LAS VEGAS – A 53-year-old unemployed house painter apologized to his victims before he was sentenced Monday to 26 to 90 years in prison for opening fire with a handgun and wounding four people in a Las Vegas Strip casino more than two years ago.
"Please forgive me for my actions," Steven Francis Zegrean said, standing in shackles before Clark County District Court Judge David Barker, who moments later meted out a harsher sentence than the 16 to 64 years recommended in a state pre-sentencing report.
"I know I will go to prison," Zegrean said during his only public statement since his gun jammed after the 16th shot and he was tackled by two off-duty military reservists on a balcony at the New York-New York casino early July 6, 2007.
"If anything, it was my cry for help ... to end my own life," he said. "I can only hope people can have mercy on me."
Zegrean, who spoke with a Hungarian accent, did not testify during his trial. A jury found him guilty last July of 51 of 52 felony charges — including a charge of attempted murder with a deadly weapon for each of the 16 shots he fired.
His lawyers and his only defense witness, a clinical neuropsychologist, said Zegrean had hoped police responding to the gunfire would shoot him dead. They cast him as so profoundly depressed and suicidal after losing his job, his marriage and his home that he wandered the Las Vegas Strip wearing an overcoat with pockets full of bullets before entering New York-New York during the Independence Day weekend in 2007.
Prosecutor Ravi Bawa raised the specter of shootings like those that left 14 dead at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999 and 33 dead at Virginia Tech in April 2007. He asked Barker on Monday to put Zegrean in prison for the rest of his life.
"The defendant in this case? The New York-New York shooter? He deserves the maximum," Bawa said, reminding the court that Zegrean had 249 bullets in the pockets of his overcoat when he was apprehended.
"He went in there wanting to kill 200 some-odd people," Bawa said. "You do that here, you go away forever. You don't get a second chance."
Defense lawyer Lynn Avants accused Bawa of improperly trying to sway with the judge with the Columbine and Virginia Tech comparisons.
"As misguided and tortured and reckless as his actions were, to compare this to ... Columbine," Avants said, "is to prejudice the court."
Avants said later that Zegrean will appeal his conviction and sentence. Zegrean's two daughters, who attended the trial but did not testify, declined comment after sentencing.
Zegrean was not motivated by hatred, his lawyer told the judge, and there was no evidence he aimed at people when he began peppering the casino floor with bullets. Zegrean even asked the first police officer who interviewed him whether anybody had been wounded.
Tears flowed as the most seriously injured in the attack, Carrie Zeravica, 26, of North Huntington, Pa., told Barker on Monday that ongoing pain and residual nerve damage in her left leg ruined her dreams of becoming a dance teacher.
"The last two years of my life have been nothing but hell," she sobbed. "I often wonder, 'Why me?' He didn't even know me."
Zeravica praised the actions of Justin Lampert, an off-duty national guardsman and Iraq War veteran from North Dakota who has been hailed as a hero for tackling Zegrean. Lampert, now an active-duty Army trainer at Fort Benning, Ga., testified during the trial that he reacted instinctively.
Barker called shooting at "unarmed innocent civilians" an intensely selfish act.
"I don't think, based upon my understanding of the facts, that you were done," the judge told Zegrean, "but for the fact that we had a couple of those civilians who rose up to stop you."
Barker dismissed 16 charges of battery and assault with a deadly weapon that Avants argued were made moot by Zegrean's convictions on the more serious charges of attempted murder with a deadly weapon.
The judge sentenced Zegrean to four consecutive terms of six to 20 years on the four attempted murder counts resulting in injuries, plus two to 10 years for burglary — a charge stemming from evidence that Zegrean entered a structure with intent to commit a crime. Sentences on the other 30 counts against him were made concurrent.
Zegrean was also ordered to pay about $13,675 in restitution for medical bills incurred by three of his victims.