PERRY -- A Houston County jury deliberated for about three hours Thursday before finding William Allen Slaton and Matthew Jacob Pike guilty of strangling to death a mutual friend and dumping his body in a river.
Jurors found both men guilty of malice murder, felony murder, aggravated battery, kidnapping with bodily injury and aggravated assault in the April 10, 2012, killing of 25-year-old Justin Klaffka, whose body was found floating in the Ocmulgee River five days later.
Klaffkas family members, who traveled from different cities in Florida and New York for the trial, cried and embraced one another as the verdict was read. Pike and Slaton showed no emotion. Slatons aunt was crying.
Superior Court Judge Katherine K. Lumsden immediately moved into a sentencing hearing as jurors exited out a side door of the courtroom.
She sentenced both Slaton and Pike to life in prison without the possibility of parole after hearing from attorneys, Klaffkas father and grandfather, and Pike and Slaton.
Im asking for justice for my son, Gerry Klaffka told the judge.
Arthur Klaffka, the grandfather who raised Justin Klaffka since he was 8 until he was nearly 17, fought to maintain his composure as he read his statement to Lumsden.
I miss him, he told the judge. I lay awake at night crying that his life ended so abruptly and tragic. ...
Because of his death, I will never see his face. I will never hear his voice. I will never see his name on my caller ID or see him stand at my door saying, Grandpa, how are you doing, and can I borrow 20 bucks? The loss I feel cannot ever be adequately described.
He said he feels his grandson was given a death sentence and his family was given a life sentence. He asked for the maximum punishment.
Pike and Slaton maintained their innocence.
You know the truth. You know your son, Pike, 28, told his father, who was seated in the front row of the courtroom, along with his sister and a family friend. His father declined to make a statement during the sentence. But he told his son he loved him.
Thats not me. Im not a gangster, Pike said. He turned to address the Klaffka family.
You want blood, but you got it from the wrong tree, he told them. He also told them he was sorry for their loss.
Slaton, 30, expressed sympathy to the Klaffka family. He told them he could feel their pain, having lost loved ones himself.
We didnt do what they say, Slaton said.
Some of his family members were in the courtroom earlier but were not there when the verdict came in.
In spite of the statements of Pike and Slaton, Lumsden said, she also heard the evidence, and the crimes were indefensible and particularly cruel and violent.
Afterward, Assistant District Attorney Greg Winters, the lead prosecutor, said he was pleased with the jurys verdict and sentencing for the heinous and thoughtless killing.
Winters sought the maximum for both defendants of life in prison without parole. Slaton, who had three prior felonies, automatically would have received the maximum sentence under the states recidivist law requiring three prior felonies. The judge could have sentenced Pike to a lesser sentence of life with the possibility of parole. He had two prior felonies. But she sided with Winters based on the nature of the killing. Jeff Grube, a Warner Robins attorney appointed to represent Pike, pleaded for the lesser sentence to provide a light at the end of the tunnel.
Russell Walker, a Perry attorney appointed to represent Slaton, conceded that his hands were tied by the law in sentencing. He told the judge the case struck a nerve with me but did not elaborate.
Jurors found Pike and Slaton killed Klaffka because they believed he ratted them out about an earlier home invasion. The pair was convicted of beating him two days later at their Dixie Trail residence before taking him to the river to kill him.
Slaton started choking Klaffka at the river bank before Pike took over and finished the job in the water where they left the body.
The defense argued that 36-year-old Daniel Slaton, the prosecutions key witness, made up a story about his brother, William Slaton, to save himself.
Daniel Slaton originally was charged with the killing but pleaded guilty to a lesser offense after striking a deal with prosecutors. Daniel Slaton drove the men to the armed robbery and later to the river, prosecutors say.
To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.