Plea deal offered to suspect in slaying

GREENFIELD — One of three people charged in the Katrina Miller slaying could have charges of murder and kidnapping dropped if he testifies against one of his co-defendants.

Ronnie Westbrook, 26, of Indianapolis, accepted a plea agreement Tuesday with the Hancock County prosecutor’s office. That agreement has been taken under advisement by the court, and it will remain under advisement until after the trial of Westbrook’s co-defendant, Amanda Gonzales.

Gonzales’ trial is slated to begin March 23.

In exchange for his testimony, Westbrook will plead guilty to assisting a criminal and face an enhanced sentence because he admits to being a habitual offender.

Westbrook already testified against one defendant, Joe Meyers, the accused triggerman who was convicted of murder late last year. During Meyers’ trial, experts testified that a GPS bracelet Westbrook was wearing at the time of the murder indicates he was not at the scene when Miller, an Indianapolis woman, was shot and killed in a cornfield on the county’s west side in July.

Meyers is serving a 75-year prison sentence.

Westbrook returns to court April 15 for sentencing. The prosecutor will recommend Westbrook serve a six-year sentence as part of the plea agreement.

Hancock County deputy prosecutor John Keiffner said in court Tuesday that, while Westbrook was not at the scene of the shooting, he was not free from criminal activity.

Westbrook drove with Miller, Meyers and Gonzales from Indianapolis to the Hancock County-Marion County line. Westbrook, knowing he was wearing a GPS monitor that would track his movements, got out of the vehicle, and the others continued on, police said.

Meyers shot Miller with a .380-caliber handgun belonging to Gonzales, investigators said. The pair then left Miller in the field and returned to pick up Westbrook about 10 minutes later.

Keiffner said Westbrook discussed with the others what happened the night of the murder. Rather than contacting authorities, Westbrook concealed Meyers and Gonzales in hotel rooms in Marion County, which he paid for, and allowed them to use his car, Keiffner said.

The GPS data proving Westbrook was not at the scene of the murder weighed heavily on the decision to cut Westbrook a deal for a lesser charge, Hancock County Prosecutor Brent Eaton said.

His office is eager to use the information Westbrook will provide against Gonzales, who has been accused of masterminding the plot to kill Miller over a romantic rivalry, according to court testimony during Meyers’ trial.

The deal with Westbrook was created cautiously, Eaton said: If Westbrook does not testify truthfully against Gonzales, his former girlfriend, the agreement can be withdrawn.

“The plea agreement is like a contract, and it can be void if one of the parties doesn’t follow through on it,” Eaton said.

Westbrook’s plea also means Hancock County is spared the cost of a jury trial.

Meyers’ trial cost the county nearly $50,000. About a third of that went to the prosecutor’s office for manpower to prepare for the case, a third went to the sheriff’s department for overtime on security; and a third was paid to a public defender, who charged $15,000 to be serve as stand-by counsel as Meyers defended himself.

Since Westbrook won’t go to trial, the costs will be significantly less, said John Apple, chairman of the county’s public defender board. Westbrook’s public defender, John Merlau, has charged the county roughly $10,500 so far and could submit a few more invoices, but it won’t be nearly the cost it would have been at $90 an hour for a trial.

Also, the sheriff’s department won’t have to pay for its employees to secure the courthouse, which cost $15,000 in Meyers’ trial.

Bill Bolander, president of the Hancock County Council, said he’s pleased any time he hears the county can save money, and since Eaton became prosecutor in January, he hasn’t asked for an additional appropriation to research the murder or prepare a case.

Eaton said cost was never a concern when his office decided to enter into an agreement with Westbrook.

“We were just interested in doing what was right,” he said. “We looked at the evidence and law; preserving costs was never part of the equation.”

Gonzales originally was appointed a public defender but later retained a private attorney.

SHARE
Caitlin VanOverberghe is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3237 or cvanoverberghe@greenfieldreporter.com.