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Testimony begins in Clearwater murder trial

Michael McKinney, 39, is charged with first-degree murder in a 2011 shooting death.

Michael McKinney, 39, is charged with first-degree murder in a 2011 shooting death.

CLEARWATER — The call came in just after midnight on Christopher Mickey's phone.

"I did it," Michael McKinney told him.

Just weeks before, McKinney had told Mickey he wanted to know what it felt like to kill someone. He mentioned Casey Garber, their mutual acquaintance, as a possible target.

Mickey thought he was joking.

But the following day, a woman walking her dog at the Clearwater Executive Golf Course on Countryside Boulevard found Garber's body behind the closed Dogwater Cafe.

Mickey contacted police.

"There was something about this phone call that caused (Mickey) to panic," said Assistant State Attorney Greg Groger during the first day of McKinney's murder trial Wednesday.

McKinney, 39, is charged with first-degree murder. He is also accused of trying to break into Mickey's home in July 2011 and faces several other charges, including burglary.

On Wednesday, Groger told a jury about the days before and after Garber's slaying.

On June 25, 2011, Garber, 40, and McKinney attended a wedding reception. Garber's estranged girlfriend called him at 11:40 p.m. to ask what he was doing. Garber said he was with "Mikey Mike," a common nickname for McKinney.

Garber's current girlfriend called him at 11:52 p.m. He told her he was at the golf course and hung up, Groger said.

Twenty-five minutes later, McKinney called Mickey and told him he killed Garber, the prosecutor said.

During a recorded telephone call monitored by Clearwater police, McKinney also told Mickey that he would be in trouble if Garber had survived.

Detectives discovered that Garber owned a .38-caliber gun, the same kind of weapon used to shoot him twice in the head, Groger said. Police also discovered McKinney's vehicle was dirty, but the front passenger seat had been recently vacuumed and cleaned.

Defense attorney Jessica Manuele argued Wednesday that McKinney was a "red herring" for Mickey, a convicted drug dealer whom she claimed could be Garber's killer.

According to Manuele, days before Garber died, Mickey told McKinney he wanted to kill Garber because he had suspicions the man was talking to federal investigators about Mickey's drug business. Mickey had even asked McKinney if he knew any hit men, she said.

Manuele also said Clearwater police did not investigate other leads. Detectives did not collect phone records for all of the roughly six cellphones that Mickey owned at the time, Mickey's police interview was not recorded, and investigators searched only McKinney's house, computer and car, she said.

"If you're only scrutinizing one person's actions," she said, "you're only going to find something bad on one person."

Testimony in the trial is scheduled to resume today.

Contact Laura C. Morel at lmorel@tampabay.com or (727)445-4157. On Twitter: @lauracmorel.

Testimony begins in Clearwater murder trial 04/02/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 2, 2014 11:01pm]
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