Davontae Sanford's Road to Freedom
The police who investigated the crime
By George Hunter / The Detroit News
Detroit police involvement in the saga of the hit man and the teen went beyond investigating crimes. Officers on both sides of the law have had a hand in the case.
Sgt. Mike Russell
Detroit Police Homicide Sgt. Mike Russell was working the 4 p.m. to midnight afternoon shift Sept. 17, 2007. He testified he was about to go home when he was ordered to respond to a quadruple homicide on Runyon. Russell said he thought the assignment was a prank, but went to the scene when he found out it was a legitimate run.
As Russell was canvassing the area, he said Sanford walked up to him and asked what he was investigating. The sergeant said the 14-year-old told him he knew who had committed the killings, so Russell got permission from Sanford’s grandmother and twice interrogated him: The morning of the killings, at about 4 a.m., and that night about 8:40 p.m.
Russell’s handling of the case has been criticized by Sanford’s defense team:
Despite the presence of working audiovisual equipment, Russell did not videotape his first interview with Sanford.
Sanford gave erroneous information in his first interview, but when he was questioned by police hours later, his story changed to better match elements of the crime. Sanford’s second interview with police was videotaped, but it only consists of Russell reading off items to Sanford, who answers “yes” or “no.” There is no record of what was said between the cop and the suspect when Sanford altered key facts of his story.
During his second interview with Sanford, Russell didn’t read him his Miranda rights until 10 p.m. — long after the interview had started.
“Sgt. Russell’s failure to read Davontae his Miranda rights prior to interrogating him was a clear violation of Miranda, precisely the kind of two-step tactic (question first, Mirandize only after obtaining a statement) that the United States Supreme Court condemned,” law professor Randolph Stone, former chairman of the American Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Section, wrote in an affidavit filed last year in Wayne Circuit Court. Stone was hired by the University of Michigan Innocence Clinic to review the Sanford case.
“Given Davontae’s vulnerabilities, Sgt. Russell should have taken special precautions,” Stone wrote. “Instead, he did not follow the precautions required by his department’s own policy regarding interrogation of juvenile suspects.”
Russell was given permission to question Sanford first by his grandmother, Pamela Sanford; and for the second interview, his mother, Taminko Sanford. But Russell did not get a waiver of their right to be present.
Sanford claims during the questioning he told Russell he wanted an attorney, but that the detective called him a “dumba--” and told him no lawyer was up at that late hour. Russell insisted Sanford had never asked for a lawyer.
Cmdr. James Tolbert
Tolbert, who later became Flint’s police chief, was on the scene of the Runyon murders, and, according to Homicide Sgt. Mike Russell, the commander drove Davontae Sanford through the neighborhood the night of the killings to discuss the 14-year-old’s involvement.
During Sanford’s appeal, Tolbert initially said Sanford had “entirely” drawn an accurate diagram of the crime scene, although he later said “I don’t know” and “I can’t recall exactly” whether the sketch had been entirely Sanford’s work.
However, when asked if Sanford had ever been shown a picture of the crime scene before accurately sketching it, Tolbert said, “absolutely not.”
Tolbert also was involved in the Vincent Smothers investigation. He sent out a memo telling detectives, “Anyone who wants to talk to Smothers has to clear it through me.”
According to a lawsuit by Violent Crimes Task Force officer Ira Todd, Tolbert interfered with Todd’s investigation into Smothers.
State police asked for perjury charges against Tolbert after they say he admitted to detectives he'd drawn a map of the crime scene on Runyon. That statement conflicted with 2010 testimony in which he said Sanford had drawn the diagram.
Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy declined to charge Tolbert, mainly because she said Sanford would not testify. Sanford called that “a lie” and said he was willing to testify against Tolbert after his case was formally dismissed.
Investigator Ira Todd
Todd, an investigator with the Detroit Police Violent Crimes Task Force, was tracking the Hustle Boys drug gang, which reportedly employed a “hit squad,” called the Medbury Goons, to kill rival dealers. Todd found Vincent “Vito” Smothers and Ernest “Nemo” Davis were part of the group.
Todd also discovered Smothers and Davis were connected with Davis’ cousin, James Davis, who lived in Lexington, Kentucky.
In a whistleblower lawsuit filed by Todd in 2008, which was settled last year, he claims when he called Lexington police, they told him James Davis was a high-level drug dealer connected to former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.
“I called down to Kentucky and they knew of James Davis right away,” Todd told The Detroit News in 2008. “They told me, ‘Be careful; he brags about being close friends with your mayor, and that Kilpatrick basically gave him the keys to the city.’ ”
Todd said he reported to his supervisors what investigators in Kentucky told him about the mayor. “Then things got really weird,” he said.
Cmdr. James Tolbert and Deputy Chief Marshall Lyons demanded Todd turn over any reports he’d written about James Davis’ claim of ties to Kilpatrick, Todd said.
“The pressure they were putting on me is hard to describe,” he said.
After Smothers was arrested, Todd said he was interrogating him at police headquarters when Tolbert interrupted the interview.
