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State police investigation points to different killer in 2007 quadruple homicide

May 22, 2016

The Michigan State Police have wrapped up a nearly year-long investigation into who really killed four people in a Detroit home one September night in 2007.

Back then, police brought in a 14-year-old kid named Davontae Sanford. After hours of interrogation without a parent or a lawyer, he confessed and was later sent to prison.

But just weeks later, a professional hitman, Vincent Smothers, was arrested and confessed to those same killings, even leading police to the weapon he used. 

Now, eight years later, sources tell us the State Police investigation suggests that Sanford should never have gone to prison, and that police may have mishandled the case.

A quadruple homicide on Runyon Street

On September 17, 2007 two masked shooters entered a white house at 19741 Runyon Street in Detroit, spraying the living room with bullets and killing four people watching Monday Night football.

The home belonged to Mike Robinson, a reported drug dealer who was said to be growing marijuana in the basement. Robinson was shot sitting on his love seat, while his seven-year-old son slept in the next room. Three of Robinson’s guests were gunned down and died at the scene.  

A fifth person, Valerie Glover, was shot five times, but managed to crawl out of the living room and hide under the bed where Robinson’s son, “Little Mike,” was sleeping.

One of the shooters came into the bedroom and saw her hiding, Glover later testified. The masked man told her to be quiet; he was tall, she told police, and he had a soft voice that sounded young.  

Meanwhile, she could hear the second shooter moving around the basement. A few minutes later, he came upstairs and yelled something like “I got it!” and “Let’s go!” Five minutes after the men left, Glover says, she came out from under the bed and called 911. Little Mike was crying and asking her to get in the bed with him.

Across the street, Reverend Jesse King, a Detroit Police Chaplain, says he heard gun shots and saw two people wearing ski masks and carrying guns come up the street. They exchanged fire with King, he later told police: both men were tall, he said, about 6 feet or a little shorter.

14-year-old Davontae Sanford is brought in without a parent or lawyer

Detroit Police Homicide Sergeant Michael Russell was working the afternoon shift that day, but just as his shift was up around midnight, he got a call about a quadruple homicide.

An earlier MDOC photo Sanford
Credit C/O of MDOC

At first, he “thought … that somebody was pulling his leg,” according to court filings, but he and several officers responded. Russell poured over the crime scene for almost an hour and started searching the area.

That’s where he ran into 14-year-old Davontae Sanford, who lived nearby. Sanford is blind in his right eye, was 5’5” at the time and labeled “developmentally disabled.” His mom says his writing was barely legible. Even in court filings, his writing from that time is described as “childlike.”

Sanford asked Sgt. Russell about the police combing the neighborhood and the shootings that night. Sgt. Russell says he believed Sanford had information that could help the police, so another officer went to Sanford’s home, and got written consent from his grandmother for Sanford to be interviewed.

Over the next several days, Sanford would be interviewed by police several times – each time without a lawyer or a parent present.

“And that’s something I’m living with now, because I never went down there,” his mom, Taminko Sanford, told Michigan Radio. “And I always be like [to myself] ‘Why you didn’t go? Why you didn’t go?’ [But] I assumed by talking to Davontae – ‘Mama I’m alright, they just brought me some Coney Island.’ Sgt. Russell be like, ‘Your son is in good hands.’”

None of the police interrogations of Sanford were videotaped.

And three weeks later, Sanford would tell a court psychologist that he’d asked for a lawyer, but police called him a “dumbass” and told him no lawyer would be up that time of night.

Sanford also told the psychologist that police told him he could go home if he just gave them a statement, and that they were showing him pictures of the crime scene and feeding him details about the investigation.

Police vehemently deny these claims.

The confessions: a changing story, and a disputed drawing

Sanford’s story changed several times during the two days of interrogations. First, he signed a statement typed out at 4 am that first night, about meeting up with four guys at a Coney Island to plan a robbery of the Runyon house. Police arrested some of the teenagers involved in that statement, but they were quickly released. Even the Coney Island Sanford mention turned out to be closed for renovations.

Sgt. Russell brought Sanford back in the next day, and around this time then-Commander James Tolbert was involved in the interrogations. Tolbert would go on to become Detroit’s deputy chief of police and later Flint’s chief of police.

