Capital murder suspect, basketball star walk

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 29, 2010

Tyler Lee Smith, who could have been executed for shooting a former police officer, is a free man today after being no-billed by the Warren County Grand Jury.

In a separate development, a high school basketball star will not be prosecuted with others accused in a series of violent armed robberies if she testifies as a state’s witness in other cases, including a homicide.

The no-bill for Smith means jurors decided there was not enough evidence to take the case to trial. District Attorney Ricky Smith and Police Chief Walter Armstrong said that’s because witnesses had changed their stories.

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Smith, 51, 3105 N. Washington St., was arrested in November and charged with killing and robbing Walter Cole, former assistant chief of the Vicksburg Police Department, 16 months earlier. A robbery charge filed with the murder charge raised the possibility of a death sentence. Instead, Smith was to be released today from the Warren County Jail.

The DA said witnesses who gave statements to police — including two sources investigators cited as providing the new evidence needed to arrest Smith — gave different testimony to grand jurors than they have to police.

“We subpoenaed four witnesses who were listed as having information regarding the death of Walter Cole,” the DA said. “All four gave statements to the grand jury which contradicted their earlier statements that they had any knowledge of the murder.”

Vicksburg police investigators also provided testimony to the grand jury, he said.

Tyler Smith’s arrest was thought to have solved the “cold case” that had been open since Cole, who was 75, was found shot to death in his car on July 23, 2008.

At a preliminary hearing for Tyler Smith on Jan. 6, police investigator Johnnie Edwards testified that police had a videotape of Tyler Smith and Cole in a “heated argument” at a convenience store hours before Cole was found shot in the head. Witnesses also had come forward to say Tyler Smith had said he had Cole’s gun and a ring. Neither of those items had been disclosed by police as having been stolen at the time of Cole’s murder, Edwards testified.

Police had no other evidence Tyler Smith committed the murder or robbery, he said at the preliminary hearing.

“It is disappointing,” said Armstrong, who had been in office about four months before Smith’s arrest. “We felt we put together a sound case and we were looking forward to going to trial with it. However, the individuals we were counting on to come forth with information … their stories had changed in some instances, and we were relying on their testimony.”

Empaneled Monday by Circuit Judge M. James Chaney, the grand jury also did not indict Sha’Kayla Caples, a former Warren Central High School basketball star whose college scholarship was pulled when she was arrested for armed robbery last May.

Caples was not no-billed, however, but given immunity by the grand jury after she agreed to cooperate in the prosecution of two other cases, Smith said. One is a murder in which her cousin is a defendant, he said.

Smith added Caples could still be indicted if she does not follow through on the agreement.

“The immunity is based on her full and complete, truthful statements about criminal activity in Vicksburg,” he said. “This recommendation was based on her coming forward and being fully open and truthful with the DA’s office as well as the grand jury.”

Caples, 19, 414 Ford Road, will provide evidence about the shooting death of 25-year-old Antonio Turner on March 15. Turner was sitting in a parked car on Alcorn Drive when he was shot around 1 a.m. She was reportedly questioned, but not charged in that case.

Three teens have been charged with the homicide including, the DA said, Caples’ cousin, Gemini Porter, 16, 2501 Culkin Road; Kersey Young, 17, 1115 Adams Lane; and Roosevelt Dewayne Harris, 18, 1803 First East St.

Three other teens are facing indictments in the armed robberies for which Caples was also arrested — Deshawn Williams, 17, 119-B Elizabeth Circle; Jacorey Wright, 16, 1405 Locust St.; and Blake Reed, 17, 2501 Culkin Road Apt. G8.

A fifth defendant in the robberies, Conti Lashaun Tillis, 17, 1110 Fayette St., was arrested in August.

All the teens are believed members of what has been called the “K-3 gang,” the DA said. Former police Chief Tommy Moffett called the gang “extremely dangerous” at the time of the arrests of Williams, Wright and Reed.

Holdups were reported by pedestrians at Oak and Klein streets, on Mulberry Street, at 510 Berryman Road, at City Front and at Drummond and Mulvihill streets. A strong-armed robbery was reported at Crawford and Farmer streets.

The victim of the Mulberry Street robbery was beaten and required medical attention at River Region Medical Center.

In all, the grand jury reviewed evidence against 117 individuals in 96 cases before completing its service Thursday afternoon. Indictments were issued in 88 of the cases. The names of the indicted will be released after they have been arraigned — formally advised of the charges against them and assigned a trial date. Most were scheduled to be arraigned today.

The grand jury also no-billed seven other defendants.

Caples was the only player in history to be a four-year winner of The Vicksburg Post Player of the Year honor in girls’ basketball. She scored more than 30 points in seven games, including a season-high 38 against Vicksburg High. She had signed to play for Gulf Coast Community College in Panama City, Fla., but a scholarship offer was withdrawn by the school following her arrest.

She enrolled in the fall at Meridian Community College. She is not listed on the roster of the girls’ basketball team there.

Cole was one of the first seven black police officers hired by the department in the early 1970s. He retired in 1995 as third-in-command at the VPD and became a detention officer for the Warren County Sheriff’s Department.

At the time of his death he lived in the Waltersville Estates complex owned by the Vicksburg Housing Authority.

Criminal procedure in Mississippi involves felony charges by law enforcement officials being reviewed in closed sessions by grand jurors, 18 people selected at random from voter rolls who review case files and hear testimony in secret. If they agreed a person should be tried, they issue a formal indictment and a public trial or plea bargain follows.

Contact Pamela Hitchins at