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Willie Gene Thomas

Convicted of first-degree robbery and second-degree murder in Cayuga County, New York, in 1976, Sammy Thomas and his brother Willie Gene Thomas were exonerated four years after their indictments, following the discovery that significant exculpatory evidence had been withheld from their original defense lawyers.

At 2:10 a.m. on July 24, 1976 in Auburn, New York, Peter Sedor found the body of his 54-year-old brother, George Sedor, behind Sunset Restaurant, which they co-owned. George Sedor had been shot to death. Earlier that evening, George had left the restaurant with about $2,000 in restaurant receipts, which was never recovered. Six .22-caliber shell casings were found outside the car and one fragment of a shell casing was found inside. There was a trail of glass extending thirty feet in front of the car. Peter Sedor reported to Patrolman Leo Tortorici that he had seen two white men running away from the scene of the crime. City Police Identification Officer Samuel Italiano reported that the car was too wet for fingerprints to be taken at the scene.

Several months later, Police Inspector Harold Quinn filed an affidavit stating that suspect Steven Wejko had informed Richard Dorcy, a paid informant, that he had the .22-caliber pistol used to kill George Sedor. As a result, Quinn obtained a search warrant for Wejko’s apartment. Wejko was already being held in the Cayuga County Jail for a third degree burglary charge in connection with an incident that had occurred during August of the same year.

Wejko named 24-year-old Sammy and 29-year-old Willie Gene Thomas, both black men, as his accomplices. Wejko was a known acquaintance of the Thomas brothers, having met Willie Gene in the Auburn Correctional Facility where they both served time in 1970. On December 13, 1976, the Thomas brothers were arrested for the robbery and murder of George Sedor. Sammy was arrested in Geneva, New York, and Willie Gene was arrested in Chicago.

The Thomas brothers’ joint jury trial began in the Cayuga County Court on August 8, 1977, with Judge Joseph J. Rybarczyk presiding. Sammy was represented by attorney Charles Avery, and Willie Gene was represented by Joseph Scollan. During the trial, Officer Italiano testified that he had taken photographs at the scene of the crime and would have taken fingerprints had the car not been too wet.

Having made a deal with District Attorney Peter E. Corning, Wejko agreed to testify in exchange for a lesser charge against him. Wejko testified that he had not personally participated in the crime. He claimed that the Thomas brothers had come to see him a few days before the murder, asking how it would be possible to get money by any means. Wejko suggested the Sunset Restaurant and the Springside Inn as possible targets and claimed to have planned the robbery. He also stated that both men came to his house the day before the crime, at which time he drew a map of the Sunset, sawed off a shot gun, and gave both those and a pistol to the brothers. He claimed that the men came to him several days later explaining that something had gone wrong with the robbery. They had dumped the weapons on McDonald Road and gone home.

Wejko’s wife testified that she had overheard a conversation between her husband and the Thomas brothers concerning “ripping off a place” to get money. She claimed that on the night of the murder, she had fallen asleep on the couch in her living room but was sure her husband had not left the house. The .22-caliber pistol and the sawed-off shotgun used in George Sedor’s murder were recovered on the side of Northrup Road, along with a pair of shoes that, according to witness Ralph Dixon, was “similar” to a pair owned by Willie Gene.

Sammy testified at the trial, stating that he and his then-girlfriend were driving in another city at the time of the murder and that he had returned home much later that night. He also testified that, during his interrogation, Investigator John Tonzi and Detective Quinn had offered him $5,000 if he would help them in testifying against Wejko to get “this white trash off the street.”

Willie Gene did not testify in his own defense. However, his sister, Rose Thomas, testified that Willie Gene and his girlfriend had been with her at the time of the murder.

Neither the testimony of Patrolman Tortorici nor the affidavit of Richard Dorcy was presented as evidence during this trial.

The two brothers were convicted of first-degree robbery and second-degree murder on August 18, 1977. Willie Gene was received a sentence of twenty-five years to life in state prison. Sammy received fifteen years to life.

After the trial, both Avery and Scollan filed an appeal based on prosecutorial misconduct during the first trial. On July 13, 1979, The Supreme Court of New York Appellant Division reversed the convictions, granting the brothers individual retrials. The basis for the reversals was the discovery that the prosecution had withheld numerous police reports that indicated the Thomas brothers’ innocence. The suppressed report of Leo Tortorici, the first officer to arrive at the scene of the crime, stated that Peter Sedor had described the two men he saw running from the scene of the crime to police officer as “two white males, one large, one wearing a white trench coat and one smaller wearing dark clothes.” Given that the Thomas brothers were black, this suppressed report would have been valuable to the defense. On January 2, 1979, District Attorney Peter E. Corning handed over the eighteen statements that had been withheld from the defense attorneys in the 1977 trial.

On May 12, 1980, the retrial of Willie Gene Thomas began in front of Judge Donald J. Mark from Monroe County. Attorney Linda Lavery took control of Willie Gene’s defense. During the trial, Cayuga County District Attorney Ross Tisci read the testimony of Leo Tortorici, who had died in June of 1978. Ballistics testing suggested that the palm prints on the murder weapons did not match either of the Thomases. On May 27, 1980, Jeannette Wejko, Steven Wejko’s wife, testified and again corroborated her husband’s testimony. According to Jeanette, On July 30, 1976, she and her husband had visited Sammy at his home after having traveled to Geneva to pick up a car. There, she testified, Sammy’s girlfriend was cleaning her car and a .22-caliber shell was in the sweepings. Later, Inspector Quinn testified about the previously withheld affidavit.

On June 2, 1980 Sammy Thomas testified at his brother’s trial, stating that he had not seen Willie Gene the day before the murder and that he had been in Geneva with his girlfriend at the time of the crime. He also denied having seen Wejko at all during the five-month period before the murder. He testified that on July 30, 1976, Wejko had asked Sammy to buy a handgun for him.

The following day, Willie Gene testified in his own defense, stating that the evening before the murder he was with his girlfriend, twenty-five miles away from the crime scene. The night of the crime night, he stated that he had visited a bar with both his girlfriend and his sister and then remained at this sister’s home to sleep. He testified that he had not returned to his home in Savannah, New York, until 8:30 P.M. the evening after the murder. Willie Gene Thomas was acquitted on June 5, 1980.

The week of December 14, 1980, Judge Donald J. Mark ruled in favor of the motion to dismiss the indictment made by Sammy Thomas’s defense lawyer Charles Avery. “It would be totally unjust...for the defendant alone to be punished for this regrettable homicide, should the verdict on his retrial be different from that on his brother’s retrial.”

—Researched by Elizabeth Bakom
State:NY
County:Cayuga
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Reported Crime Date:1976
Convicted:1977
Exonerated:1980
Sentence:25 years to life
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct