- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 26, 2002

KINGWOOD, N.J. (AP) Former NBA star Jayson Williams surrendered to police yesterday and was charged with manslaughter in the shooting death of a limousine driver a crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

The NBC Sports commentator, accompanied by two men, walked through a back entrance into the state police barracks in Kingwood. He didn't comment as he entered or left.

Costas Christofi, 55, was found shot to death in the master bedroom at Williams' 65-acre estate in Alexandria Township on Feb.14. According to the criminal complaint, Williams was the only person near Christofi when the gun went off.

"The death of Mr. Christofi was a tragic accident, but it was an accident," said Williams' lawyer, Joseph Hayden. "We are very confident that after a full, fair and thorough exploration of all the facts it will be clear that Mr. Williams is innocent of recklessness and innocent of any criminal conduct."

Acting Hunterdon County Prosecutor Steven C. Lember would not discuss details of the case, but said he was convinced Williams caused Christofi's death by recklessly handling the shotgun.

"I agree it was tragic and it may even have been an accident. But at base, every reckless manslaughter is an accident," Lember said.

Lember said authorities want to interview more witnesses. Christofi's death was initially reported as a suicide but later ruled a homicide.

Williams' brother and 11 other guests, including four players from the Harlem Globetrotters and a 14-year-old and 6-year-old, were at the house the night of the shooting.

"We are most interested in getting to the truth in this case. Those witnesses should come forward and do the right thing. If they do, they have nothing to be concerned about," Lember said.

Williams was released on $250,000 bail and required to turn over his weapons to police. His first court appearance in the case was scheduled for Monday in Superior Court.

Manslaughter, commonly referred to as reckless manslaughter, applies under New Jersey law when a death is "committed recklessly." It carries a penalty of five to 15 years in prison.

Lember told the New York Daily News that his office also was investigating whether Williams allowed Christofi to bleed to death before authorities were notified. Lember yesterday said that after speaking to the medical examiner, he believes Christofi died quickly.

Published reports have said Williams was playfully twirling a shotgun while giving a tour of his 30,000-square-foot home when the weapon fired, hitting Christofi. Hayden has denied there was any horseplay.

Lember would not provide details of the shooting, citing the ongoing investigation. He did say authorities were investigating reports that Williams had been drinking.

"Every day we learn more and more on this investigation and we are getting closer to the clear truth," Lember said.

Christofi had been hired to drive Williams' friends from a Bethlehem, Pa., charity event to the mansion, about 30 miles northwest of Trenton.

Christofi's nephew, Chris Adams, said relatives were relieved that Williams surrendered and was charged.

"Now they've charged him, so that means they believe he did it," said Adams, of North Plainfield. "It puts us to ease a little bit that they have the person who shot my uncle. Now justice has to be served."

He recalled how his uncle had overcome burglary convictions and a drug addiction, first becoming a drug counselor and then taking the job with the limousine company.

"It's been 15 years since he's been in trouble, so he had a good foundation built on his new life," Adams said. "It took him so long to get straight. Now a careless night out cost him his life."

The 6-foot-10 Williams was once among the NBA's best rebounders, but leg injuries ended his basketball career. He retired from the New Jersey Nets in 2000 and now works for NBC Sports as an NBA studio analyst.

NBC Sports Vice President Kevin Sullivan said the network would not comment. NBC Sports spokeswoman Cameron Blanchard would not say whether Williams was scheduled to appear when NBC resumes broadcasting NBA games this weekend.

Williams, 34, has freely admitted past mistakes, describing them in a 2000 autobiography as "a lot of beers and barroom brawls and some scrapes with the law and too many fights and some yelling matches with coaches and a bunch of headlines."

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