A construction worker from Massachusetts pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and will serve 18 months in prison for the punch that killed his longtime friend and co-worker last fall.

Robert Clarke of Braintree and Elliott Fama of Wilmington both came to Maine in October for a construction job. Police said Clarke hit Fama in the head during what appeared to be an argument over a cigarette behind the Howard Johnson hotel in South Portland. Surveillance footage shows that Fama immediately lost consciousness, fell backward and struck his head on the curb. He died days later at Maine Medical Center. He was 44 years old.

Clarke, 36, originally was charged with aggravated assault, but a grand jury indicted him on a manslaughter charge after Fama died. He appeared in Cumberland County Superior Court in Portland on Tuesday for his plea and sentencing.

The Maine Attorney General’s Office agreed to dismiss the manslaughter charge as part of Clarke’s agreement. His total penalty was 10 years in prison, but Superior Court Justice Thomas McKeon suspended all but 18 months of that sentence, in keeping with the agreement between the parties. He also ordered restitution of more than $6,000 in funeral expenses and three years of probation.

At the hearing, Clarke sobbed as he apologized for his actions. He called Fama “my buddy” and said he wished he could take back what he had done.

“I honestly didn’t mean to hurt him,” he said. “It was just stupid, and I’m sorry.”

Fama’s parents and wife also spoke tearfully about the pain they felt during the days he spent on life support at the hospital.

“When we found out it was a friend and co-worker who did this to Elliott, it was gutwrenching,” Patricia Spurr, his mother, said.

His wife displayed photos of him smiling at his wedding, setting up a Christmas tree with his stepsons, dressed in a hot dog costume and celebrating holidays with his family.

“We were his priority,” Laureen Fama said. “There wasn’t a day that went by that he didn’t put others before himself.”

Justice Thomas McKeon speaks during a hearing Tuesday in Cumberland County Superior Court, where Robert Clarke of Braintree, Mass., pleaded guilty to aggravated assault, which led to a co-worker’s death from a brain injury. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

McKeon described the man’s death as the tragic consequence of a reckless action, and he told the family he was grateful for their testimony.

“Anyone who has their priorities straight knows they have accomplished something in life if they have left behind a loving family, and Mr. Fama clearly has done that,” he said.

Defense attorneys Dylan Boyd and Daniel Wentworth said they did not have any comment on the case.

Assistant Attorney General Bud Ellis described the evidence from police interviews and surveillance footage from Oct. 28. Two cameras behind the hotel captured the incident, although there was no audio in the recording.

He said Fama and Clarke were part of a four-person crew that drove up from Massachusetts for work in Scarborough. They had dinner and drinks at a nearby restaurant, and then they went behind the hotel to have a cigarette. The police report says none of them appeared agitated or animated.

Ellis said Fama first pushed Clarke, who moved backward and sat on the stairs. Clarke then stood and lunged at Fama, but the punch he threw missed. Another foreman from their crew stepped between them, and Ellis described their verbal altercation as “bantering or bickering.” Then Clarke threw a left hook around the man standing between them and connected his fist with Fama’s jaw.

“Elliott was immediately rendered unconscious,” Ellis said. “When you see him go down, he basically goes down flat, like a boxer knocked out on his feet.”

One man in the group called 911. Ellis said an officer’s body camera captured Clarke telling someone on the phone that he and Fama had been arguing over a cigarette. Clarke initially told a detective he didn’t remember much about the incident, and that it was just two buddies messing around. When the detective told him he watched the surveillance footage, Clarke said he remembered reaching around the foreman.

“Mr. Clarke said he believed he was trying to grab Elliott but not hit him,” Ellis said. “He realized once he went down that he had in fact injured him and he was really hurt.”

Clarke will report to begin his sentence on Nov. 3, the eve of the one-year anniversary of Fama’s death.

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