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McKeesport man gets life sentence for Waterfront killing

Michael DiVittorio
| Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A McKeesport man can expect to spend the rest of his life behind bars for killing a Damon's Grill employee during an armed robbery at the former Waterfront location.

Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey Manning pronounced the life sentence against 22-year-old Brandon Jeffrey Johnson Monday afternoon.

Johnson was convicted of second-degree murder, two counts of robbery, one count of carrying firearms without a license, and one count of recklessly endangering another person at a non-jury trial in March for the fatal shooting of Brian Lee, 19, of West Mifflin.

Lee and a co-worker were closing the restaurant when Lee was shot in the chest and killed as he tried to keep an armed robber from entering the business July 13, 2008. The restaurant in West Homestead has since closed.

Johnson was arrested without incident in a home in the 200 block of Bailie Avenue in McKeesport Oct. 24, 2009, at 10 p.m. He remains in the Allegheny County Jail.

The judge also ordered Johnson to serve an additional 5-10 years in prison for three unrelated cases. That sentence was part of a plea agreement involving charges of robbery, unlawful restraint, carrying a firearm without a license and other offenses in connection with incidents at Rock Bottom in the Waterfront June 18, 2008, a Wendy's along Browns Hill Road in Pittsburgh May 28, 2008, and stealing a Ford Focus in White Oak Aug. 27, 2009.

Lee's father Brian Lee Sr. and mother Belinda Lee became emotional while trying to tell the judge how Johnson's actions affected their family.

"When I try to come up with words to explain what the loss of our son has done, there are no words," Belinda Lee said.

Brian Lee Sr. presented a picture of his son to Manning, and said Lee studied to become an electrician and has two sisters.

"My son was a good guy," he said. "He just didn't know what to do in life." "(Johnson) has broken a branch off the family tree," said family member Howard Moore to Manning. "I hope you show no mercy."

Johnson declined to speak during sentencing. Johnson was represented by public defender Patrick Sweeney. Assistant district attorney Rebecca Auld prosecuted the case.

Sweeney said Johnson had a rough childhood, was passed on from relative to relative, and did not have a long relationship with certain family members who were "fine, upstanding citizens."

Sweeney acknowledged there was a mandatory sentence with the second-degree murder conviction, and asked the judge to consider Johnson's upbringing before passing judgment.

Auld read a letter from Damon's manager Marsha Kukulka recalling the July 2008 incident as well as her interaction with Lee.

Kukulka wrote that Lee was filling in for someone who had called off that night, and was a hardworking and caring person. She also wrote that even though the incident happened more than three years ago, "to me it feels like yesterday."

She went on to write about how the incident had a tremendous impact on her family, and how no one has been the same since. Manning said Lee's murder was "senseless" and "another tragic death." He also said Johnson became "another statistic" and part of a "poisonous combination of young men and firearms."

Johnson has 10 days to file a post sentencing motion in which he can challenge the sentencing and/or the trial. He also has 30 days to appeal his case. If Manning denies an appeal, Johnson has 30 days to file an appeal to the state Superior Court.

Lee's parents have sued Damon's Restaurants of America Inc. and the Waterfront management company Developers Diversified Realty for failure to provide adequate security. That lawsuit is pending in civil court.

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