Credit Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

“I said,'Well, if you’re involved, if you know anything about this, if you were in that house, you know what it looks like,'” Tolbert testified in court later. “He [Sanford] then proceeded to sketch the interior of the house and the positions of the bodies as I observed them the night of the homicide. I then told – I instructed Sgt. Russell to make sure that he signs them.”

At first, Tolbert testified that the drawing was done entirely in Sanford’s own hand; later, on cross examination, he said “I don’t know … I can’t recall exactly” whether Sanford did the drawing by himself; but he testified that no officers had shown Sanford any pictures of the scene.

"If you're involved, if you know anything about this, if you were in that house, you know what it looks like," Tolbert testified in court later. "He then proceeded to sketch the interior of the house and the positions of the bodies as I observed them the night of the homicide."

Finally, police took down a confession from Sanford that placed just him and one other assailant inside the house initially, where they were then joined by two other shooters in the living room.

Sanford’s appellate attorneys say in this confession, Sanford is described as using a Mini-14 – a gun, they say, that didn’t match any of the shell casings found at Runyon Street; and fleeing on foot to throw the gun in a nearby field, which police never found.

At this point, Sgt. Russell transports Sanford to a different police station, where they videotape Russell reading Sanford a typed confession. “Now is there anything you left you, that you want to talk about, about this case on Runyon?” Russell asks Sanford on the tape.

“No,” Sanford can be heard saying.

Years later, Sanford’s appellate attorneys hired Jim Trainum, a former Washington D.C. homicide detective who now specializes in analyzing confessions – and has worked on several innocence cases – to look at Sanford’s confessions during this period.

“There is a high probability that Davonte Sanford was provided the details that he gave in his confession from outside sources, including Sgt. Michael Russell,” Trainum says in his review. “…all the verified details found in Sanford’s confession were facts known to … police at the time of the confession, while none of the details provided by Sanford regarding facts not known to Sgt. Russell and the police were confirmed by investigation and many of those details … have proven to be false.”

Sgt. Mike Russell declined to comment, through the Detroit Police Department spokesperson. Chief Tolbert was asked to step down by Flint Mayor Karen Weaver in recent months, and could not immediately be reached for comment.

A defense attorney whose law license would later be suspended for misconduct

When Sanford’s case first went to court, his appellate attorneys would argue later, all the evidence against him was flimsy: a confession that was inconsistent, factually flawed, taken without a parent or an attorney present, and which Sanford said he was coerced into giving.

That testimony included Valerie Glover's, the surviving witness of the Runyon Street homicide,that Sanford’s voice sounded like the masked man she remembered.

Bob Slameka, left, was Davontae Sanford's defense attorney and urged him to plead guilty. Slameka's law license has since been suspended.
Credit Kate Wells/Michigan Radio

And while police never found any blood spatter or gunshot residue on Sanford’s skin, shirt, or shoes, Sgt. Russell went to Sanford’s home to pick up pants Sanford was said to be wearing the night of the shooting, and those pants did test positive for gunshot residue.

But Trainum, the former homicide detective and analyst hired by Sanford’s appellate team, says false positives happen frequently with gunshot residue.

Still, rather than get the confession thrown out or even bother to cross examine Sgt. Russell, Sanford’s defense attorney, Bob Slameka, urged him to plead guilty.

Slameka’s law license was suspended last year after he was convicted of breaking into his ex-girlfriend’s home, and he’s been officially reprimanded multiple times for “neglect and lack of communication involving indigent clients.”

Taminko Sanford says Slameka made it very clear: if Sanford didn’t plead, he’d “never see sunlight again,” she says.  

“My baby never wanted to take the plea,” Taminko Sanford says. “He kept telling me, ‘Mama, no! Mama, no.' I had to force Davontae to take that plea. He got 37-90 years.”

Michigan Radio reached out to Slameka for comment several times. Last year he told this reporter that Bob Slamka “died;” earlier this spring, Slameka declined to comment again on this case, and proceeded to hide in a men’s restroom to avoid being asked further questions.

Sanford pleaded guilty. “I’m sorry for what happened,” he told the court at his sentencing. “I didn’t – I ain’t mean for it to happen. It just happened. I’m sorry for – to they family and everything.”

Vincent Smothers, a hitman, confesses to Runyon Street homicides

In April 2008, just two weeks after Davontae Sanford was convicted, police arrested a 27-year-old hitman named Vincent Smothers.

