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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, September 14, 2006

Burnell found guilty

By Jarrett Carroll

GUILDERLAND — After nearly 11 hours of deliberation, a jury found Hashim Burnell guilty of shooting Todd Pianowski to death while robbing him in his Guilderland apartment and then robbing his girlfriend at gunpoint.

The verdict came in around 2 p.m. yesterday at the Albany County courthouse.

Burnell has been found guilty of first-degree murder and three counts of first-degree robbery, all felonies, and he now faces life in prison without the possibility of parole.

His sentencing is scheduled for Nov. 15.

Both the Burnell and Pianowski families sat through days of testimony in Judge Stephen W. Herrick’s courtroom that would decide the fate of one man and explain the fate of another. Both Burnell and Pianowski had attended Guilderland High School.

The case was prosecuted by Assistant District Attorney Bruce Lennard, who depicted Burnell as a desperate drug dealer who needed cash in a hurry and saw Pianowski, who bought drugs from him, as an easy target. Paul Edwards, the lawyer appointed to defend Burnell, said his client is simply the wrong man, that he had no motive because his father gave him money and he lived with a girlfriend who also had financial backing from her parents.

"The 16-month ordeal is finally over for the Pianowskis. They are relieved," Lennard told The Enterprise yesterday afternoon. "It’s been a long, long journey for them."

Burnell’s mother and grandmother, Lavern and Annie, maintain his innocence and vow to appeal. Annie Burnell told The Enterprise last night, "They had him convicted already." She said she is confident that her grandson’s name will be cleared, and added that the real killer is still out there.

Burnell’s trial for Pianowski’s murder began in April, but resulted in a mistrial after police found new fingerprint evidence, so Burnell was retried for the murder starting last week.

The only physical evidence linking Burnell to the murder were two partial fingerprints on Pianowski’s table near a golf card with numbers written on the back of it. Lennard contended that the numbers on the card were written by Burnell and referred to money either owed or for drugs in the amount of $1,590. However, the defense said no handwriting expert was ever consulted in the investigation and that Burnell already admitted he had been in the apartment multiple times before the murder, so the fingerprints could have been from an earlier visit.

The fingerprints were controversial and at the root of the mistrial. State Police originally found no match, then, in the middle of the first trial, a year after they were taken from the crime scene, police said the prints belonged to Burnell. Chief Assistant District Attorney Michael McDermott tried the original case and said new fingerprint technology was used by New York State Police to discover the match.

No gun has ever been found.

The district attorney’s office has praised the murder investigation conducted by the Guilderland Police and State Police, but Burnell’s attorney and his family have characterized the investigation as "sloppy" and the departments’ competence was brought into question throughout the trial.

"We are very happy with the verdict and the outcome of the case"Defense attorneys have to say whatever it takes to defend their clients," Investigator John Tashjian of the Guilderland Police Department told The Enterprise yesterday afternoon. Referring to the day of the murder, he went on, "All of those people didn’t wake up on May 5 and say, ‘We saw Hashim Burnell commit murder today.’"

Burnell has been in the custody of the Albany County Sheriff’s Department since he was apprehended by police the night of Pianowski’s death. He will continue to be remanded to Albany County’s jail until he is sentenced by Judge Herrick in November, after which he will be sent to a state penitentiary.

The murder

Pianowski and his girlfriend, Lauren Parker, had shared an apartment in the 1700 Designer Apartments at 1702 Western Ave.

On May 5, 2005, Parker said she called Pianowski on her cell phone at exactly 2:05 p.m. She testified remembering the time because she called to say she was running late for the golf date they had planned. Parker told him that she would be home in 10 or 15 minutes before the call was dropped.

That was the last she heard from Pianowski.

It was revealed in court that Pianowski was shot "execution-style" sometime within the next few moments. He was shot first through the heart, and then through the back of the head as he pushed himself up off the floor, said the prosecution. Parker said she unlocked the door and walked in on Burnell while he was ransacking her apartment, and then he turned his gun on her.

Lennard said Burnell told Parker, "Do you see what happens when you owe me $1,500. Do you see what you get""

Parker testified in court that on May 5 Burnell repeatedly told her she knew him as "Jay," before asking where the safe was and taking money and her driver’s license from her. Parker said she didn’t know about any safe.

