TAMPA — A dozen years after a gunman posing as a police officer shot six innocent men Thanksgiving morning on the front porch of a Ruskin home, a judge sentenced Michael Keetley to life in prison for the crime.
The mandatory sentence punctuated what Hillsborough Circuit Judge Christopher Sabella acknowledged had been an unusually long and difficult case.
“But it has finally come to an end,” Sabella said. “What it has shown to the victims in this case is justice is not always swift, but justice is eventually served.”
Keetley said nothing in the hearing. His attorneys said there was much he wished to say, but they’d advised him to stay silent. They plan to appeal his conviction. Keetley maintains his innocence.
Shackled and wearing a red jail uniform, he sat with his lawyers, resting his chin on his hands.
He stared straight ahead as Paz Quezada, whose sons Juan and Sergio Guitron were killed in the shooting, addressed the court through a Spanish interpreter.
“My question to him is one that I’ve always wanted to ask him,” she said. “Why did you kill my sons? ... My children were the only people that I had. I loved them with all of my heart. And I want to know how you feel now that you’ve taken them away from me.”
Keetley never looked at her.
A jury in March convicted Keetley on two counts of first-degree murder for the deaths of the Guitron brothers and the attempted murders of four other men. Early on Thanksgiving morning in 2010, the group gathered on the front porch of a home on a short, looping street called Ocean Mist Court.
As they drank and played cards, someone pulled up in a dark minivan. The driver got out, wearing a shirt that read “sheriff” and wielding what the men variously described as a pump-action shotgun or rifle.
The gunman asked for “Creeper,” a neighbor some of them knew but who lived a few houses away. He demanded they show their identification, made them kneel down, then began shooting them. As the men lay bleeding and writhing on the ground, the gunman got back in his van and drove off.
Word quickly spread in the community that Keetley was the gunman. He was an ice cream man who once worked the neighborhoods of southeast Hillsborough County, selling frozen treats from his purple truck. He was a familiar face in the areas near where the shooting occurred.
Earlier that year, Keetley had been the victim of a robbery in which masked men ambushed his ice cream truck, taking $12 and shooting Keetley four times. Left physically disabled, he was said to have become frustrated with law enforcement efforts to identify his attackers. So he began his own investigation, eventually coming to believe that a man known as “Creeper” was responsible.
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Investigators assembled a conglomeration of largely circumstantial evidence. But the state’s case bore significant weaknesses, including inconsistent ballistic evidence, witnesses whose descriptions of the shooter varied, and procedural mistakes investigators made. Two surviving witnesses picked Keetley out of a photo lineup, but that was after word had spread in the community that he was the shooter.
The case was further complicated through the years by legal questions over who would represent Keetley. When it finally reached trial in February 2020, a jury was unable to decide if he was guilty and a mistrial was declared.
After a monthlong trial this year, a second jury deliberated 13 hours over three days before returning a guilty verdict to all charges.
Before the sentence was imposed Friday, defense attorney John Grant argued vigorously for the judge to grant a new trial. He focused on various pieces of evidence the jury saw and arguments the state made that he said should have been excluded.
The judge said the defense had argued the issues well, but declined to grant their request.
“At the end of the day they (the jury) found no reasonable doubt and found him guilty of all counts,” Sabella said. He noted that an appeals court will be able to review the case.
The court also heard from some of the men who survived the shooting.
Daniel Beltran, who was shot several times, urged Keetley to seek God’s forgiveness.
“It was the devil,” he said. “It wasn’t you.”
Gonzalo Guevara, also wounded in the shooting, wore a shirt bearing a photo of the Guitron brothers and the words “In Loving Memory.”
“You were a coward that night,” he told Keetley. “We know what you did that night. And you know what you did that night. ... They say forgiving people helps you heal, but I can’t forgive you.”