Davontae Sanford's Road to Freedom
Bloodbath on Runyon
By George Hunter / The Detroit News
The following is based on witness accounts and Vincent Smothers’ version of the slayings, given in an affidavit filed in court last year by Davontae Sanford’s defense attorneys. Smothers insisted he would never enlist the aid of a 14-year-old boy, while for years prosecutors said Sanford was responsible for the killings.
Few seemed to notice the skinny man and his friend as they tossed a baseball back and forth on Runyon the afternoon of Sept. 17, 2007.
Vincent Smothers and his alleged partner, Ernest Davis, were casing the small white house on the west side of the street. Vito had been hired to kill the homeowner, Michael “Big Mike” Robinson, who spent most days sitting on his porch selling marijuana and stashing the proceeds in a shoebox he kept by his side, or working on his vintage Oldsmobile. Robinson grew his product in a basement hydroponic setup.
“Leroy and I did not actually negotiate or even discuss the price for this hit because we had an understanding that I would charge the same price ($5,000) as I did for other hits,” Smothers said in a court affidavit.
“My standard practice before a hit was to observe my targets and study their habits for weeks in advance, so I could better plan my strategy for the murder. I am a very careful planner, and I always did everything I could to prevent anything going wrong during a hit.”
In August 2007, Smothers said he began studying Robinson and his neighborhood. He said he frequently parked near his quarry’s house at 3 a.m.
“My black Jeep Commander had tinted windows, so nobody could see me sitting in the back of the truck,” Smothers said. “Sometimes I would read or even sleep in the back of the truck so I could watch Robinson the next day as well.”
Smothers said he decided to enlist the aid of his childhood friend, Ernest “Nemo” Davis.
“I asked Nemo to come with me because Leroy had told me that Robinson was a drug dealer, and I knew drug dealers typically kept guns in their home and often have associates nearby who also have guns,” Smothers said. “I wanted Nemo with me to make sure that somebody had my back if anyone caused problems or pulled out a gun.
“I trusted Nemo with my life, and I knew that Nemo was the kind of guy who would pull a trigger with no questions asked.”
On the afternoon of Sept. 17, Smothers said he and Nemo grabbed their baseball mitts and made one last reconnaissance trip to Runyon.
“While we were playing catch, I noticed that Robinson’s neighbor across the street was not sitting on his porch like he usually was,” Smothers said. He said the neighbor’s absence was a chance to get closer to Robinson’s house to determine if he kept his iron front security door locked.
“This was important because I would have to get inside if I couldn’t kill Robinson while he was entering or exiting his house,” Smothers said. “I wanted to determine whether Robinson left the storm door unlocked, or whether I needed to bring tools to break in.”
As dusk approached, Smothers said he went back to his friend’s house on Medbury to change into dark clothes. Smothers grabbed his AK-47 “for protection” and his Glock .40 caliber pistol.
“Nemo was already wearing dark clothes and carrying the gun he always carried: A Springfield .45 caliber semiautomatic pistol,” Smothers said.
The two men returned to the neighborhood and Smothers parked his SUV on Teppert, a block west of the target house on Runyon. Then, Smothers said, he and Davis set out to test Robinson’s security door.
“I knew … trying the door would be dangerous — in large part because I knew that Robinson was home,” Smothers said.
Smothers said he knew from weeks of surveillance that the house next to Robinson’s was abandoned, so he and Davis hid in the backyard until the coast was clear.
Man in the doorway
Inside Robinson’s house, he and four friends — Dangelo McNoriell, Brian Dixon, Dixon’s girlfriend of six years, Nicole Chapman and Valerie Glover — sat in the living room watching the Washington Redskins play the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday Night Football. Seven-year-old Michael Robinson, Jr. — “Little Mike” — was asleep in the back bedroom.
By now, it was approaching 11:30 p.m. Smothers said he and Davis waited in the backyard for five to 10 minutes before donning ski masks and climbing the fence into Robinson’s yard. As they snuck along the side of his house, Smothers could hear a football telecast, and people inside the house cheering.
“The fact that Robinson had company made this an even better time to check to see if he kept his storm door locked, because he would be distracted by his friends and the game,” Smothers said.
As they turned the corner to the front of the house, Smothers said he spotted through a window a man’s silhouetted head and shoulders. “I told Nemo to point his .45 pistol at him in case anything went wrong,” Smothers said.
Davis trained his pistol at the silhouette, while Smothers said he crouched down and crept up the two concrete stairs and onto the small porch. The inner door and the storm door were closed. Smothers tested the storm door; it didn’t give.
As he pulled on the storm door again, Smothers said the inner door swung open, and he was face-to-face with an unknown man.
“He looked down and saw me,” Smothers said. “I could immediately see that he was unarmed. He must have seen the AK-47 in my hand, because he immediately twisted to his right, away from the rest of the living room.