According to the prosecution, Burnell was apparently referring to an acquaintance and fellow former Guilderland High School student, Jayson Costa, an African-American like Burnell. During the trial, Lennard said Burnell was trying to "throw Jayson under the bus," meaning he was trying to cast the blame on Costa.

Burnell then grabbed a yellow Price Chopper shopping bag with money, marijuana, and a few other items of "intrinsic value," covered them with the jacket he was wearing, Lennard said at trial, and forced Parker out of the apartment and into the elevator. Parker testified she was made to push the elevator buttons to the lobby and was told to go out a side door as Burnell ran out the front to his car before fleeing the scene.

Edwards said in court that this story is completely made up and that Burnell never entered the couple’s apartment on May 5. Burnell and Pianowski bought and sold marijuana to each other, said Edwards, and Burnell had absolutely no motive to kill Pianowski.

If the crime was committed for money, asked Edwards, then why was Pianowski’s body found with a gold necklace, a cell phone, and money in his wallet, and also why were large quantities of marijuana left in the apartment"

Furthermore, he questioned the reliability of Parker as the prosecution’s only eye witness, based on the description she gave police prior to Burnell’s arrest. Edwards told the jury that Parker originally told police that her assailant was about 5 feet, 7 inches tall and did not have facial hair. Parker also told police that movers who were at the apartment complex that day were wearing black uniforms, but video surveillance tapes reveal that the men were wearing white and light-colored street clothes.

Burnell is 5 feet 11 inches tall and his mug shot shows him at the time with a goatee and facial stubble.

Testifying in his own defense, Burnell said that he met Jayson Costa at the U.S.A. gas station near Church Road in Guilderland to buy marijuana, which they frequently did. But, when Burnell arrived, Costa said he was waiting for another man to show up with marijuana to sell, said Burnell.

The other man was Pianowski, Burnell testified.

Costa and Burnell then drove over to Pianowski’s apartment and Burnell handed him $40 to buy some marijuana from Pianowski. Burnell told the court that he never left the car and that Costa went up to the apartment alone.

Costa went into the building and came back out a short time later, according to Burnell.

"I only saw Jay get out of my car and go into the building," Burnell told jurors. "He got back in the car, handed me back my money, and told me he wasn’t there."

The two then drove off and Burnell dropped Costa off at the gas station, Burnell said.

"Jay got out of the car and told me he would call me when he got the marijuana," Burnell said. Costa then drove away in his own car and called him an hour or so later, he said.

Burnell repeatedly said that he did not kill Pianowski and that he never entered his apartment on May 5.

Point and counterpoint

For eight women and four men sequestered in a small room of the Albany County courthouse, the decision of guilt boiled down to time frame, motive, and evidence.

The prosecution presented 22 witnesses and 136 exhibits during the course of the trial. The defense presented only two — Burnell and his father — but insisted on a case of mistaken identity, at one point even calling for dismissal on such grounds.

The defense highlighted what it considered a poor investigation, pointing out such problems as the original interview with Burnell at police barracks not being recorded and Pianowski’s apartment and the hallways leading to it not being dusted.

Burnell’s father, Chester Brown, when he took the stand, testified to his financial support of his son.

"I gave him several hundred dollars," said Brown. "His car needed brakes. He only had about $100 and needed more, so I helped him."

Much of the testimony presented by the prosecution revealed the underworld of suburban drug-dealing. The point and counterpoint of examination and cross examination of Chance Hazelnis was typical.

Hazelnis, 19, a 2005 graduate of Guilderland High School, who served as an informant for the Guilderland Police Department, testified for the prosecution. He said he began working with Investigator David Romano after he was arrested for selling marijuana in 2004.

"I supplied him with information," said Hazelnis.

On his relationship with Burnell, Hazelnis said, "We just made money together. I was basically a middle man for people looking for cocaine."

Hazelnis claimed Burnell always had cocaine in the trunk of his car to sell.

Hazelnis said he was asked three times by Burnell to help rob an easy target. "He knew someone on Western Avenue who would be easy to rob," said Hazelnis. "He asked me to help".He pointed to the house and said, ‘That’s where the kid lives.’"

On May 5, the day of the murder, Hazelnis said he got a phone call from Ramano at 7:45 p.m. and was told to meet him behind the abandoned Price Chopper on Route 20 in Guilderland. Romano, he said, asked him if he knew anything. In the midst of their exchange, Burnell called Hazelnis on his cell phone.

