GOSHEN — Jurors heard on Wednesday about the many dead-ends detectives encountered while investigating a 2009 murder before they charged a Union City, Tennessee, man nearly a decade later.
Michael Smith, 32, is on trial for the murder of 26-year-old Drake Muncie, who was fatally shot outside his C.R. 6 residence just after 1 a.m. on Aug. 2, 2009. It remained a cold case until a warrant for Smith’s arrest was issued in April 2018, based on DNA evidence that allegedly placed him at the scene.
Jurors heard that Muncie was shot once in the back and likely died within minutes, according to the medical examiner who conducted the autopsy. Dr. Joseph Prahlow described other bruises and scrapes he found on Muncie, but wasn’t certain when or how he had sustained them.
Police had few leads at the outset. Muncie’s wife, Cheryl Tschida, described his killer as a “stocky” man between five-foot-seven and five-foot-nine in height, who was either a light-skinned black man or an Hispanic man, wearing a tan beanie and glasses.
Muncie had two roommates but they were both camping that night, said Lt. Kris Seymore, field supervisor of the Elkhart County Homicide Unit. Officers canvassed the neighborhood and also talked to more than 30 people who were at a rap concert at a bar across the street.
Investigators dug deep into Muncie’s life, and found that he appeared to be dealing marijuana to a largely white set of customers. They looked at any past incidents that may have involved Muncie, at other marijuana dealers and at the Dirty White Boys gang, though Muncie wasn’t believed to be a member.
“It was a dead-end, for lack of a better term,” said Seymore, an Elkhart City homicide investigator at the time. “If nothing comes to fruition, you have to switch gears.”
Police also followed up on a pair of eyeglasses found outside Muncie’s home. Two glasses had been found, one a wireframe pair believed to belong to Muncie and the other a pair of Fendi glasses missing a lens.
Investigators called around to different eyeglass stores to see if anyone had ordered a replacement pair immediately after the murder. They were specifically looking for black men, said Seymore.
That led them to question Smith outside the Sears Optical at the former Pierre Moran Mall on Aug. 6, 2009. They later learned that his prescription there and the Fendis were both for nearsightedness.
Seymore said Smith seemed nervous but polite while being questioned, but declined to come in and give a statement at the police department. He said Smith claimed to have lost his glasses while bowling recently, which police weren’t able to confirm or deny.
A few other people of interest who investigators questioned did agree to submit a sample of their DNA, but were counted out as suspects when they didn’t match the sample taken from the eyeglasses. They included an attendee at the concert across the street and a man believed to have stolen a pair of Fendi glasses.
Police also interviewed a man who was supposed to be involved in a drug deal with Muncie for five pounds of marijuana. He was dismissed as a suspect, without his DNA being tested, after Tschida expressed certainty that he wasn’t the man she saw that night, according to Seymore.
Smith’s lawyers focused on the man who reportedly stole a pair of Fendis, and even passed his photo out among the jury. He appeared to be a lighter-skinned black man.
Attorney Matthew Johnson also pointed out that Tschida was reportedly high at the time of the murder and that it was a dark night. Seymore said investigators didn’t dismiss her statements but still took them as reliable.
He confirmed when Johnson asked if Tschida was shown an array of photos that included Smith, but didn’t single him out.
When questioning Smith at Sears Optical, investigators had also talked to the man who drove him there. That man would later implicate Smith in Muncie’s murder, in remarks to an attorney in 2014 which were relayed to police.
Three years later, investigators used those alleged remarks – that the reason Smith needed new glasses was related to a homicide – to get a warrant for his DNA so they could compare it to the Fendi glasses. In the weeks leading up to the trial, Smith’s attorneys challenged having a warrant issued based on what they characterized as multiple degrees of hearsay.
Johnson lodged a standing objection to references to the DNA evidence during Seymore’s testimony. Circuit Court Judge Michael Christofeno overruled them and allowed the evidence.
Seymore said detectives tracked Smith to Tennessee by finding his child’s mother on Facebook. He said they brought the case against Smith to the Elkhart County Prosecutor’s office after obtaining some information from them both.
Asked by Deputy Prosecutor Don Pitzer why police didn’t arrest Smith during his initial interview, Seymore observed that all they knew for certain at the time was that he was just a man picking up a pair of glasses. The standard for arresting someone in a homicide investigation is much higher than in a traffic offense or shoplifting.
“I like for us to be pretty much trial-ready when we make that arrest,” he remarked.