Ruskin ice cream man murder trial sees doubts clouding tales of revenge

A key witness in Michael Keetley’s trial became frustrated as a defense attorney cross examined him.
Michael Keetley stands in court during his trial Monday in Tampa. Keetley is being re-tried, charged with two counts of murder and four counts of attempted murder, in a shooting that occurred early Thanksgiving morning 2010 outside a Ruskin home.
Michael Keetley stands in court during his trial Monday in Tampa. Keetley is being re-tried, charged with two counts of murder and four counts of attempted murder, in a shooting that occurred early Thanksgiving morning 2010 outside a Ruskin home. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published March 10|Updated March 28

TAMPA — David Beckwith met Michael Keetley not long after Keetley was robbed and shot inside his ice cream truck in 2010. They were two men down on their luck, and for a time, Beckwith helped Keetley sell ice cream, while also acting as his bodyguard, a .45-caliber handgun always within his reach.

Related: 12 years later, a guilty verdict in Ruskin ice cream man case

Beckwith told a jury this week in Keetley’s murder trial about how the ice cream man spoke constantly of revenge for being shot. He said Keetley interrogated people around town for tips about who shot him. He said Keetley spoke of a plan to pose as a cop and “make them disappear.”

But Beckwith became visibly frustrated and audibly angry as he endured an hourslong cross examination Thursday from defense attorney Richard Escobar.

The defense lawyer repeatedly brought out differences between what Beckwith said on the witness stand this week and what he’d claimed under oath in years past.

“What do you want me to say?” an exasperated Beckwith said at one point.

“The truth,” Escobar said.

“I’m trying to tell you the truth,” Beckwith replied.

A jury is considering whether it was Keetley who shot six men, killing two, early Thanksgiving morning in 2010 on the front porch of a home on Ocean Mist Court in Ruskin. A different jury three years ago couldn’t decide, causing a mistrial.

Related: New jury gives 2010 Ruskin ice cream man murder case a second look

The state’s theory is that Keetley targeted the group based on a mistaken belief that they had something to do with the robbery and shooting that left him physically disabled.

The defense says that surviving victims misidentified Keetley as the gunman and that a bungled investigation resulted in the arrest of the wrong person.

Defense attorneys Kim Kohn, left, and Richard Escobar talk with Michael Keetley during Keetley’s trial this week in Tampa.
Defense attorneys Kim Kohn, left, and Richard Escobar talk with Michael Keetley during Keetley’s trial this week in Tampa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

On the witness stand Thursday, Beckwith told how he’d moved in with his brother and sister-in-law sometime in 2010. They lived in a home adjacent to the multi-acre Wimauma property that Keetley’s parents owned. Beckwith, who’d been injured in a pair of accidents, was going through a divorce.

He became friendly with his new neighbor, who he said spoke often about how he’d been shot. He knew of a reward that had been offered — $25,000 — for information about the robbery and shooting.

A three-time felon, Beckwith acknowledged that he’d fired guns with Keetley and his father on their property. He claimed Keetley had no problem using the weapons, contradicting arguments that Keetley’s disabilities from being shot made it difficult for him to move his right arm or grip objects with his right hand.

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Beckwith began helping Keetley sell ice cream. While Keetley drove the truck, Beckwith manned the window and collected money from customers. Keetley split the profits with him, Beckwith said.

He said Keetley had him keep a loaded .45 caliber Glock handgun in a holster near the sales window.

It’s the same type of firearm investigators believe was later used to commit the murders, but they never found the actual murder weapon.

Keetley kept two other guns, a .380 and a .22-caliber, near the driver’s seat, Beckwith said.

Beckwith said Keetley constantly questioned people he thought might have information about the robbery. He recounted one incident in which Keetley aggressively interrogated a young girl about her older sister, who he believed was involved.

“He really upset that little girl,” Beckwith said. “And I thought that was wrong.”

Beckwith didn’t feel comfortable in some of the neighborhoods they worked. They were “not great neighborhoods,” he said. One day, he said, Keetley steered the truck through one such neighborhood, down a road where there lived a man named “Bubba,” who they’d heard had bragged about involvement in the robbery.

Beckwith told Keetley to stop the truck and let him out, but he said Keetley made fun of him. So he pulled the .45 and held it to Keetley’s temple.

The truck stopped. Beckwith said he got out and tossed the gun back at Keetley. It was the last day he worked for him.

On cross examination, which continued Friday morning, Beckwith acknowledged that he distrusts police, and that he demanded immunity before he agreed to talk to investigators.

He said he felt bad for Keetley when he met him, and admitted he’d expressed a willingness to sacrifice his own freedom to help him.

“I’m willing to kill anyone who takes away another person’s civil liberties,” he said.

He denied devising any plan to do anything. But he acknowledged a discussion about taking the people responsible and tying them to a stump to “let the alligators do the rest.”

After Beckwith was done testifying, Escobar told the judge the witness made a gesture to the defense attorney as he left the courtroom. Escobar interpreted it as “some form of challenge outside.” He wanted it noted for the record.

“I’m a big boy,” Escobar said. “I’m not worried about it.”

Earlier in the week, jurors heard from some of the surviving shooting victims, who described what they remembered of the man who shot them 12 years ago. They spoke of a man who pulled up in a minivan, got out carrying a long gun and wearing a shirt that said “sheriff.”

He asked for someone named “Creeper,” flashed a shiny object like a badge, told them to show their identification and to kneel on the porch before he shot them and fled.

Brothers Juan and Sergio Guitron were killed.

The entire incident occurred in about 10 seconds, one victim remembered. It was dark, the only light coming from a single bulb over the porch.

Gonzalo Guevara, who was shot several times from behind, estimated the man stood more than 6 feet tall, and that he was “chunky” and “fat,” about 280 pounds. He also described the man as wearing glasses and having brown or gray hair and red cheeks.

The description doesn’t quite match Keetley, who was thinner and in 2010 stood 5-feet-11, according to records.

Yet, when Guevara was shown a photographic lineup as he lay in a hospital bed, he identified Keetley’s image as the man who shot him. He said he was “2,000 percent” sure.

But none of the victims mentioned the ice cream man in the immediate aftermath. Guevara and others had seen him working the neighborhood before.

A convenience store near the Ocean Mist neighborhood put out a jar for donations to help Keetley after he was robbed. Guevara had seen it and had contributed some money.

The trial is scheduled to last through the next two weeks.