ITHACA, N.Y. – A Dryden man pleaded guilty Friday afternoon to murdering a woman in Collegetown last summer and could face up to life in prison for the crime.
Michael A. Davis, 47, killed Josie Berrios, 28, an Ithaca woman who was found dead at a construction site at 209/215 Dryden Road on June 13. He was indicted in July on charges of first-degree arson and first-degree murder.
Police say officers found Berrios at the scene, an unfinished office building, with ‘apparent burns’ to her body. Police also reported that gasoline was found nearby. According to the District Attorney’s office, Davis was responsible for starting the fire which ultimately caused Berrios to die. Court documents state that the cause of Berrios’ death was smoke inhalation.
Initially, there were calls from the community to investigate the incident as a hate crime due to Berrios’ identity as a transgender woman. She was a well-known performer at The House of Merlot, and Berrios’ death had a significant impact on the LGBTQ+ community.
District Attorney Matt Van Houten, however, said there was no evidence to support that the charges related to Berrios’ death were classified as hate crimes under New York State Penal Law.
According to several of Berrios’ friends, Davis and Berrios knew each other prior to the homicide. Davis told the court that he and Berrios were in a relationship at the time of the homicide.
Davis attributed ‘relationship dysfunctions’ between himself and Berrios, which he said led to the deterioration of his mental health and ultimately Berrios’ murder. The defendant said the two had met in 2008 when they parted ways, and re-connected in Ithaca where they shared a two-bedroom apartment.
Related: 7 things to know about the Josie Berrios case: vigil, donations, support, police seeking more info
Judge John C. Rowley said if the case went trial, Davis would face life in prison with no chance of parole if he were to be found guilty on the original charge of first-degree murder. According to the District Attorney’s office, jury selection for the trial was set to begin on March 12.
“You have no obligation to go forward with this plea today,” Rowley said. “It is scheduled for trial and it will move forward to trial.”
Davis waived his rights to appeal as part of the plea, and pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, admitting that he intended to kill Berrios in the early morning hours of June 13. Sentencing for the charge carries a minimum of 15 years to life to a maximum of 25 years to life in prison.
“There is nothing that will truly amount to justice in this tragic case,” District Attorney Matt Van Houten stated in a press release. “However, the fact that the defendant accepted responsibility, pleading guilty to a Class A-I Felony and waiving his right to appeal, thereby saving the family and the community the trauma of enduring a lengthy trial, is an outcome that is certainly one that advances public safety and will appropriately punish the defendant for his crime.”
Davis’ sentencing has been scheduled for March 23 in Tompkins County Court. He was remanded to Tompkins County Court without bail.