November 24, 2014

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Man takes plea deal in March 2011 slaying

ELYRIA — One of four men accused in the March 2011 shooting death of Jason Smith of Lorain after a botched robbery pleaded guilty Thursday to reduced charges in exchange for his promise to cooperate with prosecutors.

Aaron Rodriguez, 21, pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of involuntary manslaughter with a firearm specification that carries a mandatory three-year prison term. He also pleaded guilty to aggravated robbery, felonious assault and aggravated burglary.

The plea deal calls for him to receive a 14-year prison sentence in exchange for helping prosecutors, which generally means he’ll testify against the alleged triggerman in the case. He is scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 5.

Rodriguez was one of four men charged in connection with Smith’s death following what authorities say was a shooting that took place during a botched robbery at a West 17th Street drug house in Lorain.

Police maintained that the men did not initially intend to kill Smith, 28, but they said Donzelle Crosby, 21, opened fire. Eddie Velez and Jeremy Brown, both in their early 20s, already have accepted plea deals.

Brown was sentenced to 12 years in August 2011 after pleading guilty to charges of involuntary manslaughter, aggravated robbery, burglary and felonious assault.

Prosecutors dropped a murder charge against Brown in exchange for his testimony.

Velez received 15 years in prison during a similar plea deal. Crosby faces the death penalty if convicted. He is awaiting trial on charges including aggravated murder, aggravated robbery and felonious assault.

In court documents, Rodriguez told prosecutors that Crosby decided to rob Smith about 10 minutes after the group arrived at the West 17th Street address.

Police and prosecutors contend Crosby’s handgun misfired after he first demanded money from Smith, who began to move toward Crosby before turning and running toward a door. It was then that Crosby shot him, authorities said.

Attorney Mike Duff, who is representing Rodriguez, had said in February prosecutors made a better deal with Rodriguez earlier and he wanted them to stick to it. That deal, he said, called for Rodriguez to not face murder charges if he cooperated.

Assistant Lorain County Prosecutor Tony Cillo, however, said the deal was never sealed as Rodriguez had a hand in the events that led to Smith’s death. In those earlier discussions, his client would have faced 10 to 12 years in prison, Duff said.

“That deal was not the same one agreed to now,” Duff said. “We were not able to get that accomplished. We entered the same plea but not with the same benefit.”

Rodriguez opted to accept the current plea deal rather than take the chance of getting a much more severe sentence.

“There was the risk that if the judge ruled against us, we were looking at a sentence of 15 years to life, and that would have been problematic,” Duff said.

Contact Steve Fogarty at 329-7146 or sfogarty@chroniclet.com.