Defense in Ruskin ice cream man trial questions investigative steps, leads not pursued

Michael Keetley’s trial in a 2010 double shooting is set to enter its third week of testimony.
Michael Keetley stands beside his attorneys during his trial in Tampa. Keetley is being tried for the second time after a jury in his first trial could not decide if he was guilty in a shooting that occurred early Thanksgiving morning 2010 outside a Ruskin home.
Michael Keetley stands beside his attorneys during his trial in Tampa. Keetley is being tried for the second time after a jury in his first trial could not decide if he was guilty in a shooting that occurred early Thanksgiving morning 2010 outside a Ruskin home. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published March 17, 2023|Updated March 17, 2023

TAMPA — About two weeks before someone shot six men, killing two, at a home on Ocean Mist Court in Ruskin, sheriff’s deputies took a report of a drive-by shooting at the same address.

But detectives didn’t look into whether the first shooting might have had anything to do with the second, even as they were aware of gang activity in the area.

Hillsborough sheriff’s Lt. Jose Lugo, who led the investigation of the second shooting, acknowledged as much this week as a defense attorney cross-examined him in the trial of Michael Keetley, who is accused in the slayings.

“In this case, there was mention about a shooting that happened,” Lugo said, “but this case developed quickly and rapidly after we arrived.”

The revelation of an earlier shooting in the modest Ruskin neighborhood was one of several points that defense attorney Richard Escobar used to question the thoroughness of the murder investigation as the trial rounded out its second week of testimony.

Related: Ruskin ice cream man trial sees doubts clouding tales of revenge

Prosecutors have alleged that Keetley, an ice cream man who once worked the neighborhoods of south Hillsborough County, became determined to exact revenge after masked assailants robbed his ice cream truck and shot him in January 2010. The state says Keetley had been looking for a man named “Creeper,” who lived in the Ocean Mist neighborhood, down the street from the murder scene.

The surviving victims, who were up late playing cards on the porch on Thanksgiving morning 2010, told investigators the gunman pulled up in a minivan, got out wearing a shirt that read “sheriff” and carried what was described as a shotgun. He asked for “Creeper” and demanded the men kneel down before shooting them one by one.

Brothers Juan and Sergio Guitron were killed.

Keetley’s defense says investigators got the wrong guy. They’ve claimed investigators didn’t pursue some leads, and they noted discrepancies in witness accounts.

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

Lugo, the sheriff’s lieutenant, described visiting one of the surviving victims in the hospital about six days after the shooting to show him a photo lineup. The man got teary-eyed and started shaking when he saw Keetley’s image, identifying him as the shooter, Lugo said.

But Lugo also admitted that he didn’t follow the Sheriff’s Office standard operating procedure when he conducted the photo presentation. The policy dictates that photo lineups should be shown by someone who knows nothing about the investigation, to guard against suggestiveness and prevent the false identification of innocent people.

The defense attorney questioned the way in which photographs were selected for the lineup. He noted the rules state that a supervisor should approve the photos before they are shown to a witness.

Lugo said he didn’t know who assembled the photos, nor did he know if a supervisor had approved them. But he characterized the standard operating procedures as mere guidelines.

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“There’s always circumstances that give you some leeway,” he said.

One of the other surviving witnesses also was shown a photo lineup, which included a different photo of Keetley. But that witness did not identify him as the shooter.

Escobar also highlighted two other leads he suggested the detective did not probe for a connection to the shooting.

One involved a person who carried a shotgun and drove a green minivan and was said to have committed a robbery in the hours after the shootings. The other involved a person who drove a minivan and was said to have fled from law enforcement officers.

Earlier this week, the jury heard from an analyst who detailed records from a computer that investigators seized at Keetley’s home. The records indicated someone had used the device to conduct internet searches for phrases like “creeper” and “ocean mist.” There also were searches related to guns.

Witnesses have described Keetley as a gun enthusiast who owned multiple firearms. They included what was described as a .45 caliber Glock handgun.

Prosecutors have argued that could have been the murder weapon, which was never found, though witnesses said the shooter carried a pump-action shotgun.

The jury also heard from Wesley Smith, who lived one street over from where the shootings occurred. He testified Tuesday that he’d gotten to know Keetley, who often cruised the neighborhood in his purple ice cream truck. They shared an interest in guns. Smith, a machinist, had talked with Keetley about kits that could be used to modify a handgun by attaching a long barrel.

Smith told the jury he and his wife visited Keetley’s parents’ property in Wimauma one day in 2010. While there, they fired a set of handguns.

Days after the shootings in his neighborhood, Smith talked with Lugo, telling him he’d kept several of the spent shell casings he and Keetley had fired. He later delivered 18 spent casings to Lugo in a Victoria’s Secret bag. Some of the .45 caliber casings were sent for forensic analysis.

Norma Towers told the jury Monday that she met Keetley in early 2010, when they both visited the same karaoke bar.

She also had fired guns with him at his property, she said. She said he had no problem handling weapons, contradicting defense arguments that Keetley’s physical disabilities after he was shot made it difficult for him to grip and fire guns.

She said Keetley spoke about his desire to find out who robbed and shot him. She described a time when he drove her to a south Hillsborough neighborhood, parked, and sat calling out car tag numbers, making her write them down.

The trial is the second time the case has gone before a jury. A different panel in February 2020 was unable to decide if Keetley was guilty, causing a mistrial.

Testimony and arguments are scheduled to last through next week.