The detective who two years later cracked the 2011 Steve Toms murder case told a jury Wednesday that alleged killer Michael Jerome “Big Smoove” Johnson incriminated himself during interviews with police.
Sgt. Andrew Tyner said a tipster lured by the promise of reward money first told investigators to check out Johnson and his cousin Daquaevian Solomon, whom police learned was then detained in Russell County. When questioned, Solomon denied he knew Johnson, Tyner said.
But when he was released, Solomon went straight to Johnson to warn him police were asking questions about him, the sergeant said. Johnson called police to ask what they wanted, then agreed to come in for an interview.
During questioning, Johnson told detectives he heard they wanted to know about a murder, and he had an alibi for it. When the investigators said they’d not yet told him when the murder happened, he told them he had an alibi for any murder, they said.
That was in January of 2012. The following Aug. 22, Johnson was arrested for the armed robbery that day of the La Mexicana de Columbus restaurant and grocery on Victory Drive. Tyner was walking into the police station that afternoon when a patrol officer asked him to guard a suspect. The suspect turned out to be Johnson.
Johnson started talking to Tyner, telling the detective he remembered the date Toms was killed — Nov. 15, 2011 — because that was his payday, and he made sure to go home to his mother’s house, where he was living, to pay her $200 he owed her. He then spent the rest of the night there, Tyner said.
But Johnson’s cell phone records proved he that day was in the area of the 3717 Gentian Blvd. Gold & Silver Trading Center where Toms was killed, Tyner said. When told that, Johnson changed his story to say he must have gone by the Hot Box recording studio at 3470 University Ave., where he recorded rap music.
The recording studio’s software tracked artists using the studio, and that program showed Johnson wasn’t there that day, Tyner said.
In January 2013, Johnson sent word from the jail that he wanted to meet Tyner again. He told the detective that his codefendant in two store robberies, Dimitrius “Slim Deezy” Gordon, had given him a ride home from the recording studio that day and dropped him at his mother’s house on Somerset Avenue, Tyner said.
There Solomon awaited his arrival, and they went in Solomon’s car to Rigdon Park, and from there walked to the RiverWalk, where they sat on a bench to talk, Tyner said Johnson told him.
According to Tyner, Johnson gave this account of that meeting:
Solomon told him he went to the Gold & Silver Trading Center wearing black clothes and a mask, and found no one at the front counter. From the back someone called out “Who’s there?” and Toms peeked out. Seeing a masked man, Toms tried to run, but the robber caught him and pulled him to the front cash register.
Solomon was emptying the cash drawer when he noticed a ring Toms wore and demanded it. “Don’t take the ring. I’ll give you some more money,” Toms said, then pulled out a revolver, prompting Solomon to open fire.
Solomon had brain tissue on his clothing, which he flicked toward Johnson, who told him not to do that. Then Solomon took the gun, a Springfield .45-caliber, and threw it and its magazine into the river.
Tyner said that while recalling his interaction with Solomon, Johnson also drew a crude but accurate layout of the jewelry store, though he claimed never to have been inside it.
Though Tyner did not testify to his follow-up investigation Wednesday, the sergeant in earlier hearings has said Johnson aroused more suspicion by calling Gordon from the jail and telling him to confirm the alibi.
Police divers searched the river for the gun Johnson said Solomon threw into it, but they found nothing, Tyner said.
Much of the testimony earlier Wednesday delved into detectives’ efforts to clear up other tips they got while investigating Toms’ homicide. Police said they were tipped to two groups of drug addicts, one in Columbus’ Crystal Valley area and the other in North Highland.
“They were technically what we refer to as ‘methheads.’ Most were on meth when we talked to them. They were paranoid,” said Detective Joby Duncan. “None of them were credible.”
Said Sgt. Harvey Hatcher: “They were methheads. Some of them used Xanax.”
He said one woman interviewed said she and a friend were passed out on Xanax in the parking lot outside the jewelry store when three companions came out with blood splatter on their shirts. Yet no evidence tied them to the crime, and they couldn’t keep their stories straight, Hatcher said.
Asked if police searched any of those subjects’ homes, Hatcher said: “A lot of them, their home was the jail.”
The trial resumes at 8:30 a.m. today in Judge William Rumer’s Government Center courtroom.
Johnson is the only defendant charged in Toms’ slaying. He and Gordon together are on trial in armed robberies of the 4227 Victory Drive Diamond Exchange on May 5, 2012, and the 5750 Milgen Road Winn-Dixie on April 11, 2012.