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Man gets 50-100 years for home invasion that left Clairton officer paralyzed

| Thursday, Nov. 15, 2012, 11:22 a.m.
Emilio Rivera, a suspect in the shooting of Clairton police officerJames Kuzak, is walked into his preliminary hearing at Glassport District Court on Wednesday November 16, 2011. (Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review)
Clairton police officer James Kuzak plays fetch with his German Shepherd police dog Zarwin, 8, on Saturday, July 21, 2012 at his home in Belle Vernon. Kuzak is paralyzed from the waist down after being shot while responding to a home invasion call on Miller Avenue in Clairton on April 4, 2011. 'With therapy almost everyday, the thing that relaxes us is our dogs. We just come home and play.' Two men were charged for the shooting. The trial begins Monday. Steph Anderson | Tribune-Review

A Clairton police officer shot and paralyzed during a home invasion said he thinks he'll eventually talk with one of the men involved, who declared himself victimized by a lengthy prison sentence on Thursday.

“If he sees himself as a victim, he needs to spend some time talking to me,” Officer James Kuzak Jr. said outside an Allegheny County courtroom after the hearing for Emilio Rivera, a career criminal who prosecutors said spent time in prison for a failed murder conspiracy a decade ago.

Common Pleas Judge Edward J. Borkowski sentenced Rivera, 27, of McKees Rocks to 50 to 100 years in prison, calling him “a decidedly dangerous and incorrigible person.”

Given a chance to speak, Rivera told the judge that he's a victim, not a criminal.

“I honestly feel like there will never be justice for this case when all you have are victims,” he said.

A jury in August convicted Rivera of burglary, robbery, unlawful restraint and reckless endangerment but acquitted him of shooting Kuzak. The same jury acquitted a second man charged in the home invasion of all counts.

Still, Kuzak said after the sentencing: “The person who knows he shot me is going to spend the rest of his life in prison.”

A fleeing gunman shot Kuzak, 40, of Rostraver five times when he and two other officers responded to a call that two men had forced their way into a duplex. The intruders beat and robbed a man living there, sexually assaulted a woman, and threatened to shoot two children.

Paralyzed from the waist down, Kuzak uses a wheelchair and resumed rigorous physical therapy after Rivera's five-week trial. He spends much of his time talking to community groups and said he feels blessed and grateful that people genuinely express concern for his wellbeing.

“I'm here,” he said. “I'm doing well.”

More than two dozen of Rivera's relatives and friends gathered outside Borkowski's courtroom to decry the sentence.

“The sentence was very unfair,” said Mayra Rivera, his mother. “My son was innocent. He did nothing.”

Deputy District Attorney Dan Fitzsimmons detailed Rivera's history of crimes, which began with stealing a car at 13. Since then, Fitzsimmons said, Rivera “has engaged in a continuous series, and escalating series, of violent offenses” involving guns and drugs.

Kuzak said the sentence was scary because it effectively ends Rivera's life, but it shows the system works despite Rivera's acquittal on shooting charges.

A 20-year police veteran, Kuzak said he hopes to pass along lessons to younger officers. His physical therapy took a hit during the trial, but his condition is improving since starting over, Kuzak said.

He yearns to repay his family for the sacrifices they made while he patrolled and during his recovery.

He plans to “keep having fun, see where I can go — whether it's walking, sitting or rolling.”

Brian Bowling is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-325-4301 or bbowling@tribweb.com.

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