Tyree S. Bunn turned to face a courtroom packed with the friends and family members of three dead people yesterday. He took a deep breath before scanning each row and looking many of them in the eyes.

"I want to apologize to the families of the victims," he said. "I can't imagine what the families are feeling now."

He told the families that he had never met the three people fatally shot inside the Northeast Washington restaurant he was helping to rob but later saw pictures of their faces in the newspaper. "To this day, I dream of these people," he said.

Bunn, who pleaded guilty last year to three counts of second-degree murder in the 2003 killing of three employees at Colonel Brooks' Tavern, was sentenced yesterday to 24 years in prison.

The sentence imposed by D.C. Superior Court Judge Robert I. Richter was four years longer than the prison term requested by the prosecution.

"I think it was a bit steep," said Jackie Barnes, sister of Rodney Barnes, 47, one of the employees who was murdered in the restaurant's walk-in freezer while Bunn stood lookout outside.

It was an unusual position for the relative of a crime victim to take. But Bunn was unusually helpful in guiding detectives to three other suspects. And prosecutors said he did not fire the shots that killed dishwasher Barnes, cook Neomi Payne, 48, or head chef Joshua Greenberg, 34.

"I think Tyree was in the wrong place at the wrong time," said Jackie Barnes, who hugged Bunn's mother after the sentencing.

Rarely do defendants look at victims' families during sentencing hearings. But Bunn, a 28-year-old father of two, kept turning toward the spectators in the courtroom and looking at their faces, offering shrugs and sighs along with his words of apology.

His defense attorney, James Williams, told the judge that in 25 years of defending people, he had "never known anyone to be as ashamed of what he's done as Tyree Bunn is."

Because of Bunn's cooperation in the case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Deborah Sines asked for a sentence of only 20 years, far less than the 90 years suggested in sentencing guidelines. Sines said in an interview that it was important to send a message to potential defendants that cooperation with law enforcement officials would be rewarded.

She said that although most of the victims' family members wanted all three defendants in the case to get life in prison, they understood her position. "These people have such understanding, such compassion," she said of the victims' relatives.

Police said the April 6, 2003, shootings began after Payne recognized one of the gunmen, David A. Wright, who had been fired from the tavern the previous summer. Wright killed himself last year as police were closing in on him with a warrant.

The other defendants, who have yet to be sentenced, are Rodman Durham of Hyattsville, who was found guilty of first-degree murder and other charges after a trial that ended this month; and Joel A. Smith, who, like Bunn, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder.

Two defendants remain to be sentenced in the April 2003 slayings at Colonel Brooks' Tavern in Northeast.Joshua Greenberg, 34, Neomi Payne, 48, and Rodney Barnes, 47, were killed during a robbery at Colonel Brooks' Tavern, the restaurant where they worked.