“As he moved aside, I could see Robinson, the target, sitting on a large stuffed armchair, just behind the man at the front door. I could also see that there was a gun sitting on a cocktail table next to Robinson.”
Smothers said he opened fire through the storm door at both men with his AK-47.
“At the same time I began to fire, Nemo shot at the male silhouette in the window,” he said.
Robinson leaned forward and reached for the .40 caliber pistol on the table, but the hit man shot him nine times, and he was killed before he could grab his gun, according to Smothers. The man in the doorway, Dixon, was able to run about 10 feet before collapsing near his girlfriend, Chapman. McNoriell, whose silhouette Davis allegedly fired at through the window, squirmed on the couch, blood gushing from a neck wound.
Glover told police she was sitting with her arms folded when the shooting started, and was hit by bullets in the elbow and thigh. She said she crawled toward a back bedroom, where Robinson’s son, Michael, was lying. As she dragged herself through the living room, she took three more bullets in her back.
She made it to the rear bedroom and hid under the bed beneath “Little Mike.” She said the shooting stopped and she heard someone enter the house.
Smothers said he figured out the storm door was stuck, not locked. “Nemo and I went inside to see if Robinson was actually dead,” he said.
“As I entered the living room, I began firing my AK-47 toward my right because I did not know if the other people in the room were still alive or if they had weapons. I believe this is when I shot another female (Chapman), who had remained in the living room. She fell to the ground and landed on the floor next to the man who was shot when he opened the front door.”
Smothers said he took inventory of the scene: “I could see that there were four people in the living room who were either dead or fatally wounded. Robinson was slumped over in his chair, in front of the door and facing the TV. The man who originally opened the door (Dixon) lay dead between the coffee table and Robinson’s chair. A woman (Chapman) lay dead between the coffee table and couch, next to (Dixon).
“The third man (McNoriell), whose silhouette we had seen through the front window when we approached the door, was still sitting on the same couch … shot in the neck. Blood was squirting from his neck wound ... . He was not dead yet when I entered the house but I was certain that he would die.”
Smothers told Davis he had seen someone else crawling through the house, and went to investigate.
“I gave him my AK-47 so that I could move more easily and quickly through the house and around corners,” Smothers said. “He stayed in the living room to make sure nobody moved or came to the door.”
Smothers said on his way toward the back of the house, he took the .40 caliber pistol from the coffee table and slipped it in his waistband.
The small house had only two bedrooms. The first room was empty, Smothers said. But when he looked into the second bedroom, at the rear of the house, he saw “Little Mike” on the bed. “He was a big boy, but he appeared to be very young,” Smothers said. “I said something to the boy along the lines of ‘Everything is OK. Go back to bed.’”
Smothers also noticed Glover hiding under the bed. “When I walked into the room, she said something like ‘Don’t kill me.’ I told her that I was not going to kill her and told her to just stay in the room until we left.”
Glover’s story differs from Smothers’. She testified a masked gunman asked her “Where’s the (expletive) at? I’m going to kill you.” She said the assailant “didn’t have no bass in his voice. He just sounded like a kid.”
Since the man who hired Smothers, Leroy, had specifically told him to search the house after killing Robinson, the hit man said he went to the basement, where there was a setup for growing marijuana. While downstairs, he heard gunfire, and figured his partner was making sure the victims were dead.
“I returned upstairs and told Nemo to grab the shoebox that I had observed Robinson use while selling weed, which was sitting on the coffee table in the living room,” Smothers said.
Smothers holstered his pistol and Davis handed over his AK-47. Smothers said he made sure the rifle’s magazine was fully loaded: 30 rounds, plus one in the chamber. He said he always ensured he had a full magazine before leaving a murder scene “in case the police pulled up or someone else began to fire at me.”
As the pair crept out of the front door of the house, Smothers said his fears were confirmed when the neighbor across the street, the Rev. Jesse King, opened fire at them.
“I saw Robinson’s neighbor — the one who was always outside sitting on his porch — standing in his front doorway. I fired several shots at the neighbor.”
In one of the case’s many unusual coincidences, King, a Detroit Police chaplain, testified in court he was Robinson’s cousin. He said Smothers shot at him first, and that he returned fire with his Beretta 9mm pistol.
King said he had been watching television, waiting to pick up his wife from her job, when he heard about 30 gunshots coming from the house across the street. He said he looked outside but saw nobody.
Several minutes later, as King was preparing to leave to pick up his wife, he said he looked outside and saw two men in dark clothing fleeing his cousin’s house.
King told police someone with a long gun fired shots at him, and he returned fire. Evidence technicians later found two bullet holes in his door and a third in the window.
Nobody was hurt in the brief gunfight, and Smothers and Davis ran through a field and onto Teppert Street, where they escaped in Smothers’ SUV.
