NORRISTOWN >> Calling it a “sad, sad situation,” a judge sent a Lansdale man to prison for at least a decade after a jury determined the man had no legal justification to fatally shoot a fellow parishioner during a disturbance at a Montgomery Township church.
“There was no justification whatsoever for you to intercede. I believe you’re a danger to society,” Montgomery County Judge Gary S. Silow said Tuesday as he sentenced Mark T. Storms to 10 to 20 years in state prison in connection with the 11:24 a.m. April 24, 2016, fatal shooting of Robert E. Braxton III, 27, of Lower Gwynedd, who was unarmed, inside Keystone Fellowship Church in the 400 block of Stump Road.
“The fact he was killed by Mr. Storms in a place of worship is almost unbelievable, beyond comprehension,” said Silow, acknowledging the heartache suffered by Braxton’s survivors as well as Storms’ family. “This is such a sad, sad situation. It’s just a horrible tragedy on so many levels.”
The judge also ordered Storms, 46, of the 1000 block of Lakeview Drive, Lansdale, to complete two years’ probation after he’s paroled, meaning Storms will be under court supervision for 22 years.
Storms did not react to the sentence as he was handcuffed by sheriff’s deputies and escorted from the courtroom.
During a trial last November, a jury rejected Storms’ claim of self-defense and convicted him of charges of voluntary manslaughter and recklessly endangering other persons in connection with the fatal shooting.
Sadness permeated the courtroom as relatives and friends of Braxton wept openly and shared memories of the man they lovingly called “Robbie.” Wearing purple clothing in memory of Braxton’s favorite color, Braxton’s relatives and friends described him as a “compassionate, respectful, selfless, caring, loving and spiritual” man who enjoyed sports and who had “a million dollar smile.”
“Robbie had the greatest smile. When he laughed everyone laughed too. It was so contagious,” Braxton’s mother, Hilda, sobbed as she recalled cradling her dead son in the hospital after the shooting. “My baby was dead. Why? My heart is half empty.”
Braxton’s father, Robert Jr., tearfully told the judge his son was not himself in church that day and had gone to “his Father’s house” to seek comfort for whatever was bothering him.
“That day my son needed love, compassion, grace…not the end of a 9mm gun,” Braxton Jr. testified through tears. “My son was a human being, unarmed. Mark had no right to take my son’s life.”
Assistant District Attorney Laura Bradbury sought a sentence of 11 to 22 years imprisonment, the maximum possible punishment, arguing Storms has a “vigilante attitude.”
“He thinks of himself as a hero who needs to go and put himself in a situation. The defendant brought a gun to a fistfight. The defendant escalated the scenario,” argued Bradbury, who was assisted by co-prosecutor Kristen Feden. “He still believes he was justified in going up to an unarmed man with a gun. If he hadn’t interceded, Robbie Braxton would still be alive.”
While Storms did not address the packed courtroom he wrote a letter to the judge in which he described three previous occasions during which he interjected in situations to save others. Referring to the letter, Judge Silow said he didn’t know if it was embellishment or the truth.
“Either way, it’s problematic for me,” said Silow, concluding Storms sees himself as a hero.
With the voluntary manslaughter charge Bradbury and Feden alleged Storms intentionally or knowingly killed Braxton under an “unreasonable” belief that the shooting was justified. Prosecutors contended Storms had no legal justification to shoot Braxton.
With the reckless endangerment charge, authorities alleged Storms, who attended the church service “armed with his loaded Ruger LC9 9 mm semi-automatic handgun,” recklessly engaged in conduct that placed Braxton and the estimated 300 other parishioners who were in the church at the time in danger of death or serious bodily injury.
Defense lawyer Vincent DiFabio argued for leniency on behalf of Storms, who he described as “too distraught” to address the courtroom.
“My client went to church that morning with no intent to harm anyone. My client certainly did grieve after this. From the very beginning he showed remorse,” said DiFabio, who suggested at trial that Storms acted in self-defense, under a reasonable belief that he was in fear of serious bodily injury or death at the time of an altercation with Braxton.
Storms’ father, Timothy M. Storms, a Methodist minister, testified his son is remorseful and on behalf of his family the elder Storms expressed sympathy to the Braxton family. In a letter to the judge, Storms’ brother recalled Storms telling him after the shooting, “I didn’t want to shoot that man. I have an emptiness inside me.”
During the trial, DiFabio asked jurors to keep in mind that Storms legally possessed the handgun. But many of Braxton’s friends testified Tuesday that they found it “unfathomable” that someone would bring a gun to church.
Testimony revealed Braxton suffered gunshot wounds to the chest and shoulder, the chest wound piercing Braxton’s lung and heart.
The investigation, according to testimony, revealed Braxton, while attending the 11 a.m. service, became verbally disruptive when a fellow church member seated behind him touched him on the shoulder to let Braxton know he had taken an already occupied or reserved seat. Witnesses told authorities a church usher and an associate pastor intervened and tried to calm an agitated Braxton. They ultimately allowed Braxton to remain in the seat.
Braxton’s father previously said Braxton was “upset” and behaving “out of character” that day.
Prosecutors alleged Storms “injected” himself into the situation, approached Braxton, displayed a concealed weapons permit badge and his Ruger handgun and then acted without legal authority and told Braxton he had to leave the sanctuary.
During an exchange of words, Braxton punched Storms in the jaw and Storms then shot Braxton two times, according to testimony.
When police arrived at the church Storms identified himself as the shooter and police secured the semi-automatic handgun from a black holster in Storms’ right waistband, according to the criminal complaint filed by county Detective Paul Bradbury and Montgomery Township Detective Todd Walter.
During an interview, Storms, who attended the service with his wife and son, claimed he fired two shots when Braxton began to charge at him with both fists clenched, according to the criminal complaint.
“Storms told investigators that he fired the shots because, ‘I felt that my person was in great danger’ and that, ‘I was worried about the other people in the church that someone else was going to get hurt,’” detectives wrote.
“There are elderly people and children in the church and I was worried for them,” Storms allegedly told detectives. “I had no intention to hurt him or kill him, I was trying to stop him because I was afraid he was going to hurt me and other people.”