Judge drops kidnapping charge in murder case

GREENFIELD — Evidence presented in the murder trial of Amanda Gonzales does not support all of the charges she faces related to the crime, a judge ruled at the close of proceedings Thursday.

Prosecutors spent four days presenting evidence to a jury of 12 Hancock County residents, hoping to convince them that Gonzales, 28, of Indianapolis, orchestrated the murder of her romantic rival, Katrina Miller, 23, of Indianapolis. Miller was found shot to death in a Hancock County cornfield in July 2014.

Gonzales had faced charges of murder, kidnapping and conspiracy to commit murder. But moments after prosecutors rested their case Thursday afternoon, Gonzales’ defense attorneys argued the state had not presented enough evidence to show their client had committed the crimes.

Snow agreed with the defense that prosecutors failed to prove Gonzales kidnapped the victim and dropped that charge; Gonzales still faces charges of murder and conspiracy to commit murder. The trial resumes Monday, when Bob Beymer, head of the defendant’s legal team, will have his turn putting witnesses on the stand.

Gonzales is one of three people charged in Miller’s death: accused shooter Joe Meyers was convicted of murder and kidnapping at a trial late last year 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.

Thursday, jurors heard testimony from members of law enforcement charged with investigating the crime: Hancock County Sheriff’s Deputy Christie McFarland, the officer who interviewed Gonzales when she first taken into police custody; Detective Sgt. Trent Smoll, the department’s lead investigator on the case; and Zachary Serine, a digital engineer with the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Department, who worked retrieving data from Gonzales’ cellphone.

The information Serine was able recover from Gonzales’ phone amounted to thousands of pages of contacts, call logs, text messages and photographs, he testified in court Thursday.

But there was something missing: The phone appeared to not have been used at all between July 19 and July 20 — the window of time when investigators believe Miller was shot to death. This suggests the phone might have been powered off or switched to a setting that prevented it from receiving calls or messages, Serine told jurors.

Just as he was preparing to leave the witness stand, having been questioned by both prosecutors and Gonzales’ defense attorneys, Serine slipped in a comment that seemed to set the tone for the state’s side of the case.

“We rely a lot on habit when we look at these things,” Serine said of his report. “A lot of times what you don’t do with your phone is just as telling as what you do with your phone.”

Prosecutors told jurors from the start of the trial not every detail of the night Miller was murdered is known, and they would have to make some guesses about the actions of those involved. This week, prosecutors presented jurors with testimony from two former friends of Gonzales — one a neighbor at the hotel where Gonzales lived and the other a fellow inmate at the Hancock County Jail — who said Gonzales confided in them, at separate times, key information about Miller’s murder, including where Miller was shot and where the murder weapon was hidden.

Both women testified that Gonzales told them Westbrook, who was dating Gonzales at the time, became angry when drugs went missing from his hotel room, and he had threatened to kill Gonzales and Miller if the drugs were not found.

Westbrook, who took the stand Wednesday, denied that drugs were involved.

McFarland’s testimony Thursday suggested Gonzales’ story changed over the course of the investigation.

McFarland testified that Gonzales said she knew nothing about Miller’s murder. She said Gonzales denied spending time with Meyers and Westbrook on the day Miller was killed, and she said Meyers and Westbrook never gave her a reason to fear for her safety, McFarland told jurors.

Additionally, security camera footage from the Always Inn in Indianapolis — where Gonzales, Miller, Meyers and Westbrook were living at the time of the murder — showed Gonzales crisscrossing the hotel’s parking lot, going to back and forth from the rooms of her co-defendants hours before Miller was killed, Smoll testified.

The videos also showed Miller getting into Meyers’ vehicle and leaving the hotel. She never returned, he said.

Because Miller appeared to get into the car willingly, Snow said evidence failed to support kidnapping charges.

Beymer said he expects to call two witnesses, including Meyers, the accused triggerman in Miller’s death, at 8:30 a.m. Monday.

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