Inside the house on Runyon, Glover said she stayed under the bed, bleeding from five gunshot wounds, for about five minutes after the shooting stopped. When she slid out from under the bed, she said “Little Mike” was crying, and asking her to lie on the bed with him.
Instead, she ventured into the living room, where she saw her friends’ bodies. She grabbed her cell phone and limped back to the rear bedroom. At 11:55 p.m., she dialed 911. Then she waited with “Little Mike” for the police.
Davontae Sanford told police a different story. In fact, he told several stories after he was arrested, with his story changing to match the facts of the case, although many details he provided police proved to be wrong.
During a 3 a.m. interrogation hours after the killings, Davontae Sanford told Detroit Police Homicide Sgt. Mike Russell he and four older teens from the neighborhood — Tone, Tone Tone, Carrie and Los — met in a Coney Island at Seven Mile and Albion. They were planning the robbery of “Milk Dud,” the street name, Sanford said, of drug dealer Michael Robinson — “a name that has never been linked to Michael Robinson,” Sanford’s former attorneys said in a court motion.
Sanford said he and his friends gathered later that night at a park across the street from Sanford’s house on Beland Street, armed with four guns: a “chopper” (AK-47), a mini-14, a .45 and a .38.
As the group walked toward the house on Runyon, Sanford told police, he changed his mind and went home. A few minutes later, he said, he heard gunshots and saw Tone Tone running through his yard, yelling “I shot the (expletive) dog, I got to go.”
“No casings found at the Runyon scene had been fired from either a .38 caliber gun or a mini-14, which fires .223 bullets; nor had any witness ever claimed that as many as four perpetrators were involved,” defense attorneys said.
Hours after Sanford’s statement, police arrested and interrogated Tone and Los. Both men provided alibis investigators confirmed were true. Police later questioned the others Sanford said were involved, and they all were cleared as suspects after they gave solid alibis.
Russell also discovered Sanford and his friends couldn’t have met at the Coney Island to plan the crime as Sanford described, since the restaurant was closed for renovations.
At about 9 p.m. the day after the killings, Russell picked up Sanford and brought him to police headquarters for a second interview. This time, his story changed.
“Earlier in the day of the shooting, I did meet with ‘Tone,’ ‘Tone Tone,’ ‘Los’ and ‘Carrie,’ ” Smothers said in a statement typed up by Russell, although his confession was not videotaped; the only part that was taped shows Sanford answering yes or no to details provided by Russell.
“But we didn’t meet at the Coney Island,” Sanford’s statement says. “We were at ‘Los’s’ mother’s house on Albion. We were all smoking blunts and talking about robbing ‘Milk Dud’s’ on Runyon. The plan was for us to go on Runyon in the evening to rob Milk Dud of his weed and money.”
That night, Sanford says he met up with his friends, and they drove “Los’s” green Mercury Marquis to the target house. “I got out of the car with my mini-14, ‘Tone’ had a handgun, ‘Tone Tone’ had a chopper (AK-47), and ‘Carrie’ had a .45,” he said. “As soon as we got out the car we ran up and started bustin’ at the house. I was shooting the mini-14 through the window. Everyone shot their gun at the house from the outside.
“We all ran up on the porch and went inside. I saw ‘Milk Dud’ sitting in a chair that was kind of in front of the door, another guy was sitting on the couch in front of the window, and a guy and a lady were on the floor. It seemed like the man and the lady on the floor were already dead. The guy on the couch was shot already from when we sprayed the house, and ‘Milk Dud’ was also shot.
“Me and ‘Carrie’ were in the living room and ‘Tone’ and ‘Tone Tone’ started searching the rest of the house. As soon as ‘Tone’ and ‘Tone Tone’ went in the back of the house I heard shots coming from the back bedroom. ‘Tone Tone’ went and checked the basement (and) came from out the basement with two black … duffel bags and said, ‘hell, yeah, we hit a lick.’
“ ‘Tone Tone’ looked at ‘Carrie’ and said, ‘(expletive) all these witnesses,’ and everybody started shooting. ‘Carrie’ shot the guy on the couch in the legs, and I started shooting him with my mini. ‘Carrie’ and ‘Tone Tone’ shot ‘Milk Dud.’ ”
Sanford said he and “Carrie” ran north from the house to an AT&T facility on State Fair, where he said they chucked their guns over the fence. No weapons were recovered from the area.
In his presentence report, Sanford told yet another version of the story: “It wasn’t me from the beginning anyway. It was my cousin. We was in the car smoking weed, drinking … I always looked up to my cousin as like my role model or brother. They used to put me up on licks (robberies) and stuff ... I’d never do it. I took it one Ecstasy pill. I told police I didn’t shoot one time, ’cause I was scared. I walked in the door and saw the bodies and got scared. I’m chasing behind my cousin, running.”