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Gunman gets 56 years in cellphone slaying

A.C. James Jr

FORT WAYNE – Kyree Ellis never got a chance to go to college, never got that first job after graduation and won't ever get to see his kid sister fully grow up.

And for that, a 38-year-old Fort Wayne man will spend at the bare minimum a few decades behind bars.

An Allen Superior Court judge sentenced A.C. James Jr. to 56 years in prison Friday in connection with the shooting death of Ellis, 21, who was killed while a passenger in a car last February.

While Ellis' friends and family sat in the courtroom, James maintained his innocence.

"I give my sincere condolences for the loss of your loved one," said James while he looked at Ellis' mother and others. "But what has been put on me is not the truth."

A jury found James guilty of one count of murder and one count of criminal recklessness last month.

A dispute about a cell phone James had with one of Ellis' cousins may have triggered the killing, according to court testimony and court records.

Ellis and two of his cousins were together in the same car when the killing happened on Feb. 3, 2012. Earlier that evening, one of Ellis' cousins found a phone at a gas station.

The phone ended up belonging to James, who called it and asked for it back, according to court testimony.

When the group met up with James at the gas station, one of Ellis' cousins apparently asked James for a "finder's fee" to return the phone, which James refused.

The group left the gas station with the phone. According to investigators, James pursued them in a truck.

A gunshot rang out soon thereafter, and Ellis, sitting in the backseat, told his cousins, "I'm hit." He later died from a single .40-caliber gunshot wound to the back.

On Friday, Ellis' mother, Stacey Ellis, read a letter from her daughter which she said summed up her entire family's feelings toward James and their loss.

"Was it worth it to take him out of the world?" Stacey Ellis read. "Man, you put my brother on the front of a shirt. You ripped my family apart and left us all traumatized."

The letter went on to detail Ellis' goals and aspirations, which included going to college to get a better job, to someday have children and his promise to live with his sister so he could be close to her.

"God can handle you better than I can. I'm glad my brother Kyree got justice for his case," the letter said.

James' lawyer, Randy Fischer, argued that his client's cocaine addiction and his stable employment prior to the shooting at a plastics factory should count as mitigating factors in the sentence, and asked Judge John F. Surbeck to give him only 45 years.

Allen County Deputy Prosecutor Steve Godfrey used James' extensive criminal record – which includes convictions in Indiana and Georgia for crimes such as battery, obstruction of justice and possession of a handgun without a license – to show he should get no leniency.

In one of those cases, Godfrey said a woman claimed she was shot at by James, who was arrested with a handgun in his possession after she called police.

But when that woman disappeared and could not be used as a witness, prosecutors could charge James only with possession and not a more serious crime.

Surbeck, noting that James had ample opportunity to address his drug addiction while in and out of the legal system, then sentenced him to 55 years on the murder conviction and one year on the criminal recklessness conviction, to be served consecutively to each other. The judge also gave James credit for 262 days in jail.

Because of Indiana law, which allows most inmates to rack up one day of prison credit for each day served with good behavior, James could have his sentence cut in half. James also said Friday he plans to appeal his conviction.

"It was clear to me after the trial you were in fact guilty of this offense," Surbeck then told James. "I have no concerns about the verdict the jury issued."