After 12 years in jail, Hillsborough ice cream man denied bond reduction

At Michael Keetley’s first trial, a mistrial was declared after jurors failed to reach a unanimous verdict — 10 voted not guilty and two voted guilty.
Michael Keetley has been jailed for nearly 12 years on two first-degree murder charges and four counts of attempted murder. In a bond hearing on Thursday, Judge Christopher Sabella denied his attorney's request to lower the sum to a "more reasonable amount."
Michael Keetley has been jailed for nearly 12 years on two first-degree murder charges and four counts of attempted murder. In a bond hearing on Thursday, Judge Christopher Sabella denied his attorney's request to lower the sum to a "more reasonable amount."
Published Oct. 20, 2022|Updated Oct. 20, 2022

For 11 years, 10 months and 18 days, the incarcerated former Hillsborough ice cream man has maintained his innocence.

At Michael Keetley’s trial, 10 of the 12 jury members wanted to find him not guilty. But with two refusing to agree, a mistrial was declared.

Keetley has remained jailed for nearly a dozen years, facing two charges of first-degree murder and four counts of attempted murder in connection to a 2010 shooting outside a Ruskin home.

By the time his case finally went to trial, in February 2020, the ice cream truck driver was the subject of the longest-running murder case in Hillsborough County’s history. After his mistrial, a cascade of continuances, and a request to reduce his $900,000 bail, Judge Christopher Sabella has assured that Keetley, now 51, will keep on waiting in the county jail until he gets his verdict.

It’s sad, Sabella said during a bond review hearing Thursday — “but I often see sad things in this courtroom.”

“Reducing a bond that’s already been set after a lengthy hearing by another judge on determining the appropriate bond, I simply at the end of the day do not see a sufficient change of circumstances to reduce that bond,” Sabella said.

Had he been the judge tasked with determining Keetley’s bond when he was arrested in February 2010, Sabella said he likely would have been persuaded by the arguments Keetley’s new defense team laid out in Thursday’s hearing. A mistrial resulting from a hung jury also points out the weaknesses in each side, he said, and it could be an “excellent opportunity” to come to an agreement that could resolve the case.

Since his 2020 trial, Keetley lost his longtime defense attorney Lyann Goudie when she became a Hillsborough circuit judge.

Then he lost her replacement, Tampa attorney DeeAnn Athan, when Athan died of cancer in May 2021.

Now, though, Keetley will head to trial with Athan’s former boss, attorney Rick Escobar, spearheading his defense. Escobar is taking on the case on the heels of a highly publicized win for client Curtis Reeves, who was acquitted of first-degree murder charges despite admitting to fatally shooting a man during an argument inside a movie theater.

Unlike Reeves, the evidence against Keetley is largely circumstantial and based on witness recollections. In his trial, prosecutors argued that Keetley, known for driving his purple ice cream truck through neighborhoods in southern Hillsborough County, had taken on a vigilante role after he was shot and beaten during a robbery in 2010.

On Thanksgiving morning that year, they alleged, he targeted the wrong people when he set his sights on a group of men playing cards outside a Ruskin home and opened fire. Yet not everyone who saw the shooting identified Keetley, then 39, as the shooter, court records show.

And in the time since Keetley’s mistrial, his parents have offered to put up their own home as collateral should his bond be reduced. Their proposed property bond, worth roughly $540,000, Escobar said, would allow their son to finally come home to his family while awaiting his new trial. And if he failed to comply with court restrictions, his family’s home would be forfeited to the state.

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“For Mr. Keetley, a $900,000 bond is, in my opinion, tantamount to no bond,” Escobar said. “We know we had 12 jurors who could not say to this court that this gentleman was guilty, we know that the law says we are all presumed to be innocent, and we know his circumstances have now changed to where he has the assets to secure a reasonable bond.”

But state prosecutors pointed out another change in Keetley’s circumstances in the years following his mistrial.

Last March, Keetley picked up another charge, this one a third-degree felony, for attacking another inmate in Falkenburg Road Jail, Assistant State Attorney Lindsey Hodges said. And in this case, the assault was witnessed not only by people but also by multiple security cameras.

According to his arrest report, Keetley is seen on video tackling the inmate from behind and punching him multiple times in the head.

In many cases, being charged with such a crime while awaiting a murder trial would be grounds to revoke bond completely, Hodges said. But the state attorney’s office didn’t ask for that.

Prosecutors also asked Sabella to consider Paz Quezada, the mother of Juan and Sergio Guitron, the two men Keetley is accused of killing. She wept as she approached the judge and, with help from a court translator, pleaded with him to keep Keetley behind bars.

The two men who were killed in the shooting were her only sons, she said. They were kind to Keetley when they learned he was struggling financially, Quezada said. They even said to her, “Please, Mom, don’t buy ice cream from anyone except the man in the purple van because he is a good man.”

“And look at what he did to my sons, who never did harm to anyone,” she said. “Now I live with medication and my life is senseless. Please, honorable judge, with all of my respects, if you are a father please consider this. ... I would not want him to be released.”

Keetley showed little emotion as his attorneys attempted to sway Sabella. Now grizzled and gaunt, his orange jumpsuit hung off his body, and his sunken face cast shadows over a hollow gaze.

His new trial has been slated to begin on Feb. 27, with an anticipated end date of March 24.