GREENFIELD — Sitting on the witness stand, Michelle Muse appeared ridged with nervousness and fear.
As she told her story, she avoided making eye contact with Amanda Gonzales, her former friend and neighbor.
With a jury of 12 Hancock County residents listening closely, Muse recounted a tale Gonzales told her more than a year ago, on the morning 23-year-old Katrina Miller was killed.
Gonzales, 28, is charged with murder, kidnapping and conspiracy to commit murder. Investigators believe Gonzales is responsible for planning the murder of Miller, an Indianapolis resident, who was found dead with a gunshot wound to the back of her head in a Hancock County cornfield in July 2014.
Gonzales’ case is being heard this week in Hancock County Superior Court 1. Gonzales is one of three people charged in Miller’s death: Accused shooter Joe Meyers was convicted at a trial late last year of murder and kidnapping and is serving a 75-year sentence in an Indiana Department of Correction facility; Ronnie Westbrook, Gonzales’ former boyfriend, was sentenced to serve six years in prison after he pleaded guilty to assisting a criminal, a Level 5 felony.
Muse was one of four witnesses called to testify on the first day of the trial. She told the court that Gonzales came knocking on her door of the hotel where they both were staying and that Gonzales was acting strange.
Muse said Gonzales asked her if she had ever seen a dead body. Had she ever seen anyone shot and killed?
When Muse responded that she hadn’t, Gonzales began telling a tale similar to the one investigators reported.
Muse testified that Gonzales said she had swiped heroin and other drugs from Westbrook’s Indianapolis hotel room after the pair had an argument about Westbrook’s relationship with Miller. Westbrook threatened to kill both Gonzales and Miller, Muse said, and got Meyers to agree to shoot the two women if the drugs weren’t found.
Muse said Gonzales then told her about how she, Meyers and Miller traveled to a cornfield, located in western Hancock County. There, Meyers assured Gonzales that he wasn’t going to hurt her. Moments later, he shot Miller, killing her instantly, Muse said.
At first, Muse admitted she wasn’t sure Gonzales was telling the truth. But after seeing news report that confirmed Miller had been found dead, she knew she had to do something. About four days after the murder, she came forward to tell police what Gonzales had told her.
Muse’s testimony supports the strategy Deputy Prosecutor John Keiffner laid out in opening arguments: The state plans to pinpoint Gonzales’ actions before and after the murder using security camera footage from the hotel where Gonzales, Miller, Westbrook and Meyers were staying to show Gonzales visiting different hotel rooms and getting into a car with Miller and Meyers. The state will call witnesses who say Gonzales told them about the killing and where the murder weapon was hidden.
Prosecutors and the defense team promptly agreed on 12 Hancock County residents — eight men and four women — to serve as a jury Monday morning, allowing the proceedings to move onto opening arguments and the first witnesses to be called Monday afternoon.
Questions during jury selection suggest that Gonzales’s defense team — made up of Bob Beymer of Portland and Jacob Moore of Bloomington — would call the reliability of the state’s witnesses into question. Beymer told potential jurors that some people on the state’s witness list were known drug users and some had changed their stories over the course of the investigation. The state’s professional witnesses, Moore said, were likely credible but had received their information secondhand.
“The people with the badges and lab coats, they don’t know what happened anymore than you or I do,” Moore said. “They are just going off of the word of others.”
Gonzales’ defense seems to also focus on whether or not Gonzales actually conspired to commit Miller’s murder. Beymer and Moore both reminded jurors that prosecutors would have to prove there was an agreement and that Gonzales participated in the plan.
“We don’t anticipate they are going to be able to prove what was going on in her head,” Moore said during opening arguments.
Keiffner reminded jurors they wouldn’t see all the pieces of the puzzle that led to Miller’s murder; there was no video tape of the shooting, he said, and no TV-like scene that would wrap up all the evidence nicely.
Prosecutors have estimated the trial will last two weeks. The state is expected to rest its case by Friday, and the defense will take over Monday.