Hazelnis testified that Burnell said, "I heard bodies are dropping out there. I heard someone took two, one to the head and one to the stomach."

During cross-examination, the defense pointed out that Hazelnis, while working as an informant, never told police that Burnell was planning on robbing Pianowski. He also continued to make drug deals on the side.

Prior to May 5, the defense revealed, the Guilderland Police Department was trying to set up a sting of Burnell for selling cocaine; they were using Hazelnis because of the charges against him.

"There were drug transactions you didn’t tell the police about"" the defense asked Hazelnis.

"Yes, sir," he replied.

The prosecution also asked why he didn’t tell the police about the impending robbery. Hazelnis replied, "Honestly, I didn’t think the guy was going to do it."

The defense went on to reveal that Hazelnis had been charged with first-degree robbery, which has been reduced to petit larceny and three years of probation, implying a deal was struck for his testimony.

"Isn’t it in your best interest to get Hashim in trouble"" asked the defense.

"Yes," replied Hazelnis.

Reporter’s notebook
Locked in court

By Jarrett Carroll

GUILDERLAND — Covering a murder trial is never easy. There are no happy endings — not for either the family of the accused or of the deceased.

Grieving is always tough, but an untimely violent death is particularly hard.

As a reporter, you look at both sides of the story, but as an outside observer. You see only what is presented, just the faces people put on in public, not what is in their hearts.

But covering the Hashim Burnell murder trial was a different.

Burnell was convicted of killing Todd Pianowski in his Guilderland home with a .40 caliber handgun while robbing him. The murder was a senseless, violent act that nobody may fully understand, except for the killer. I feel deep sympathy for Pianowski’s family and his girlfriend, Lauren Parker.

Watching a family mourn a living son is no better. Lavern Burnell, Hashim’s mother, told me she moved her son at the age of 11 to Guilderland where his father lived to get him out of the city, where she currently lives — in Queens. She was completely surprised by the amount of drugs in what she thought was an affluent suburban school district.

The only thing that mattered now, was the trial at hand.

Once the jury was given instructions around 2 p.m. on Tuesday by the judge, the waiting began.

The waiting gave me time to think about the day’s testimonies and mull over some of the interesting points.

The families inside of the courthouse had a lot more than a story and deadline to worry about.

After about five o’clock that evening, the guards manning the metal detectors went home, meaning no re-entry. Once you left, there was no coming back.

I had a choice to make: Either go home, write the story, and relax after working all day or stay locked in the courthouse with both families.

Something told me to stay.

Up to that point, both families had been cordial to each other, considering their circumstances. At one point during the trial, outside the courtroom, Hashim’s grandmother, Annie Burnell, borrowed a cigarette from Pianowski’s mother, Patt. A little tension hung in the air, but mostly, an overriding feeling of sadness and loss.

The Pianowskis are absolutely certain that Burnell killed their son; the Burnells are absolutely certain their son is innocent. I watched and listened. I honestly did not know how to feel. The journalist in me, the outside observer, was excited, but the inner me was confused and awkward. I didn’t want to give the sense to one family that I was paying more attention or acting more sympathetic to the other.

Trying to maintain a professional objectivity became a conscious effort during those hours inside of the courthouse. Both families were very kind and gracious to me as I tried my best to understand their plights.

"He was a good kid, but all of this waiting is killing me," said Mrs. Pianowski, a working-class woman, as her tired red eyes stared off into the distance.

"He was a very smart kid. He had straight A’s. One of the reasons we moved up here is because the schools were better"" said Lavern Burnell, a tall, fashionable woman, who was so choked up she had to stop talking. After a pause, she went on, "He was loving and very giving."

I wasn’t fooling anyone. I couldn’t even begin to understand or pretend to articulate what these grief-stricken families were going through. The Pianowskis had already lost a son, and the Burnells knew they might be loosing a son to prison.

Although both families were kind, they were always a bit standoffish, keeping their distance and keeping their cool, because, after all, nobody trusts a reporter.

I watched the families hold the court doors open for each other so they could get outside for a cigarette or two while we all waited. I watched them pace, I watched them worry. I watched them support each other and console one another. Times of sadness bring family together; it’s when we need each other the most.

The wheels of justice were turning ever so slowly. Everything was silent in the building that night, a stark difference from the hustle and bustle of the previous hours.

Everyone was waiting for some sign from the 12 men and women sequestered in a small room.