“I’ve never had that happen; you never want to stop someone when they’re in the middle of a confession because they might change their mind,” Todd said. “(Tolbert) wanted to know what Smothers was telling me. He seemed like he was afraid of what Smothers was going to say to me.”
Todd said Tolbert then told him which questions he could ask Smothers.
“I got upset,” Todd said. “It didn’t make any sense. All the guys on the task force had worked so hard on this case, and the supervisors were interfering.”
Todd claimed he was forced to drop the Smothers investigation and go on vacation. He claims a lieutenant told him, “This is bigger than you, this is bigger than me, this is bigger than both of us.”
Fellow Violent Crimes Task Force Officer Alejandro Perra said in an affidavit he also heard the lieutenant say that, and agreed Todd was pressured to drop the Smothers investigation.
After Todd took his vacation as ordered, he was transferred out of the Violent Crimes Task Force in what he said was retaliation for refusing to remove Kilpatrick’s name from his report.
Todd's lawsuit is still pending.
Sgt. David Cobb
Eastern District Sgt. David Cobb was cheating on his wife, Rose, and wanted her dead. His mistress’ son knew just the person for the job: the man known on the street as “Vito.”
Cobb was dating an eastside woman named Sheila Black, whose 20-year-old son, Marzell Black, introduced him to hit man Vincent Smothers. Marzell Black knew Smothers from neighborhood basketball games.
Smothers said he drove Black to an eastside gas station, where they met a man Black introduced only as “Dave.” The man told Smothers he would pay him $10,000 of his wife’s $200,000 life insurance policy if he killed her.
Smothers carried out the hit on Dec. 26, 2007, in the parking lot of a CVS store on East Jefferson. He said he found out the husband was a Detroit cop when he saw a story about the killing on the television news.
At Rose Cobb’s funeral, the man who had orchestrated her death, her husband, read a letter that said: "You always supported me. You always believed in me. As I look over the gift of our marriage I am overwhelmed by the memories of the wonderful times we shared together."
Smothers said Cobb only paid him $50 for the job.
When Smothers and Marzell Black were arrested in April 2008, both men implicated Cobb in the killing. About a week later, Detroit Police Chief Ella Bully-Cummings suspended him without pay for conduct unbecoming an officer and an internal affairs investigation was launched.
Cobb was arrested, but Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy’s office said there wasn’t enough evidence to charge him, and he was released from jail.
“The only evidence that was presented to us that connects Sgt. Cobb with this murder are the statements of defendants Smothers and Black,” Worthy said in a written statement the day Cobb was released from jail. “Under the law, Smothers and Black cannot be compelled to testify; there is no admissible evidence upon which to charge him at this time.”
After his release, Cobb was approached by Detroit News reporters at his home. “I can’t say anything except that there’s a side to this that no one in the media has asked me about at all,” Cobb said. He declined to elaborate.
Five months later, on Sept. 26, 2008, two men were riding their bicycles in Dodge Park in Sterling Heights, when they spotted what appeared to be a man hanging from a tree limb about 120 yards north of the paved bike path. They dialed 911.
When Sterling Heights police officers arrived, they found the man hanging from a tree branch. Half-empty bottles of Absolut vodka and cranberry juice were found nearby.
Police recovered $22 in the victim’s right pocket, along with a key chain and a Michigan pistol registration card identifying him as David Cobb. One of the Sterling Heights officers, a former Detroit cop, said he had once worked with Cobb, and recognized him after seeing his name on the gun registration card.
Cobb was still alive, so the officers performed CPR until an ambulance arrived. The EMS crew took Cobb to Henry Ford Macomb Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 7:41 p.m.
The death was ruled a suicide by Macomb County Medical Examiner Daniel Spitz.
Inspector William Rice
William Rice spent 35 years as a Detroit cop, the last several years as head of the police department’s Homicide Section, before retiring in 2006. Then, he started his new career as a criminal.
Rice graduated from the police academy in 1970 and enjoyed a successful career, but it was not without controversy.
In 1984, he arrested Eddie Joe Lloyd, who reportedly confessed to killing a 16-year-old high school student, Michelle Jackson. But in 2003, the Innocence Project cleared Lloyd through DNA evidence. Lloyd claimed police had fed him details of his confession. Rice later testified during a federal wrongful arrest lawsuit that he lost parts of the case file. The city settled the suit for $3.25 million.
After his retirement, Rice, who was married, was dating a woman named Cheryl Sanford — Davontae Sanford’s great-aunt. The pair dated about 10 years, Rice said.
After Davontae Sanford’s arrest for the quadruple homicide on Runyon, Rice testified during an appeal that Sanford had been with him during the time of the killings.
But cell phone tower records showed Rice was in Mount Clemens at the time.
Rice and Cheryl Sanford in 2014 pleaded guilty to perjury. They also pleaded guilty to conducting a criminal enterprise, after committing mortgage fraud in excess of $40,000, stealing Section 8 Housing money meant for the needy. The pair also admitted to dealing prescription pills and marijuana.
Rice is serving a 2- to 20-year prison sentence in the Oaks Correctional Facility.