Officers surrounded him, weapons drawn, as he stood in his driveway holding his infant daughter.

Vincent Smothers was charged and convicted for all the homicides he confessed to - except the four on Runyon Street
Credit Michigan Department of Corrections

Smothers later said he was desperate to make sure police knew his wife, Cecily, wasn’t involved with his crimes – so he says he told police everything about the 12 murders he’d committed, all professional hits – including the four on Runyon Street.

And unlike Davontae Sanford’s interrogation, police videotaped their interviews with Smothers.

On the tape, he describes how he and an alleged accomplice, Ernest Davis (aka “Nemo”) were paid by another drug dealer to kill Mike Robinson.

“Once we was inside … there was a female who ran into the back room,” Smothers says on the tape. “I left the AK up with him, to secure the house and I went back and told her there was nothing to be afraid of. Because she was hiding under the bed.”

"Once we was inside...there was a female who ran into the back room," Smothers says on the tape. "I left the AK up with him, to secure the house and I went back and told her there was nothing to be afraid of. Because she was hiding under the bed."

Smothers was also able to lead police to the gun he used at Runyon street – he’d stashed it at Davis’ cousins’ home. And he told them how he’d stolen another gun from the house on Runyon, which he later used to kill a police officer’s wife.

That forensic evidence was confirmed, and Smothers – who's thin, soft-spoken, and tall at 6’1” – fit the witness's description of the shooter.

But Smothers was charged for every single one of the 12 murders he confessed to – except the four on Runyon Street.

“How can you believe Vincent Smothers committed murder [number] one, two, three, four and five, but he didn’t commit murder six, seven, eight, nine;  but he did commit murders 10, 11, and 12?” asks Valerine Newman, one of Davontae Sanford’s appellate attorneys.

“That is a logical inconsistency with no basis in fact, other than the fact that, for murders six through nine, they’ve already convicted a 14-year-old kid?”

In fact, Smothers says prosecutors offered him less time in prison if he’d agree not to testify in Davontae Sanford’s appellate case.

Smothers refused.

In an affidavit, he says it seemed “ludicrous … that the state would actually go this far to make sure Davontae Sanford remained in prison for crimes I committed and confessed to.”

State Police investigation points to Smothers, not Sanford – and possible police misconduct

For almost a full year now, the Michigan State Police has been investigating what really happened at that house on Runyon Street.

On Friday morning, they delivered their report to the Wayne County prosecutor’s office.

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, right, will decide what to do with the results of the State Police investigation
Credit Sarah Cwiek / Michigan Radio

And sources close to the investigation say it clearly points to the hitman, Vincent Smothers, and his alleged accomplice Ernest Davis, as the true killers – not Davontae Sanford.

Sources also say the report shows clear evidence of police misconduct that could even result in criminal charges.

Meanwhile, Davontae Sanford has spent the last eight years in prison. He’s 23 years old now.

“My baby was raised in the prison system,” says Taminko Sanford, ticking off the events he’s missed. “Prom. Graduation. The passing of his grandmother. The birth of his nephew.”

In prison, Sanford’s family and attorneys say he’s spent numerous periods in solitary confinement – including one 10-month stretch.

"Davontae knows he's coming home," his mom says. "He does. I constantly put it in him. Even if he calling me, and he having a bad day, I be like: 'Don't worry. It's almost over. Don't worry. You at the point, you there.' I have to, as his mother."

But he’s also an obsessive CNN viewer, who loves talking about the presidential election and follows it obsessively (he doesn’t like Donald Trump, he says, because he’s “disrespectful” of Senator Hillary Clinton.) He’s become a vegetarian and takes pride in trying to put “good stuff” in his body – though he’s itching to try the junk food he sees on TV, like pizza with cheese inside the crust.

“Davontae knows he’s coming home,” his mom says. “He does. I constantly put it in him. Even if he calling me, and he having a bad day, I be like: ‘Don’t worry. It’s almost over. Don’t worry. You at the point, you there.’ I have to, as his mother.”

The Wayne County Prosecutor’s office is not commenting on the investigation.

But they’ll soon have to decide what to do about Davontae Sanford’s case, and after all these years, whether to charge Vincent Smothers and his alleged accomplice for the murders on Runyon Street.