Jury awards $1.75M in York City bar murder

Liz Evans Scolforo
York Dispatch

The survivors of a man fatally shot in a York City bar while acting as peacemaker have been awarded $1.75 million by a York County jury.

But whether they'll see much, or any, of that amount is unclear, according to attorney Nate Foote.

Murder victim Jaime Sanabria and his son, E'maiJ Sanabria.

Jaime Sanabria was gunned down inside the former George's Tavern, 376 Walnut St., on Aug. 17, 2013, by Halim "Budda" Bowen.

Foote and fellow attorney Ben Andreozzi represented Sanabria's estate, including his only child and his mother, Romelle "Mae" Graham.

Sanabria's son, E'maiJ Sanabria, just turned 10 years old, Foote said.

A York County civil jury deliberated about four hours Wednesday, March 14, before announcing their verdict, he said.

Jurors found Anita's Place Inc. — which owned the tavern — and Bowen negligent in Sanabria's death, according to court records.

90 percent negligent: They determined Anita's Place was 90 percent negligent for Sanabria's death, while Bowen is 10 percent negligent, according to the verdict form.

They awarded $500,000 in damages to Sanabria's survivors; $998,743 in damages for the loss of income Sanabria's death caused; and $250,000 for Sanabria's pain and suffering at the time of his death, the verdict form states.

"The family was thrilled," Foote told The York Dispatch. "They have felt since the criminal trial that something had to have gone wrong."

Anita's Place Inc. carried insurance on George's Tavern, but the policy had an exclusion that exempted the insurance company from being responsible for paying on this type of verdict, according to Foote.

"It puts us in a tough spot," he said. "We do not expect to collect that award. How much, if any, we can collect? We'll have to see."

Attorney L.C. Heim, who represents Anita's Place, could not be reached for comment Friday afternoon. The executive officers of Anita's Place are Georgios and Aristidis Spanakis, according to the lawsuit. 

Halim "Budda" Bowen

The murder: Bowen, 28, formerly of York City, was convicted of first-degree murder in December 2014 and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Testimony from his murder trial revealed that Bowen hung around outside George's Tavern for about an hour before finally being let inside. Bouncers were turning away people at the door because the tavern was packed.

Most people simply left, but Bowen persisted, saying he would pay $20 to get in, even though the cover charge was only $2, according to testimony.

After he got in the tavern, a fight broke out that didn't involve him, York City Police have said.

Sanabria, 25, who was called "Butter" by loved ones, was trying to act as peacemaker by breaking up the fight, according to police. Instead he ended up lying stomach-down on the dance floor.

And that's when Bowen saw his opportunity, according to District Attorney Dave Sunday, who was lead prosecutor. Bowen got on top of Sanabria and shot him in the back at close range.

Stepped over victim: Tavern patrons reacted to the gunshot by ducking or running for the exit doors, but Bowen didn't react at all, testimony revealed. Video surveillance from inside the tavern showed him calmly stepping over the dying Sanabria and making his way to an exit.

After ripping through Sanabria's chest, the fatal bullet struck tavern patron Tyson Hartzog in the lower leg. In response, he jumped Bowen, according to testimony.

Hartzog testified at trial that he "took (Bowen's) face to the ground a couple times."

Police said Bowen fled the bar after suffering significant facial injuries but didn't seek treatment until after he fled to Albany, New York.

The civil trial: According to Foote, Sanabria's family sued because George's Tavern was required to use a metal-detecting wand to check all customers for weapons, as the tavern had been the site of numerous violent encounters and was considered a nuisance bar.

The requirement was part of the former tavern's provisional license with the state's Liquor Control Board, he said.

Foote said the plaintiffs maintain the security checks weren't done properly by the security guard.

"They had a wand and he may have used it, but the search was perfunctory at best," Foote said. "(Our) argument to the jury was ... just waving it in front of someone's body is meaningless."

He said the security guards should have done thorough searches, and that Bowen simply walked into the packed bar before he was finished being searched. The security guard testified he let Bowen keep walking because he didn't want to leave his post at the front door, according to Foote.

"Our case was strong," he said.

'Loved and cherished': Graham wrote a victim-impact statement that was read aloud at Bowen's sentencing.

In it, she explained she called her son "Butter" because his big smile "always melted her heart," and that even though Sanabria wasn't a perfect child, he was "a loved and cherished one."

Bowen's motive for murdering Sanabria is unknown, officials have said.

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