ELKTON — A man received a 10-year sentence Monday for his role in an attempted armed robbery at a Port Deposit-area convenience store – where a shotgun blast went through the ceiling as the cashier successfully struggled to gain possession of the weapon.
The foiled armed robbery occurred at approximately 12:15 a.m. on May 29 at the Landhope Farms store in the 1200 block of Jacob Tome Highway.
The defendant, Austin James Kozlowski, 21, of Havre de Grace, pleaded guilty to attempted armed robbery during a Cecil County Circuit Court hearing.
Kozlowski also pleaded guilty to use of a firearm in the commission of a felony or a crime of violence, which carries a mandatory five-year minimum.
Retired Cecil County Circuit Court Judge V. Michael Whelan then imposed a 10-year sentence on Kozlowski for the gun conviction, in accordance with the binding plea agreement negotiated by Assistant State’s Attorney Nancy Olin and Kozlowski’s Bel Air-based defense lawyer, David Henninger.
Under Maryland law, Kozlowski must serve the first five years of that sentence before he would be eligible for a parole hearing.
“He didn’t possess the firearm himself, but he certainly was there and a principal in the crime,” Henninger told the judge, noting that it was one of Kozlowski’s three co-defendants who allegedly wielded the shotgun that discharged inches from the side of the victim’s head during the struggle.
(When multiple people are involved in the same crime, such as armed robbery or murder, all are considered equally culpable, regardless of who possessed the actual weapon or who actually committed the killing.)
The judge also imposed a concurrent 10-year sentence for the attempted armed robbery conviction.
State sentencing guidelines, which are based on a defendant’s criminal record and other factors, set a penalty range of five to nine years of active incarceration for Kozlowski.
Kozlowski has an otherwise clean criminal record, according to Henninger.
During a bail review hearing shortly after Kozlowski’s arrest in late May, his court-appointed attorney reported that Kozlowski, at the time of the attempted armed robbery, was a member of Level Volunteer Fire Co. in Harford County.
The lawyer also reported that Kozlowski attended a church in that county “every Sunday” and that he had a good support system, which includes his grandmother and other relatives, some of whom are law enforcement officers and firefighters.
Kozlowski will serve his 10-year term in a Maryland Department of Corrections prison. He will receive credit for approximately six months that he served as a pre-trial inmate after his arrest in late May.
As part of the binding plea deal, prosecutors dropped several related charges, including first-degree assault, which is punishable by up to 25 years in prison, and reckless endangerment.
Standing in the courtroom Monday while making a victim-impact statement, the man who snatched the shotgun from his alleged assailant told the judge that he still deals with the physical and emotional impact of the attempted armed robbery.
“I used to be outgoing and happy-go-lucky. This was an eye-opener. I should be dead, by all rights, but I fought for my life,” the victim said, referring to the shotgun that discharged inches from the side of his head during the struggle.
The victim then told Whelan that he has weekly sessions with a therapist to deal with the psychological trauma that he suffered.
Because Kozlowski’s alleged accomplice punched the victim in the face and broke his nose, he had to undergo a root canal procedure, he reported.
The victim expressed his dissatisfaction with the sentence that Kozlowski received, while acknowledging that he understood that sentencing guidelines and other factors had to be considered.
“Justice has not been served. You could give them life and wouldn’t be enough. They ruined my life – all of them,” he said, adding, “I don’t agree with the guidelines.”
From the bench, after the victim had finished his statement, Whelan commented, “You are a man of courage, and I thank you for coming in.”
Olin then remarked to the judge, “This was egregious. [The victim] is lucky to be alive. But for his tenacity, he would have been a fatality in Cecil County.”
The prosecutor noted that a clerk elsewhere in the store heard the shotgun blast and “thought his friend was killed.”
The victim is credited with foiling the armed robbery by stripping the shotgun away from Kozlowski’s co-defendant, which caused them to flee.
According to a statement of fact that Olin read aloud in the courtroom, Kozlowski entered the store with one of his co-defendants — Donald Lee Burton, 29, of Perryville.
Their faces were partially concealed by bandanas or handkerchiefs, Olin said. Burton was openly carrying a shotgun, the prosecutor alleged. Kozlowski was unarmed, she noted.
Meanwhile, their two alleged accomplices — Halie Elizabeth Bridges, 23, of Street; and Nicholaus Joseph Roth, 26, of Essex – waited outside the store in a silver Ford Taurus.
Investigators have identified Roth as the alleged getaway driver and Bridges, who occupied a passenger seat, as one of the alleged planners.
Store surveillance cameras videotaped the attempted armed robbery.
Prosecutors allege that Burton pointed the shotgun at the victim, striking his neck with the barrel. The victim grabbed the barrel and tried to take away the shotgun, prosecutors said. At some point, prosecutors added, Burton allegedly punched the victim in the face.
Olin alleged that, after the shotgun discharged into the ceiling, “Burton cleared for another round.” The victim, however, wrested the shotgun away from him, prompting Kozlowski and Burton to flee.
In the surveillance video, Kozlowski’s hand can be seen moving toward the shotgun and then touching the firearm, seconds before it discharged, police reported.
Henninger and Kozlowski maintained Monday that it was Kozlowski who prevented the shotgun blast from hitting the victim.
“I didn’t want him to be killed. That’s why I pushed the gun away from his face,” Kozlowski told the judge.
Henninger told Whelan that Kozlowski started using drugs and alcohol when he was 15, and that his addiction served as the catalyst for his part in the attempted armed robbery.
“When you talk to him, he’s a very nice person,” Henninger said.
Cecil County Sheriff’s Office Det. Tyler Price arrested Kozlowski and his three co-defendants shortly after the incident.
Tyler was able to link Roth to the silver Ford Taurus, which a store surveillance camera had videotaped – including its license plate — outside the store at the time of the attempted armed robbery, police reported.
Price ran that tag number through a Motor Vehicle Administration database, which showed that the 2015 Ford Taurus is registered to Roth, police said.
On May 30, CCSO investigators, assisted by Baltimore County Police Department officers, conducted a court-approved search of Roth’s residence, where they arrested him, police added.
Roth confessed to his role in the attempted armed robbery, according to court records. Roth also identified his alleged accomplices, including Kozlowski, who admitted to his involvement, too, after Price arrested him, court records show.
All facing the same 11 charges, including attempted armed robbery, first-degree assault and use of a handgun in the commission of a felony or crime of violence, Roth, Burton and Bridges are awaiting their jury trials – which are set to start Dec. 10, Dec. 17 and March 25 respectively.