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Local journalist Matt Chandler covered crime in Erie County, New York for 20 years, but when it came to the June 2013 murder of Hamburg Toys “R” Us manager Larry Wells, he’d never written about a victim who was so “universally loved,” he said.
Wells, 35, was stabbed to death in the wee hours of June 29 in the toy store’s office while his co-workers stocked merchandise. The investigation took months as authorities wrestled with the question: Who would want to hurt the well-liked father and co-worker who fostered a family-like atmosphere among the store’s employees?
Authorities, who called the case a “true whodunnit,” retraced the 109-day investigation on “Murdered by Morning” on Oxygen.
A handful of employees were working in the store between roughly 1 and 5 a.m. on June 29. One heard an alarm of some sort going off and tried to radio Wells to shut it down. When there was no answer, another employee went to Wells’ office to find him. Instead, she found his corpse and a rapidly spreading pool of blood. He had been stabbed to death.
Detectives started searching for DNA evidence first. The security DVR unit had been unplugged, and there was a 2007 University of Florida Gators cap on the floor. Both needed to be tested. They also summoned the store’s loss prevention expert, Bernard Grucza, to walk them through viewing whatever security footage existed.
The video showed a man, clearly in disguise, entering the store at 4:24 a.m. Detectives believed the suspect understood the store’s layout — and security — well, based on the way he zig-zagged around aisles and largely avoided time in front of security cameras. At 4:32 a.m., the figure entered Wells’ office.
At 4:39 a.m., the footage cut out — likely from the power on the DVR being pulled.
Investigators found usable DNA on the Gators hat, and swabbed dozens of employees and potential suspects, but located no match. The investigation dragged on for weeks, then months. People in Hamburg began to talk, worrying that “someone was going to get away with murder,” Chandler told “Murdered by Morning.”
Retracing their steps, investigators realized that they were missing a DNA swab from one person close to the crime: Grucza. The loss prevention expert had been authorities' “go-to” guy for help with the investigation, but kept finding excuses for why he didn’t have time to be swabbed, according to “Murdered by Morning.”
On Aug. 14, 2013, they cornered Grucza, 39, at his father’s house, telling him they really needed his DNA. The swab took 20 seconds.
At roughly 100 days since the murder, Grucza’s results came back as a match for the Gators hat. Detectives went to his home immediately and confronted him on-camera, in case he made a confession. In the footage, obtained by “Murdered by Morning,” Grucza continually insists he’s innocent, even in the face of DNA evidence.
“Whatever, guys. Great. I didn’t do it,” he says, head in his hands. “This is crazy.”
They arrested Grucza that day and charged him. While searching his house, authorities found stockpiles of electronics and toys. Grucza was selling the merchandise on Ebay, according to the Buffalo News.
He “was uniquely well suited to rip off the company that employed him,” U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul told the outlet.
As part of a later plea deal, Grucza admitted to using his role in loss prevention to steal more than $200,000 worth of merchandise from the Toys “R” Us store.
Grucza also pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter, admitting that he had entered the store that June morning with the intention of robbing the safe. Grucza had been living well beyond his means, according to “Murdered by Morning.”
He had debts totaling $1.2 million, a $450,000 home, and a late-model Cadillac Escalade, the Buffalo News reported.
In July 2014, a judge handed him the harshest penalty available in the state on the charge: 25 years in prison and five years of probation, according to local NPR station WBFO.
Wells’ widow, Jill, said in her victim impact statement featured on “Murdered by Morning” that Grucza had stolen her husband and “best friend.”
“We were supposed to grow old together, raise our children together and watch them grow up,” she said. “But instead, he was taken from us.”
For more on the Toys “R” Us murder, including the first suspects authorities pursued, watch “Murdered by Morning,” airing Sundays at 7/6c on Oxygen.
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