LITTLE VALLEY — A Salamanca woman is accused of assisting murder suspect Brandon Francis, including hiding the murder weapon in her garage, after last year’s fatal stabbing.
Melinda Clark, 49, described by authorities as Francis’ friend, had her first appearance in Cattaraugus County Court on Monday, pleading not guilty to first-degree hindering prosecution, a class D felony; two counts of tampering with physical evidence, class E felonies; and obstruction of governmental administration, a class A misdemeanor.
The indictment against Clark, handed up May 29, alleges she gave Francis, 22, a ride in her car and hid key pieces of evidence for him on Dec. 8, shortly after Francis is accused of killing 22-year-old Buffalo man Juwaan Holt.
Francis then fled to the Las Vegas area, but was apprehended the next day and extradited back to Cattaraugus County on a charge of second-degree murder, a class A-1 felony.
“If she had not done what she had done, we might have gotten him before he fled the state,” said Cattaraugus County District Attorney Lori Rieman on Wednesday.
Clark’s Buffalo-based attorney, Joseph Muscato, did not return a request for comment.
Rieman alleges Francis contacted Clark after stabbing Holt to death during the early morning hours of Dec. 8 at 357 Broad St., in what has been described as a drug-related robbery.
Rieman described Clark and Francis as friends and said Francis might be friends with Clark’s son.
She said her office has video surveillance footage showing Clark picking up Francis not far from the murder scene, and that it’s believed she then drove Francis to a relative’s house in Olean.
Without Clark’s help, Francis then took a flight from Buffalo Niagara International Airport to Henderson, Nev., where his father lives, according to Rieman said.
While local authorities were searching for Francis that weekend, they searched Clark’s Jimerson Road residence and found Francis’ clothes buried in garbage and a knife — believed to be the murder weapon — inside a box in the garage, Rieman said.
Rieman was unsure whether authorities executed a search warrant or if Clark consented to the search.
“It would be our allegation she assisted (Francis) by tampering with evidence and trying to hide it,” Rieman said. “There’s an actual statue she violated by tampering with evidence, specifically suppressing evidence that’s definitely going to be used against him in court, and also by aiding and abetting him leaving the scene of the murder.”
Clark was first charged with the class E felony and class A misdemeanor counts against her by the Cattaraugus County Sheriff’s Office in January but was not indicted by a grand jury on those counts and the additional class D felony count until late last month.
Rieman said it’s common for murder suspects to receive aid from family and friends, as well as for those family and friends to be prosecuted.
Her office prosecuted Thomas C. “Turtle” Hall, an accomplice to Gary Maull in the 2014 shooting death of Otis Lamont Parks in Allegany. Hall, who was sentenced to 7 ½ to 15 years in prison for second-degree criminal facilitation, a class C felony, testified against Maull during the trial.
Rieman said Clark could potentially be asked to testify against Francis, but added Clark’s testimony would not be “crucial” to bringing the case to trial.
“There are still plenty of other witnesses and evidence that can tell the story without her,” she said. “In other words, we don’t have to work out a deal with her. It’s possible we will.”
As for Francis, who remains incarcerated in Cattaraugus County Jail, a suppression hearing was held earlier this month. Rieman said it was ruled Francis’ statement to police would be admissible in court.
Francis has been indicted on two counts of second-degree murder, as well as two counts of first-degree assault and two counts of first-degree robbery, class B felonies.
Rieman said any potential trial for Francis would likely not be held until at least October or November.
(Contact reporter Tom Dinki at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter, @tomdinki)