The 19-year-old Lincoln man accused of shooting Rafael M. Moreno Jr. last July entered a plea deal in the District Court of Lancaster County on Thursday afternoon, a day after his attorney failed to appear for his original plea hearing.
Tony Bush Jr., who was accused of shooting Moreno Jr. near 27th and Y streets on July 26 — leaving the 31-year-old hospitalized with life-threatening injuries — was charged with first-degree assault, use of a firearm to commit the assault and tampering with evidence, for allegedly disassembling the gun and dumping it in a lake.
Moreno Jr. survived the shooting, though Lancaster County Attorney Pat Condon said that he is now paralyzed from the neck down.
Bush Jr. on Thursday pleaded no contest to first-degree assault, accepting a guilty verdict on the charge that will result in a 1-to-50-year prison sentence. As a part of the plea agreement, Condon dropped the other two charges levied against Bush.
Then an 18-year-old, Bush turned himself in about four hours after he shot Moreno while the 31-year-old was sitting in his gray Nissan, stopped at traffic light in the southbound lane of 27th Street at about 6 p.m. on that July day.
Investigators said Bush pulled up beside the Nissan at the intersection, with Moreno in the outside lane.
Bush alleged in court documents that Moreno threatened him with a gun about a month earlier, prompting Bush to buy a gun off the street for protection.
John Aman, Bush's attorney, told the Journal Star that Moreno had flashed a gun of his own in the moments before the shooting — the latest and last in a string of disputes between the two, Aman said. The teen mentioned the gun to police in his initial account, according to records.
Addressing Judge Darla Ideus in Thursday's hearing, Condon said that LPD's investigation never turned up the gun that Bush Jr. — along with a female passenger in the Mercedes, according to Aman — said they saw in Moreno's hand.
Condon said there were two car lengths of space between the Mercedes and the painted line ahead of him at the intersection, and that if Bush was threatened by the alleged gun, he could have pulled forward. There were two cars in traffic ahead of Moreno in the outside lane, Condon said.
As Condon recounted the events that led to the shooting at the hearing on the third floor of Lancaster County Courthouse, relatives of Moreno wiped tears from their eyes.
Instead of driving forward at the intersection, both Condon and Aman acknowledge, Bush shot across the passenger seat of the Mercedes and into the driver's side of the Nissan. Aman said the bullet went through Moreno's chin and made contact with his spinal cord, leaving the 31-year-old paralyzed.
Aman maintains that Moreno presented a gun in the moments before the shooting.
"(The passenger) leaned her chair back," Aman said. "Why would she do that if she didn't see a gun?"
Lincoln Police Officer Erin Spilker said last year that police found Moreno covered in blood and unresponsive in his car west of the intersection, pulled him out and started performing CPR on him in the street until rescue workers came and took over life-saving efforts.
By the time Bush turned himself in four hours later, he had cleaned and hidden the Mercedes and thrown the 9 mm pistol and its magazine into Branched Oak Lake, Aman said. His attorney said Bush had bought the assuredly stolen gun for $75 on the street.
While Aman said Bush acted in self defense in the shooting, he said the defense did not seek a jury trial because of his client's actions leading up to and after the incident: buying a stolen weapon, unlawfully discharging it and throwing it in a lake.
"There could have been 10 counts on this thing," he said.
Instead, Bush pleaded no contest to a single charge, paving the way for the guilty ruling issued by Ideus.
The teen's sentencing hearing is scheduled for September. Until then, he is free on bond.
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Reporter Lori Pilger contributed to this report.