First-degree murder charge rare for county

MAYVILLE – The first-degree murder indictment for two of the four men connected to the double homicide in the town of Carroll is the first in Chautauqua County in more than five years.

In fact, it was Ralph “Bucky” Phillips in 2006 who was last convicted of first-degree murder. Phillips infamously pleaded “guilty as hell” and was sentenced in Chautauqua County Court to life in prison for the aggravated murder of a New York state trooper.

“It was quite the summer here in Chautauqua Coun-ty,” Chautauqua County District Attorney David Foley said of the high-profile crime that drew national attention to the area.

A grand jury last week handed up a first-degree murder indictment to Davide Coggins, 34, and Joshua A. McCormick, 21, for their role in the stabbing deaths of Gordon and Joyce Skinner. Both bodies were discovered April 17 after Frewsburg firefighters were alerted to a structure fire at the Skinners’ Wheeler Hill Road residence.

Also indicted in the double homicide were Ricky L. Knickerbocker, 18, and Steven W. Todd, 18. All four suspects from the Elmira area were charged with two counts of second-degree murder with intent to cause death; two counts of felony second-degree murder; first-degree arson; two counts of first-degree burglary; second-degree arson; second-degree burglary; and fourth-degree conspiracy.

Knickerbocker and Todd avoided first-degree murder charges due to their age. The four men pleaded innocent during separate arraign-ments Friday in front of the Hon. John T. Ward, Chau-tauqua County court judge. Pre-motion conferences are scheduled for June 10.

Foley recalled the last first-degree murder conviction. It came just a year after he was appointed district attorney by then-Gov. George Pataki.

Phillips was apprehended by Pennsylvania State Police on Sept. 8, 2006, more than a week after troopers Donald Baker Jr., 38, and Joseph Longobardo, 32, were shot in the town of Pomfret. Longobardo later died in a Buffalo hospital.

For Foley, Phillips’ conviction stands out for a couple of reasons.

“It was the first major case I handled as district attorney,” Foley said. “And more than anything it was the high-profile nature of the case.”

Phillips pleaded guilty to the aggravated and attempted aggravated murder charges before the case went to trial.

“It was wonderful just to be able to get him convicted,” Foley said. “It was wonderful, especially for the families not having to go to trial.”

In 2008, Buffalo native Lawrence Carter was charged with one count of first-degree murder and two counts of second-degree murder for the homicide of Gabriel Guzman in Dunkirk. After years of delays, Carter was sentenced in March to 20 years in prison after pleading guilty to first-degree manslaughter.

A grand jury indicted Gregory Pattison on first- and second-degree murder charges in the 2001 deaths of Richard Alicea Jr. and Johnny T. Houston. Pattison’s conviction was overturned in 2009 after an appellate court ruled he was not given adequate notice to testify in front of the grand jury.

In June, Pattison pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree manslaughter and was sentenced to 31 1/2 years in prison.

Foley noted many intentional homicides carry a second-degree murder charge, as is the case with Anthony Robert Taglianetti II who is accused of killing Clymer Schools Superintendent Keith Reed Jr.

It’s those rare situations – such as the murder of a police officer or the murder of multiple people – that more serious charges are sought, Foley said.

“First-degree murder requires additional criteria,” he said of the Skinners’ deaths. “In a broad sense, more than one person was killed during the criminal transaction.”

“This is a very unusual type of occurrence to happen in this county,” Chautauqua County Sheriff Joe Gerace told reporters last week of the Carroll homicides. “I hope we don’t see it again.”

Gerace was visibly shaken during a press conference announcing the apprehension of the four suspects. No motive has been announced, but authorities have said it was not a random act of violence.

“I will say in 34 years of law enforcement, this is one of the most disturbing and troubling incidents that I have had the unfortunate experience of having to deal with,” Gerace said.

“We are very certain that this was a home invasion and ended up in the deaths of these two innocent victims.”

According to the indictment received by the OBSERVER, Gordon, 66, was stabbed to death on or around April 17. Joyce, 59, died as a result of the stabbing and fire that was set to the residence.

The four suspects, currently being held in the Chautauqua County Jail, were apprehended in Elmira less than 24 hours after the bodies were discovered. Gerace attributed “unprecedented” police work here and in Chemung County.

“Without any question it was the combination of outstanding law enforcement here locally,” he said.