Rivera admits to being at Fort Plain murder

Testimony reveals defendant admits in statements he was present when victim was shot

Eric Rivera

FONDA — Officers involved in the investigation into the shooting death of a Fort Plain man last June testified in Montgomery County Court Wednesday in the trial against one of the three men allegedly involved in the killing, Eric S. Rivera. The officers said Rivera voluntarily went to police to “clear his name” after word of his possible involvement spread and admitted in sworn statements to being present at the time of the shooting and to being armed with a handgun.

Rivera, 31, of Gloversville, was indicted in October on charges of second-degree murder and second-degree conspiracy to commit a violent act by a Montgomery County grand jury in connection with the June 30 death of Joshua L. LaVeck.

Facing the same counts in the October indictment were Garry L. Sweet III, 38, of Fort Plain, and Aaron L. Cockfield, 33, of Johnstown. Cockfield was additionally indicted on a charge of second-degree criminal facilitation.

All three men were taken into police custody within days of the alleged homicide, after LaVeck was found dead on the downstairs front porch of his home at 60 Division St. in Fort Plain.

Rivera stands trial this week in Montgomery County Court before Judge Felix Catena. Opening statements were delivered before the 12-person jury Tuesday by Montgomery County District Attorney Kelli McCoski and Rivera’s attorney, Stephen Rockmacher of Albany.

On Wednesday, McCoski continued with the presentation of her case, calling a number of witnesses from the state police and Fort Plain Police Department who participated in the investigation into LaVeck’s death, including state police Investigator Darin Jones.

Jones testified that he was called to the Fort Plain Police Department on June 30 and assisted with the operation of the Law Enforcement Agencies Data System computer desk that was established at the agency at the outset of the investigation to retain and organize information relating to the case as it came in and to aid police in assigning various aspects of the case.

According to Jones, police received several leads that day in regards to Rivera and his possible involvement.

Subsequently, Jones said that Rivera arrived at the Fort Plain station on his own, wanting to “clear his name” after word that he was named as being somehow involved reached him.

Jones said that he and Cpl. Donald Richards informed Rivera that they wished to interview him, which he agreed to and the three then made their way together to the Canajoharie Police Department to conduct the interview with the use of that agency’s recording device, as the device in Fort Plain was already in use.

Jones said conversation during the ride to the other department was kept light and did not involve discussion of LaVeck’s death.

Upon arrival, Jones said the recorded interview commenced and he noted on McCoski’s questioning that Rivera was not initially read his Miranda rights as the interview was voluntary and he was not under arrest. But, he said, 27 minutes into the interview Rivera was Mirandized after he stated that he was present at the time when LaVeck was shot.

“There came a point in my mind when I though he wasn’t free to go,” Jones said of the decision to read Rivera his rights.

Jones said the interview continued without objection or request of an attorney by Rivera and he ultimately provided a sworn written statement that he and Jones signed. The statement was entered into evidence and Jones read the document aloud for the jury.

In the statement, Rivera said he borrowed money from LaVeck intending to somehow make money off of the sum through “loan sharking.” Rivera said he gave money to Sweet to be paid back to LaVeck, but later found the money had not been turned over and that LaVeck told people “all over” that Rivera was not repaying the debt.

From there, Rivera stated to police that LaVeck was “basically” threatening him over Facebook. Rivera said he was also told by Sweet that LaVeck was going to set up a situation in which Rivera and Cockfield would be “poked,” meaning stabbed.

On the evening of June 29, Rivera said that he, Sweet and Cockfield were spending time together when Sweet said he wanted to shoot a gun and knew where to get one. The three then drove to a barn located in Stark that Sweet entered alone, reemerging with a gun that he fired several times.

The three men then returned to Fort Plain and Rivera went to speak with LaVeck alone at his Division Street home about the situation between them. Rivera described the discussion as “a little heated” and said LaVeck made threatening remarks.

While they were talking outside of LaVeck’s home, Rivera said Sweet walked up the street and joined them saying they “needed to squash the beef,” before saying good bye to Rivera and shaking his hand. Rivera said Sweet then stepped behind LaVeck and shot him in the head.

The two men then ran back to the vehicle they arrived in, where Cockfield was waiting and drove off, heading to Rivera’s home.

Jones said that during the interview Rivera initially told police that he was not armed when he went to LaVeck’s home. As the interview continued, Jones said Rivera admitted that he had acquired a handgun at the same location as Sweet and that he had the gun in his possession in the waistband of his pants while speaking to LaVeck at his home.

This information was collected in a second sworn statement given at the Fort Plain Police Department that Richards provided testimony on in county court Wednesday.

According to Richards, Rivera stated earlier in the interview that he did not enter the barn and in his second sworn statement Rivera said that he was “not truthful” during the first statement, as he admitted that he entered the barn in Stark with Sweet and removed a .22-caliber handgun from the same cabinet from which Sweet obtained a 9 mm handgun.

According to Jones, Rivera also said initially that he hid the handgun in a bush across the street from LaVeck’s home when he went there to speak with them, but when police asked why he would leave the gun out of reach when going to speak with a man who he said had made threats towards him, Rivera admitted he had the gun with him for “protection” in the waistband of his pants the entire time he was speaking to LaVeck.

Rivera also told police where the gun was located, in a duffle bag in the closet of the Johnstown home of his girlfriend on Cady Street.

State police Investigator Brian Kenney testified Wednesday that police obtained a search warrant for the Cady Street residence where they located the weapon which was loaded. The .22-caliber gun was entered into evidence and state Investigator Erin Manns later testified that through examination, Rivera’s DNA was identified on the gun trigger.

Manns also testified that she observed the autopsy of LaVeck performed last year by Dr. Michael Sikirica and took pictures during the procedure at his direction. Manns stated that Sikirica concluded that LaVeck was killed by a bullet from a 9 mm handgun. Sikirica is due to take the stand today.

While the murder weapon has not been located, Manns testified that an expended shell casing from a 9 mm handgun was located near LaVeck’s front porch and state Trooper John Sheehy testified that seven expended shell casings from a 9 mm handgun were secured on the property of a barn in Stark that police arrived at with guidance through turn-by-turn directions provided by Cockfield.

Additionally, state police forensic scientist Andrea Lester testified that she performed a comparison on the shell casings secured at each location and determined from analysis that they were fired from the same weapon.

Throughout the day’s testimony, Rockmacher focused questions on who police believe was the shooter and the type of weapon used, receiving answers to the effect that Sweet is believed to have shot LaVeck and that a 9 mm handgun was the murder weapon, not a .22-caliber weapon.

Rivera’s trial is set to resume in county court today as McCoski continues to present her case. The attorneys estimated at the beginning of the trial that they will conclude their cases today for jury deliberation on Friday.

Sweet is scheduled to stand trial in county court on the charges he faces on Monday following the conclusion of Rivera’s trial.

Cockfield was scheduled to stand trial on the charges he faced on March 11, but accepted a plea agreement in county court on March 7, pleading guilty to first-degree manslaughter in full satisfaction of his indictment. He testified in Rivera’s trial on Tuesday, noting when asked by McCoski that he agreed to provide his truthful testimony as part of the plea in exchange for a sentence of 15 years in state prison.

Cockfield is scheduled for sentencing in county court on May 3.