TAMPA — If you believe the state of Florida, Michael Keetley was so intent on revenge after he was robbed and shot in his ice cream truck that he posed as a cop and toted a gun to a Ruskin neighborhood and shot six innocent men, killing two on Thanksgiving morning 2010.
If you believe Keetley’s defense, he is a victim of circumstance, a man whose physical disabilities prevented him from committing such violence and a man who ended up wrongfully accused based on a hodgepodge of imprecise evidence and fuzzy recollections.
It’s a tale that’s been told often in Tampa’s courthouse. On Monday, it was told once again.
Keetley’s second murder trial opened Monday morning, three years after his first jury deadlocked 10-2 in favor of finding him not guilty, and almost 13 years since he was first accused in the bizarre shooting that claimed the lives of brothers Juan and Sergio Guitron.
In opening statements, a prosecutor and a defense attorney, both new since the last trial, reiterated their respective takes on the long-running, complex case.
“Obsessing about revenge,” said Assistant State Attorney Jennifer Johnson. “That’s what this case is about.”
“Michael Keetley is not guilty because he did not do it,” said defense attorney John Grant. “He did not do it, because he could not do it.”
The attorneys each touched on the events that preceded the killings. In January 2010, Keetley was working south Hillsborough County in his ice cream truck when a woman flagged him down and two men accosted him with guns after he stopped. They shot him in his leg, chest, arm and hand. They took $12.
In the months that followed, Keetley endured repeated surgeries. Confined to his parents’ home in Wimauma, he needed help to complete basic tasks like eating and cleaning himself. Shattered bones and nerve damage in his hand made it difficult for him to grip objects. He walked with a limp.
He became frustrated with what he saw as a lack of progress in the Hillsborough sheriff’s investigation of the robbery and shooting.
So he conducted his own investigation, the prosecutor said. He talked to people. He wrote down names.
He became convinced that a man who went by the name Creeper was somehow involved, Johnson said. The man lived on a short looping street in Ruskin called Ocean Mist Court.
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It was there, down the street, that a group of men sat on a porch early Thanksgiving morning, playing cards, drinking, smoking marijuana. Some had also snorted cocaine.
They would later tell of a dark minivan that pulled up after 2 a.m. The driver emerged wearing a shirt emblazoned with the word “sheriff,” and holding what the men later described as a pump-action shotgun. He asked for Creeper, demanded their identification, made them all get down. Then, one by one, he shot them.
The Guitron brothers died. Four other men were shot but survived.
In the hours and days that followed, the men would give different descriptions of the shooter. One witness said he stood more than 6 feet tall, with his estimated weight at over 250 pounds, bigger than Keetley.
Grant, the defense attorney, said Keetley’s injuries would have made him incapable of gripping a gun. He also noted that the surviving victims did not mention anything about the shooter walking with a limp. Nor did the witnesses mention that it was the ice cream man, whom they had seen previously selling frozen treats in the neighborhood.
It was only after a text message bearing a picture of Keetley and accusing him of the shooting circulated among many friends of the victims that word began to spread that he was the man responsible.
“A cascade of unreliability and suggestiveness begins,” Grant said.
The text had spread widely by the time one surviving victim was shown a photo lineup and fingered Keetley’s image.
As in the previous trial, the defense talked about how quickly the shooting happened, how dark the location was. An expert in eyewitness identification is expected to testify.
Then there are the ballistics. Shell casings and projectiles found at the crime scene were determined to have been fired from a Glock handgun. The witnesses described the shooter wielding a pump-action shotgun. A spent casing that investigators later found in a search of Keetley’s parents’ property, and other casings provided by a couple who said they’re fired guns there with him, were determined to have been fired from the same weapon. But there are inconsistencies. And the actual murder weapon was never found.
The state is expected to argue that Keetley could have attached an aftermarket barrel to a handgun to make it look like a shotgun. The defense says there’s no evidence he had any such barrel.
“We’re going to challenge every bit of the state’s evidence,” Grant said.
Other circumstances implicated Keetley. Witnesses are expected to testify that he cleaned his parents’ minivan and had it painted a day after the shooting. And a notebook investigators found in his home had the name “Creeper” written in its pages and an address on Ocean Mist Court.
Keetley’s legal odyssey was prolonged in its early years by questions over who would represent him, and the sheer number of witnesses and the amount of evidence his defense had to scrutinize.
When the first jury deadlocked in February 2020, a mistrial was declared. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, and a statewide shutdown of in-person court proceedings, which lasted months.
In the interim, Keetley’s longtime defense lawyer, Lyann Goudie, became a Hillsborough Circuit Judge. The attorney who initially inherited his case died unexpectedly. New lawyers needed time to become familiar with a case that was by then a decade old.
The new trial features an almost entirely new slate of attorneys. Richard Escobar, perhaps most recognizable for shepherding the acquittal of Curtis Reeves in the Pasco County movie theater shooting case, leads the new defense team.
Keetley sat with them Monday, his hair noticeably grayer. A collection of thick binders packed a cart and two spectator rows behind him, the record of a case that has churned through the court more than a decade.
The trial is expected to last as long as three weeks.