 18-year-old online. When Sheiler discovered the truth about Montgomery, he became desperate, Sedita said.

“When he could no longer get the Sheiler girl, the chats reveal an obsessive desire to make Brian Barrett suffer and to make her suffer,” he said.

The Barrett family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Montgomery, the Dynabrade Corporation and Sheiler. Sedita said he believed this lawsuit played into Montgomery’s attempt to withdraw his guilty plea, because the statements made during the plea can be used against him in that lawsuit.

Montgomery also may have thought he would stand a better chance at trial now that Sheiler, the prosecution’s key witness, might be reluctant to testify after being sued, Sedita added.

“It’s going to be difficult, if not impossible, to get her in here from West Virginia, and the defendant knows that,” Sedita said.

Nucherino said Montgomery was not aware of the lawsuit until after he decided to withdraw his plea.

Dan Barrett said the family had no comment on the wrongful death suit.

Planned appeal

Nucherino said he plans to file an appeal of the sentence within the week.

He described Montgomery as a “family man,” a former Marine who has been a law-abiding citizen.

Montgomery had sought psychiatric treatment for depression in recent years, and his Internet activity only added to his fragile state of mind, Nucherino said.

“Unfortunately, the Internet can put us in a world where fantasy and reality are blurred,” Nucherino said. “It’s easy to share your feelings online with somebody you never have to meet. It’s not healthy.”

Since his arrest last November, Montgomery has gone through a divorce and has been on suicide watch several times, Nucherino added.

April Amadon writes for the Niagara (N.Y.) Gazette.

Sedita said Montgomery has shown no remorse for his actions.

“He’s a stone cold, calculating killer who put three bullets in an unarmed kid and let his body sit in his truck until it was discovered by a stranger,” he said.

Contact reporter April Amadon at 439-9222, ext. 6251.