SYRACUSE, N.Y. – A 15-year-old boy was charged Tuesday in the sniper-style slaying of a Syracuse man after police learned his friend falsely confessed to the crime, possibly as part of a twisted loyalty test.
Police originally charged 16-year-old Ja-Le Johnson with second-degree murder after he told them he shot 47-year-old Casimir Snyder on Jan. 4.
But investigators now say it was Shawn Rhines who fired the fatal bullet from the attic of a house while Snyder was in the driveway of his home next door. Johnson is now charged with hindering prosecution and other counts.
Snyder, a city public works employee, had just gotten into his car for a trip to pick his wife up from work when he was hit by a single shot in the neck. He was able to get back into his house to tell his four children he had been shot and to call police, but he was pronounced dead less than an hour later at a hospital.
Johnson's brother lives in the house next door. Authorities say Johnson and Rhines later told investigators they would often hang out in the attic and shoot target practice with rifles from an attic window. Police recovered two rifles from the attic.
"It started out with shooting targets and escalated to small animals in the neighborhood. Then it came to a point of a human being," Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick said Tuesday.
"There was no animosity between the defendants and Casimir Snyder, who by all accounts was a hardworking, good, decent family guy whose only crime was to be sitting in the wrong place at the wrong time," Fitzpatrick said.
Johnson was taken into custody the night of the shooting and confessed to investigators after just 15 minutes of questioning, police Chief Gary Miguel said. But Johnson never mentioned Rhines.
Miguel said Johnson's brother told police about Rhines' involvement.
Police brought Rhines in for questioning the day after the shooting. Rhines said he was in the attic, but that it was Johnson who killed Snyder. Rhines returned the next day with his lawyer and gave police a statement confessing to his role, Miguel said.
Police charged Rhines with second-degree murder after analysis of forensic evidence showed he was responsible for firing the fatal bullet, Miguel said. Authorities said the shooting was intentional, not a stray shot.
Fitzpatrick can't say with certainty why Johnson initially claimed to be the killer.
"It could be some loyalty test: 'Is he going to sit by and watch me take the fall?' Or maybe, 'How can I screw the case up and reveal at the 11th hour that I wasn't the shooter?' His motivation, however bizarre, is something we will explore at trial," the prosecutor said.
"Essentially, he's almost playing a game with (the police) to see what his fellow teenager would do," Fitzpatrick said. "It's not something that makes a lot of sense to me."
Johnson was indicted on new charges of second-degree criminal facilitation, first-degree hindering prosecution, second-degree perjury and fourth-degree criminal possession of a weapon. The criminal facilitation charge carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison.
Johnson's lawyer, Marsha Hunt, was not immediately available to comment, a secretary said.
Rhines was charged as a juvenile offender, which means the maximum sentence he can receive if convicted is 15 years to life in prison, Fitzpatrick said.
Defense lawyer Christina Cagnina entered a not guilty plea for Rhines on Tuesday and Judge Joseph Fahey ordered the teenager held without bail.