The verdict wouldn’t come until the next day — guilty. And once again the two families will stand apart — on either side of the courtroom — as they assemble to hear the sentence.

Nacho touced many lives in his nine

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — Nacho was a paradox — a wild cat, a friendly cat; a cat that belonged to no one, a cat that belonged to everyone.

"He belonged to all of us at the community garden," said Jerry Houser, who was his chief caretaker.

Nacho died on the morning of Sunday, Sept. 10. "He was found by several gardeners just outside the rear barn door," said Houser. "It did not appear that he suffered any physical injury but died from natural causes." He was at least 15 years old.

Nacho had been part of the scene at the community garden behind the rock-climbing barn on Route 146 for as long as Houser has gardened there. "I came in 1995 and he was there before that," he said.

The gardening project — where families and individuals tend their own plots — began in 1989 when the town purchased the 97-acre dairy farm from John and Elizabeth Houck.

The first year, there were a dozen gardeners tending 15 or 20 plots; now there are 50 gardeners tending 90 plots. Houser has made a map of the garden, with 14 flags designating the different countries that the gardeners are from. They are from all over the world — Norway, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Russia, China, Vietnam, Jamaica, and Argentina.

They all speak cat.

"Nacho came with the farmhouse....When a fellow moved in that was allergic to cats, we adopted him," said Houser. "We fixed up an apartment for him inside the barn with beds, feeding dishes, a heated water dish — otherwise, it would freeze in the winter — and a night light."

The apartment was in the front part of the barn, in the old milk house. Darlene Neva and Houser were Nacho’s primary caretakers.

"The gardeners would bring in food for him," he said. "They all loved him. You could do anything to him and he’d be peaceable."

Except once.

"He resisted getting into a cage and going to the vet," said Houser. "He was a wild cat." Neva tried it just once, but never again. He seemed content with his life as it was.

Nacho earned his keep and the affection of the gardeners by catching voles and mice and other garden pests.

"He caught hundreds of voles. We counted over 50 one summer," said Houser. "He’d sit down like a gourmand and eat them. And with all the great food I bought him," said Houser with a chuckle.

Although Nacho was wary of the busy traffic on Route 146, he would come up to greet the gardeners who parked behind the barn.

"There was nobody he didn’t go to," said Houser. "He would follow you 300, 400 yards, up the path, where you were going."

Neva dubbed him The Wonder Cat, the name used on the section of the community gardens’ website devoted to Nacho.

"In its integrated Pest Management Program," the website says, "one of the foremost display gardens in the world, ‘employs’ cats to perform a very important function." Each cat at Longwood Gardens maintains "a vigorous rodent patrol," a marker explains, and, in return, has a home in one of the shops located throughout the gardens.

"The Community Gardens is honored to have Nacho with us for these same purposes as well as providing wonderful companionship to the gardeners," says the Guilderland site.

The site is also loaded with pictures of Nacho — being stroked beneath his chin, eyes closed in contentment; ready to pounce from a ledge, a bundle of muscle; nestled snugly in a round bed; stalking prey, tail rigid and aloft; vigilant in a barn door. And it also has e-mails addressed to Nacho.

"Thank you very much for your hard work in the garden," says one message from November of 2004. Kunyang goes on to call Nacho "lively and friendly," and says, "Do not hesitate to take vegetable at my lot since there is not much greens left now. Wei and Stephanie say hello to you. (Meow)."

Houser said he was "very grateful" to the town’s supervisor, Kenneth Runion, for "allowing us to keep him there." Municipal worries about a cat scratching someone and the town being held liable could have prevented something wonderful, he said.

Houser last saw Nacho alive on Saturday. "He was spotless," he recalled. "Nacho always took good care of himself and looked healthy."

Nacho was the color of a cheese-filled tortilla, as his name implies, and had white paws and a white patch on his chest.

"His paws were bright white," Houser recalled of Saturday. "He didn’t look sick."

His body is being cremated at the Guilderland Animal Hospital, Houser said, and his ashes will be buried in the community gardens. Houser will notify the other gardeners of the burial date.

"What better example is there of the expression ‘to know him is to love him’ than our late friend, Nacho," House wrote in an e-mail. "Our friend served us well these many years...."

Neva responded by e-mail from Florida, where she is living now, said Houser.

"She said, it was probably a good way for him to go," said Houser. "He went peacefully. He died where he lived, where he was loved."

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