Austin Burke trial testimony shifts to Pizza Joe’s robbery

WARREN — Prosecutors and defense attorneys in the trial of accused murderer Austin Burke on Thursday sparred over evidence connecting Burke to the armed robbery of the Cortland Pizza Joe’s.

Burke, 19, of Bristolville, is on trial in the courtroom of Trumbull County Common Pleas Judge Andrew D. Logan on charges of aggravated murder for the death of Brandon Sample, 22, last June, two counts of aggravated robbery and two counts of having a weapon under disability.

Trumbull County Assistant Prosecutor Christopher Becker showed surveillance footage from the time of the robbery, asking Cortland police officer John P. Weston to walk through the search and eventual arrest of Burke.

Burke was arrested when officers, responding to the June 20 robbery, found their way to his location in a nearby apartment on West Main Street in Cortland.

“We were also being advised through dispatch that a ping was being made to a cellphone for a suspect that had a murder warrant,” Weston said.

Weston said officers were let into the apartment by the owner and they questioned people inside about the robbery, collecting their names and dates of birth. Weston said Burke, who was present, gave the officers a false identity.

“I obtained a picture of the murder suspect,” he said. “I could clearly see the gentleman sitting on the couch upstairs was the guy with the murder warrant.”

Becker then reviewed several pieces of evidence collected at the apartment on the day of the arrest, including a pair of grey sweatpants and a pair of Nike shoes.

“Do those appear to be the same or similar to the Nike shoes depicted [on the suspect] on the security camera?” Becker asked.

“It does to me,” Weston replied.

In cross examination, defense attorneys attempted to cast doubt on the evidence connecting Burke to the robbery, pointing to the mask worn by the robber that was never retrieved and highlighting the star and tear tattoo on Burke’s hand.

“Would you say the person in the store went to great length to not identify himself? … You would think that if a person went to great length to disguise themselves, and they had distinguishing features on their hand, they would want to cover them up?” Burke’s defense attorney Edward Hartwig asked, before pointing to footage where the robber’s hands are visible. “Do you see any distinguishing features on that hand?”

“Not from this camera, no,” Weston responded.

“And did either of the clerks identify distinguishing features on his hand?” Hartwig continued.

“Not that I’m aware of,” Weston said.

Prompted by questions from Becker, Weston later agreed that, in his experience, victims of firearm crimes aren’t often paying attention to details of the hand holding a gun.

Becker then turned to Cortland officer Nicholas Mancini, who returned to the apartment the next day after a firearm was discovered. He also brought forward the $544 Mancini recovered at the apartment, tucked away in a hair product box.

The defense team then pointed out that officers only found $544 of the $700 to $800 estimated to be stolen from the pizza shop.They also returned to the question of unretrieved clothing.

“There were many sweatshirts and shirts inside the house. We weren’t going to recover every piece of the girl’s clothing in her apartment,” Mancini responded.

The defense team focused particularly on a missing shoelace.

“On the video you see the male suspect running from the Pizza Joe’s, is that correct?” Bradley Olson Jr., attorney for the defendant, asked. “These shoes we have here, there are no laces on the one shoe … you don’t ever see the shoe flopping off his foot or falling off?”

“In the video, no” Mancini said.