One hour before his death, Eldridge Vandrew “Skeeta” Smith, 36, met up with a man he was trying to recruit to the B.U.C.K. Squad, a group that uses its members’ own street credibility to stave off violence.
On Wednesday, day two of the murder trial for that man, Tadashi Demetrius Keyes, prosecutors showed jurors a torrent of electronic evidence putting Keyes and Smith together in a vehicle on a winter night.
“Video allowed me to track their movements leading up to the homicide,” testified Charlottesville Police detective Christopher Raines.
The detective showed evidence of more than a dozen calls and texts between the two men on the afternoon of Jan. 28 as they made plans to meet up at the ABC Store on West Main Street. Raines played video from inside and outside the store where, he said, Keyes put down a $100 bill for a bottle of Alizé Red Passion and a bottle of E & J Brandy.
Investigators later found both such bottles inside the Acura SUV where Smith, sitting in the driver’s seat, was shot to death.
Raines directed jurors to a gesture Keyes could be seen making as he was leaving the liquor store. He was “favoring” something in a right pocket, Raines testified.
The ABC store footage also allowed jurors to see what Keyes was wearing: an orange hospital visitor band on his left wrist, a light gray t-shirt, and a dark gray zip-up hooded sweatshirt.
“He unzips his hoodie,” said Raines, “and you can see the light gray t-shirt underneath.”
Jurors got to see a lot of a gray hoodie after Detective Edward Maney testified how, a few days after the slaying, he found one that had been stuffed into a Cherry Avenue storm drain.
It was a detective named Ian Haug, however, who cut open a brown-paper evidence bag to reveal a gray hoodie which he then hung from a clothing rack in the main courtroom in the Charlottesville Circuit Courthouse. As Haug wheeled the garment past the jurors, he pointed to a marble-sized hole in the turned-out right pocket.
“A burn hole?” asked Charlottesville Commonwealth’s Attorney Joe Platania.
Haug said that the stolen Taurus G3 9mm pistol that police found in another storm drain would have had plenty of residual heat from 14 shots fired in quick succession to melt that pocket.
“I held the barrel up to the hole,” said Haug. “The diameter of the burn hole is similar in size.”
The defendant, brought to court daily from the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail, where he’s been held since his February 3 arrest, watched this show-and-tell without emotion.
The prosecution wasn’t finished with the hoodie because the hoodie went missing from post-shooting videos. Detective Raines showed the jurors footage from convenience stores showing someone that Raines said was Keyes running away from the scene through the Fifeville neighborhood with the “glint” of the orange wristband — but no hoodie.
“It was cold outside, and this individual was walking around in shirtsleeves,” Raines said.
Then after more than a half an hour gap, Keyes reappeared on video. This time, the jury saw footage from no fewer than 11 University of Virginia cameras showing Keyes in and around the UVa Hospital wearing a different hoodie.
Defense attorney Bryan Jones noted that one video that Raines neglected to show the jury showed a four-door sedan leaving the vicinity of the shooting.
“I determined that the vehicle was irrelevant to the investigation,” said Raines, citing the alleged impossibility of it reaching that spot in time.
Besides the burn hole, other gun evidence included testimony from a state ballistics examiner tying the 13 shell casings found at the crime scene to the discarded weapon.
Another key link in the prosecution’s evidence came from a DNA examiner with the state forensics laboratory. Kelly Miller testified that after swabbing the hoodie, she found a mixture of DNA sources but that the “major profile” matched the DNA obtained in a post-arrest cheek swab of Keyes.
One of the few points scored by the defense Wednesday was the revelation that this senior forensic scientist didn’t initially spot the match in Virginia’s DNA databank, where Keyes’ profile has been stored since the mid 2000s, according to prosecutors.
Another crucial link in the prosecution’s case was that four minutes before Smith was found shot to death inside his SUV on nearby Grove Street, a video showed Keyes and Smith in the vehicle at the Sunshine Supermarket on Cherry Avenue. Another video, this one a household Ring doorbell recorded just a minute or two before the 9:39 p.m. slaying, showed a dark SUV driving east on Grove Street toward what would become a crime scene.
Another Ring video, although its timestamp was off, seemed to capture the sounds of a 14-shot fusillade. Friends and family of Smith bowed their heads and shared tissues after that one was played twice in court.
Just 32 minutes before the shooting, Smith seemed to be trying to help the man who would become a murder suspect.
“I got a guy who would work,” Smith texted a B.U.C.K. Squad executive at 9:07 p.m. “He got his head on right.”