A York County judge must decide whether testimony Monday about an alleged confession in the End Zone murder case is powerful enough to overturn the convictions of three men convicted of Deena Cunningham's ambush death.
The barmaid left her job for the night at the former End Zone Sports Bar in the 600 block of West Market Street with bar owner Patrick Hatzinikolas when they were caught in a hail of bullets while inside his car on June 7, 2002.
Hatzinikolas survived, but the 26-year-old Cunningham did not.
After two years of legal wrangling that included a mistrial, a jury convicted three York men for her slaying.
Gregory Lee, 33, and Antonio Stauffer, 32, were found guilty of first-degree murder and related charges and are serving life in prison, plus 40 to 80 years each.
The men were trying to exact revenge on Hatzinikolas for firing Stauffer's girlfriend, a former End Zone barmaid, according to the prosecution.
Confession? But on March 1 of this year, a man named Dio Garcia sat down with York City detectives, state police and a senior prosecutor and told them Wilfredo Rodriguez Jr. confessed to killing Cunningham while trying to shoot Hatzinikolas.
Rodriguez, 34, of York City, was caught by West Manchester Township Police with the murder weapon -- a stolen 9mm handgun -- during a routine traffic stop 15 months after Cunningham's death. Rodriguez testified for the prosecution at trial.
"Fredo" Rodriguez told jurors he bought the gun on the street. Police said it was reported stolen from a York County resident two days before Cunningham was killed.
But according to Garcia's statement, Rodriguez told him he and others he'd recruited waited outside in the rain for Hatzinikolas to leave the bar and get into his vehicle, then the mask-wearing Rodriguez opened fire.
"And he said as soon as the ... white (reverse) lights came on, he said he just started shooting," Garcia recounted. "He said he let go of the whole clip while the car was in reverse. And then he took off running back to Fredo's house."
Argument alleged: Rodriguez allegedly said he and Hatzinikolas had an encounter that ended in an argument, and that the bar owner threatened to have Rodriguez killed, according to the transcript of Garcia's interview.
Garcia repeated his claims in York County Court on Monday, where attorneys representing the three men convicted of killing Cunningham are asking Common Pleas Judge John S. Kennedy to grant the men a new trial.
"We have to show the judge that if a jury were to hear Dio's testimony, combined with other evidence that's already been admitted, that it's likely to have affected the outcome of the trial," said attorney Dawn Cutaia, who represents Lee. "What we're arguing is, that if a jury would hear Wilfredo's (alleged) confessions along with the fact that Wilfredo was found with the murder weapon, that they could have found the defendants not guilty."
No ruling: Judge Kennedy reserved decision, instead giving the defense attorneys 30 days to file briefs, after which prosecutors have two weeks to file their replies.
Cutaia said it was brave of Garcia to come forward.
"It was not easy for him to do what he did ... because of possible retaliation," she said.
Attorney Suzanne Smith, who represents Swartz, said Garcia "has nothing to gain" at this point by coming forward.
"I feel bad for (Cunningham's) family ... but it is important for all parties that the truth comes out," Smith said.
Attorney Vince Quinn, who represents Stauffer, could not immediately be reached for comment, and prosecutors declined comment.
Life sentence: Rodriguez is serving life in prison for the April 11, 2008, first-degree murder of Omar "Big O" Dowling. He waited outside Dowling's Hamilton Avenue home in York City and ambushed him, firing at least 18 shots from an AK-47 assault rifle.
Police said Rodriguez committed the slaying in retaliation for being shot in August 2006 on the orders of a man known as "O." But Dowling, 29, was not the "O" who ordered the shooting and was killed in a case of mistaken identity.
Sue Spadafora, Cunningham's mother, told The York Dispatch she believes Lee, Stauffer and Swartz are guilty. But she said she wants the truth, whatever that may be.
"It's going to be hard on all of us," she said in June. "I just can't believe it's happening all over again."
--- Staff writer Liz Evans Scolforo can also be reached at email@example.com.