October 05, 2006

PITTSFIELD -- Damien J. Lamb, a former Becket man, was found guilty of second-degree murder yesterday for slaying 21-year-old Brandon LaBonte in Becket on the night of Feb. 16, 2005, and leaving no trace of the body.

Lamb, 24, of Davenport, Iowa, shook his head in apparent disbelief as the verdict was read against him. He told his mother and fiancee, "Don't worry — I'll be okay" and "love you" as court officers led him out of the courthouse in chains.

An anonymous friend spoke for Lamb's family, saying, "He didn't do it."

A Berkshire Superior Court jury of seven women and five men had deliberated for almost 9 hours over two days before reaching their verdict against Lamb yesterday.

Multiple charges

Lamb was also found guilty of single charges of assault and battery, assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon (a shod foot), and assault and battery to collect a loan for handcuffing LaBonte and severely beating him in a remote area of Washington on Feb. 6, 2005.

Judge John A. Agostini sentenced Lamb to life imprisonment at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Cedar Junction on the second-degree murder charge, which offers a chance at parole after 15 years of incarceration.

Even if he makes parole in 15 years, Lamb must complete a 3-to-4-year sentence on the assault charges, to be served after the murder sentence.

First Assistant District Attorney Paul J. Caccaviello told the judge that the "absolute pure evil" of Lamb's actions had robbed Barbara and Robert LaBonte of their son and of a chance to provide him with a proper burial.

"He stole Brandon LaBonte from his family that night, and stole from them an ability to grieve and say good-bye to their son," he said. "The verdict, while it brings the community justice, is never going to bring him back, your honor."

'Turned our lives upside down'

The LaBontes, with their daughter, Bobbi Jo, held hands as Caccaviello read from a statement they had prepared for the judge to hear.

"His actions have turned our lives upside down," Caccaviello read. "Our son, our brother, is never coming back. Brandon didn't deserve this. He was no angel, but because of what the defendant did, we will never get the chance to see him turn his life around as we know he would have."

LaBonte grew up in Savoy and graduated from Hoosac Valley High School in Cheshire. He moved to Pittsfield after he served a short sentence in the Berkshire County House of Correction. He found work as a carpenter and stayed in a homeless shelter until he rented a room from a friend of Lamb's.

Authorities say Lamb drove LaBonte to his father's house in Becket around 7 p.m. on the night of Feb. 16, 2005, under the pretense that LaBonte could work off a $150 debt. Steven R. Fish, 22, testified that he was also a passenger in the car, a red Chevrolet Corsica owned by Lamb's fiancee. Lamb went inside his father's house, then came back out to the car and told LaBonte that his brother was on the phone and wanted to discuss working off his debt.

State police recovered phone records verifying Fish's statement; Lamb's brother had called his father's house that night around that time.

Lamb returned to the car a short time later and told Fish he wanted to show him something. Fish said Lamb showed him LaBonte's lifeless body lying on the ground in front of a pickup truck, a shovel covering his face.

Handcuffed, strangled, beaten

Lamb, a martial arts expert, had handcuffed LaBonte, strangled him with a rope and then beat him to death with a shovel. Fish said that Lamb told him, "If the rope didn't do it, the shovel did."

Lamb then stomped on the body, telling Fish that he was doing his "river dance."

The next night, Lamb buried the body inside a beaver hut on his stepfather's property in Peru with the help of Fish and Kendra Keith, 19. Police scoured the 83-acre property using dozens of officers, cadaver-sniffing dogs and a helicopter in July 2005 but never found the body or any conclusive physical evidence. 

Police also searched the Becket quarry with a team of state police divers and canine officers, and other locations in the Berkshires, with negative results.

During the 17-day trial, prosecutors alleged that Lamb's mother had the means and capability of bringing the body to a waste management facility for incineration through her full-time position at the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. Nancy (Lamb) Dewkett, also a part-time Peru Police officer, disposes of large animal carcasses at the facility as part of her job.

Lamb's court-appointed attorney, William A. Rota, said he would file an appeal for his client. Rota was assisted by Pittsfield attorney Anthony Gianacopoulos.

"The jury worked very hard, and it was a long and difficult case," Rota said. "I respect their efforts while I disagree with their final results."

Rota had argued that the commonwealth had no proof that a homicide even took place. He attempted to discredit Keith as Lamb's jilted lover, and Fish as a defendant seeking leniency for unrelated rape charges. Rota suggested that LaBonte's disappearance on Feb. 16, 2005, was a missing person's case.

In an interview after Lamb's sentencing, Caccaviello thanked the state police detectives, Crime Scene Services and Pittsfield Police. He credited lead investigator, Trooper Stephen R. Jones, and the state police for their "extremely thorough, tireless" effort in "bringing justice" to the community and the LaBonte family. He also pointed out the hard work of assisting counsel Richard M. Locke and victims-witness advocate Mary Shogry-Hayer.

Prosecutor thanked family

Caccaviello also thanked the LaBonte family for their "strength of character and personal support" and the jury for its "careful and considerable attention."

District Attorney David F. Capeless said he had complete confidence in Caccaviello and Locke. This was the first murder case for Caccaviello as the lead prosecutor.

"I'm very proud of the job that was done," Capeless said. "They both did an outstanding job in putting together what was an extremely difficult case. I'm also very proud of the job done by my state police unit. I certainly wouldn't want to downplay the hard work that went into this case — the enormous hours and very thorough and unrelenting job that they did in ensuring no stone was left unturned."

Capeless also thanked Pittsfield Police for initiating the investigation and providing the LaBonte family with moral support throughout the investigation and prosecution.