News10NBC Investigates: Judge gives knife-wielding, school bus-crashing car thief 5 years and victim feels ‘like I am in my own prison’
ROCHESTER, N.Y. — A special education teacher got threatened by a man with a knife who stole her jeep, ran from police, and crashed into a school bus.
And what did the court offer that 20 year-old car thief with a knife? Five years in prison. The minimum sentence.
The suspect, Maliq McCullough, just went to prison 20 days ago and that minimum sentence re-victimized the teacher so much that she reached out to News10NBC to share her story for the first time.
“I feel like I am in my own prison,” Stephanie Thomas said.
Security camera video from March 15 shows Thomas leaving a meeting at the City School District’s special education office on Costar Street and walking to her jeep.
The video shows a man following her from behind.
“I heard someone right behind me saying to hand them everything,” Thomas said. “And that they were going to kill me.”
The video shows the attacker grabbed Thomas’ lanyard around her neck and starting pulling.
“He said again ‘Give me the keys, give me everything, I’m going to kill you,'” she said. “And it was at that point that the sun hit the knife blade that was at my neck.”
Thomas threw her keys away and when the attacker went to get them she ran.
While the police were taking Thomas’ report, her stolen red jeep was found. It was one of 226 vehicles stolen in March and one of the 3,900 stolen this year.
Some of the video News10NBC just obtained includes the video the thieves took of themselves driving the jeep. Moments after they stare into the camera, the Jeep careened into the school bus with children inside.
Cell phone video shows officers chased the two men who ran from the Jeep. One of them was McCullough, who was 20 years old at the time, and the man who put the knife to Thomas’ throat.
Berkeley Brean, News10NBC: “Can you still picture Maliq McCullough’s face in front of yours?”
Stephanie Thomas: “I can.”
Brean: “All the time?”
Thomas: “All the time.”
Five days after the attack, the Monroe County grand jury heard the case and indicted McCullough on first degree robbery with a dangerous instrument.
Normally, felony cases take at least six months to get to the trial. But less than three months after the attack, McCullough got a promise from the court, plead guilty, and got five years in prison.
McCullough took it, and his sentencing was scheduled for the end of July.
Brean: “When you learned that the offer to him was five years in prison, you thought what?”
Thomas: “I don’t want to live here anymore.”
Thomas says no one asked for her opinion — although it’s not a requirement. The District Attorneys Office used Thomas’ letter to the court when it objected to the court’s offer.
The judge was Stephen Miller. Judges are allowed to promise certain sentences if a defendant pleads guilty to every charge.
On behalf of Judge Miller, the State Office of Court Administration gave News10NBC this statement:
“The law that applies in this matter allows for a sentencing range of between five and twenty-five years. Judges are vested with discretion in determining an appropriate sentence, within what the legislature has prescribed. In exercising that discretion, judges in deciding on the appropriate sentence consider all of the facts and circumstances involved in the case; including but not limited to: The defendant’s prior criminal history, victim impact, and the safety of the community. Doubtless, when Judge Miller imposed a sentence of five years in prison followed by five years of supervised parole, he considered those and other relevant factors. A careful review of the case shows that the defendant in this case had no prior convictions and one prior misdemeanor arrest from March of 2023. His lack of a criminal history, combined with his age, are important factors for a sentencing judge to consider. In overseeing this case with the highest degree of integrity and fairness, and seeing it through to its conclusion, Judge Miller acted not just within the scope of his authority, but also with the best interest of justice for all concerned firmly in mind, as is the standard in all matters in the courtroom.”
McCullough arrived in State prison on October 5. Six days later, Thomas got a letter from the prison system letting her know that he’s getting out in four and a half years.
“I feel like I’m living a life in my own prison,” she said. “Just seeing light reflect off metal last week put me back in that spot.”
Brean: “If you could talk to our entire community what would you say to them?”
Thomas: “It’s more of a wish. The wish is that we could feel safe.”
If you meet Stephanie Thomas, she doesn’t look injured. But her left arm is numb, her hand shakes, an MRI showed damage to her neck, she has nightmares, and if she’s outside, her family has to guard her back.
The maximum sentence for first-degree robbery in New York is 25 years.
News10NBC is trying to get the average prison sentence of armed robbery. That requires a freedom of information request with the Department of Corrections.
News10NBC filed that FOIL last week.