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A York County judge lamented the waste of two lives as he sentenced a York City man to life in prison without parole for murdering a young man over a small amount of marijuana.

Common Pleas Judge Craig T. Trebilcock said he was "just struck by what a complete waste this was," both for murder victim Ryan Small and for his killer, Vernon "Vito" Cox Jr.

Cox, 30, was convicted March 9 of first-, second- and third-degree murder for the ambush shooting death of 22-year-old Small, also of York City. It happened Jan. 15, 2017.

At Cox's sentencing hearing on Thursday, April 12, Trebilcock imposed the mandatory sentence for adults convicted of first-degree murder in Pennsylvania — life without parole. He didn't sentence Cox on the other two murder counts.

"He'll live the rest of his life in a cage," the judge said, and miss out on all the experiences "that make life sweet and worth living."

The judge also on Thursday accepted guilty pleas from Cox in three separate drug-dealing cases, for selling or planning to sell heroin and cocaine, plus a fourth case of simple heroin possession.

Pursuant to a negotiated plea agreement, Cox was sentenced to a total of two to four years in prison, to run concurrently with his life sentence.

Small's mother, Andrea Conn, spoke in court about the pain her son's death has caused her family.

"He has three kids he's not going to see grow up," she said. "It hurts me to know my son lost his life over a little bit of weed. ... I just wish things would have been different that day for everyone."

Cox also has children, defense attorney Jennifer Smith confirmed.

The background: First assistant district attorney Jennifer Russell told jurors during trial that to Small, Jan. 15, 2017, started out as "just a regular day — a routine situation."

Small, who sold marijuana, was contacted that night by regular customer Leon White III to meet him near the corner of West Princess and South Hartley streets so White could buy a quarter-ounce of pot.

"Unbeknownst to Ryan Small, Leon White and the defendant, Vernon Cox, had ... a more sinister plan," Russell has said — to lure Small to an area where the two men could rob him.

White remains charged with murder. As of Thursday, his case remains on the trial list, Russell told The York Dispatch.

White testified against Cox at trial, telling jurors that Cox opened the front passenger door of Small's car and "just started shooting."

Small drove off, with Cox firing a last shot "for good measure" at the fleeing car, Russell said. Small crashed head-on into another vehicle, jumped out and tried to run but collapsed on the sidewalk and died from two gunshot wounds to the torso.

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Like a cancer: During Cox's sentencing hearing Thursday, Trebilcock said that guns and drugs are the "bane" of York.

"It's eating the heart out of this community," Trebilcock said. "It's eating the soul out of this community."

He urged the families of both Small and Cox to counsel their children against trying to exact revenge.

"People just keep perpetuating the cycle of hatred and payback and vengeance," he said. "It's got to stop."

Trebilcock then acknowledged that "we had all sorts of nonsense regarding this trial."

He was referring to a shooting that happened about a block from the York County Judicial Center on March 7.

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Trial-related shooting: That afternoon, Cox's cousin was shot while walking down Clarke Avenue.

The cousin, 32-year-old Derek Dorsey of Baltimore, suffered a gunshot wound to the leg following a confrontation outside the judicial center, according to York City officials.

Small's brother or half-brother, 19-year-old Matthew L. Hughes Jr., and alleged accomplice Shyquel Folk, 15, fired on Dorsey at least 16 times, officials said.

Dorsey had been attending Cox's trial.

Just prior to the shooting, Trebilcock admonished both sides of the gallery for their conduct in the courtroom, which he indicated included talking, eye-rolling and shaking or nodding of heads.

White, 28, of York City, remains in York County Prison charged with murder and related offenses. He also is known as Ratiki Drakeford, according to court documents.

— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at levans@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.

 

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