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Wednesday, Oct 22, 2014

Clearwater man acquitted in slaying

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Published:   |   Updated: April 16, 2014 at 12:17 AM

CLEARWATER — In the summer of 2011, a drug dealer named Michael McKinney reportedly told another drug dealer named Christopher Mickey that he always wanted to kill someone.

And, McKinney reportedly said, a good target would be Casey Garber, a junkie whom Mickey had cut off as a customer, Assistant State Attorney Greg Baird told jurors Tuesday.

When Garber turned up with two bullet wounds to his head a couple of weeks later, found behind a closed restaurant at the Clearwater Executive Golf Course, McKinney emerged as the prime suspect, and eventually was charged with first-degree murder.

On Tuesday, however, a jury acquitted him of that charge, though it did convict him of a handful of other, less-serious charges that were filed after McKinney later showed up at Mickey's house.

Circuit Judge Joseph A. Bulone set April 25 as a sentencing date.

Assistant Public Defender Jessica Manuele, who represented McKinney, told jurors that Mickey — who relayed his supposed conversations with McKinney to authorities — was a liar.

The last time Garber was seen alive was at a wedding reception on June 25, 2011, at the Sunset Grove condominium complex in Clearwater, where he was trying to sell the face of a Rolex watch and, later, was looking for a ride, Baird said. McKinney was there, too, and the two men spent 45 minutes together.

At 12:18 a.m. the next day, Mickey told authorities, he got a call from McKinney, Baird said.

“I did it, I did it,” McKinney reportedly said.

Garber's body was found the next day behind the closed Dogwater Cafe at 2506 Countryside Blvd., about a six-mile drive from the condominium complex.

Prosecutors acknowledged the case against McKinney, now 39, was circumstantial, relying in part on text messages and a recorded telephone conversation in which McKinney and Mickey communicated in cryptic language subject to interpretation, with phrases such as “You'll bury both of us,” and “You're in just as deep.”

None of the communiques mention anyone getting shot or anything happening to Garber.

Another telephone conversation cited by Baird was one Garber made to his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Stephanie Woods, in which he said he was with “Mikey Mike,” McKinney's nickname.

Baird said the cell phone tower that facilitated the call was one used by callers in the vicinity of the golf course.

In addition, after the slaying, McKinney's computer showed he had conducted searches regarding the type of Rolex Garber was trying to sell at the wedding reception, and which was nowhere to be found when his body turned up.

And a .38-caliber projectile extracted from Garber's head came from a handgun manufactured by only one of three companies, and McKinney had a photograph of such a gun, Baird said. The murder weapon was never found, so there was no conclusive ballistics match.

Manuele told jurors that without Mickey's rendition of events, prosectors didn't have a case.

And Mickey, who has lied about everything from the location of his address to the number of cell phones he owns, had more reason to kill Garber than McKinney, she said.

Mickey suspected Garber was working with federal authorities to send him back to prison, Manuele said, and he was sleeping with Garber's sometime girlfriend, Woods, with whom Garber had a 4-year-old daughter.

As for the array of accusatory and defensive text and phone communications, Manuele suggested the topic at hand was a failed drug deal, not Garber's murder.

Mickey was said to have fronted $200,000 for 10 kilos of cocaine, but when McKinney showed up at a location to complete the deal, the source, known only as “John,” didn't show, and Mickey wondered whether McKinney had ripped him off.

Ten days after Garber's body turned up, McKinney went to Mickey's house three times, apparently to stop him from saying anything about the slaying, prosecutors said.

The second time, he cut the screen to a rear porch, and the third time he showed up in black, and he had a gun, two wire cutters, a lock-pick set and a knife, prosecutors said. Police were called.

Jurors convicted McKinney of three charges in relation to the visits — trespassing, burglary and possession of burglary tools.

Because he had a gun, he faces a minimum-mandatory sentence of 10 years.

A murder conviction would have netted him a life sentence.

sthompson@tampatrib.com. (727) 215-6504(727) 215-6504.

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