CHRISTIANSBURG — A now suspended Virginia Tech football player told police he punched a sexual partner five times in the face and stomped on him after discovering the person he thought was a woman was actually a man, according to arguments presented Wednesday in a Montgomery County courtroom.
According to the autopsy, all the bones in Blacksburg resident Jerry Paul Smith’s face were broken, his teeth were missing and he had multiple cranial fractures. The medical examiner’s office had previously revealed that Smith had died from blunt force trauma to the head.
Ismemen David Etute of Virginia Beach was arrested and charged with second-degree murder June 2 in the death of Smith, a Blacksburg restaurant worker.
Etute was granted bond in a hearing Wednesday morning in Montgomery County General District Court, but Chief Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Patrick Jensen filed an expedited appeal that would have kept Etute in jail for up to five more days.
The two sides later Wednesday came to an agreement to release Etute on a $75,000 secured bond under house arrest and electronic monitoring, according to a release put out by Commonwealth’s Attorney Mary Pettitt. The order restricts Etute from returning to Montgomery County except to consult with his attorney or to attend court proceedings.
The courtroom was packed as Judge Randal Duncan excluded cameras from the courtroom at the start of the proceeding. Smith’s family was in attendance. More than a dozen football players — most of them clad in Virginia Tech gear — were there in support of Etute.
Etute was in court Wednesday morning wearing an orange prison jumpsuit. A bailiff was stationed behind Etute throughout the entire hearing, and Etute was handcuffed with his wrists attached to a chain around his waist.
Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Jason Morgan argued against bail, and outlined new details about the case based on statements Etute gave to the police.
According to those statements, Etute visited the victim’s apartment April 10 for oral sex after he was matched up with someone named “Angie” on Tinder. Etute returned to the apartment May 31 to engage in sexual activity and discovered the person he was matched up with was a man, according to summaries of the evidence made by both Morgan and defense attorney Jimmy Turk.
Etute also told police that Smith did not assault him.
Etute told the police he punched the victim five times in the face and continued punching the victim when the person hit the ground and “stomped” on him. He heard “bubbling and gurgling” as he left the apartment, but didn’t call the police.
Police discovered Smith’s body in the apartment in the 100 block of Blacksburg’s North Main Street on June 1.
Turk’s response to Morgan outlining the circumstances of the case was to emphasize that the victim solicited Etute for sexual activity.
“I’m not saying what happened was acceptable, but this was more than someone just showing up to an apartment and punching someone,” Turk told the court.
Turk expanded on that point outside the courtroom.
“Nobody deserves to die, but I don’t mind saying, don’t pretend you are something that you are not,” Turk told reporters. “Don’t target or lure anyone under that perception. That’s just wrong.”
Smith's family declined to comment after the bond hearing.
Morgan’s arguments came after testimony from Etute and his mother Michelle.
Michelle Etute was the first witness called and Turk led her through a series of questions about her son’s background, his relationship with his family and their living situation. Etute has three siblings including a younger sister, 15, with Down syndrome.
Etute, with her voice barely above a whisper, said there is someone at home “pretty much around the clock” at the household with his sister requiring extra care. Etute’s parents declined to comment after the hearing.
The questions Turk had for Isi Etute were of a similar nature. He talked about the strong relationship he had with his siblings, and said his parents were, “the strongest people I’ve ever known even through this situation.”
The freshman enrolled at Virginia Tech at midyear and went through spring camp with the football team.
The closest Etute came to referencing the charges he’s facing is when Turk asked him, how has this affected you?
“Real hard,” Etute said. “I’m trying to stay strong for the people that support me, I feel like I’ve let a lot of people down ... I’m truly sorry for my actions.”
Turk got emotional arguing on Etute’s behalf during the hearing, and fought to fight back tears during his closing argument, and again outside the courtroom.
“I’ve tried more than 100 murder cases in my lifetime, and normally I don’t even ask for bail,” Turk told the judge with his voice quivering. “If there’s ever been a time for someone to be considered for bail, this is it.”
Duncan acknowledged the seriousness of the allegations, but in granting bail he said there was no evidence that Etute wouldn’t appear for the trial or that he posed a danger to the community.
Duncan’s decision isn’t without precedent.
Turk cited two cases in Virginia where defendants facing second-degree murder charges were released on bail. He referenced a 2002 case Jawad v. Commonwealth, and a local case involving Mark Ward Faville from 2015.
Based on court records search, over the last nine years there have been at least three other second-degree murder cases in Montgomery County Court, and one of the defendants, Taylor Stevers, was granted bail as well.
Stevers was charged with second-degree murder in the death of her estranged husband back in 2017. She was eventually acquitted in 2018 on charges of voluntary manslaughter.
Kee Lah Soe was an orphan in Southeast Asia four years ago when opportunity knocked on the door of her bamboo hut.
Authorities offered to relocate her and family members from a refugee camp in Thailand to Roanoke. That moment opened many doors, including to Patrick Henry High School, from which she will graduate Friday at age 22.
“Can’t wait,” Kee Lah said.
She is one of an estimated 775 Roanoke seniors who will cross the commencement stage at the Berglund Center.
In the four years that have passed since her arrival, Kee Lah learned English, met graduation requirements and took up singing with help from a team of teachers, all while taking care of a brother with whom she lives and who has special needs. A Roanoke human services agency guided her through resettlement, an apartment complex friendly to refugees and immigrants rented her an apartment and church welcomed her for worship and Bible study. An anonymous donor paid a large share of her bills.
After graduation, she plans to seek a job as a nail technician or a certified nursing assistant, learn to drive and buy a car. Those mini-goals coalescence around a larger goal to combine herself and all of her siblings in the United States under one roof — a priority she deems higher than going to college.
Friends, teachers and advocates speak of being awestruck at how far she has come.
“Most students describe Kee Lah as amazing, that she can carry the load she has,” said Connie McKinney of Salem, a friend at New Life Fellowship Church, a Christian church where Kee Lah connected with the youth program.
Kee Lah was born and raised in a small dwelling made of the bamboo and leaves at the 150-acre Nu Po camp in Thailand near the border with Myanmar, she said. The camp was set up for people fleeing violent attacks in Myanmar, the country where her parents were born and also fled.
Myanmar is considered one of the most ethnically diverse places in the world due to its location at a strategic crossroads between China, India and Thailand. A highly unstable nation, Myanmar was racked by a military coup Feb. 1, which brought civilian protesters into the streets by the thousands leading to further clashes. Many members of minority ethnic groups in Myanmar, such as the Karen, to which Kee Lah belonged, have fled Myanmar for safety.
She happily recalls a river, a jungle and a waterfall in the vicinity of the refugee camp, which housed 10,000 people in 2019, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. But food and clothing were hard to come by and she missed school to work, she said. Her father, Ta Ro, was a migrant laborer who worked hard to support the family, but toiled in rain and heat, resulting in an illness that claimed his life at 49, she said. Her mom, Nyunt Ye, went to work, leaving Kee Lah in charge of the family, and did not return for extended time periods, she said.
Authorities, recognizing the children were orphans, intervened to arrange for their relocation to the United States. An older brother and her mom elected to not relocate, she said, but she and three siblings made the trip.
The journey to America involved long stretches by vehicle and airplane, according to Kee Lah, who recalled vomiting after taking off from Bangkok. A nurse and doctor joined the siblings to keep an eye on her brother, Shar Kley, 28, who has an illness related to seizures, she said.
In Roanoke, more than 9,000 miles home, she and her older brother moved into the El-Ray apartments on Westover Avenue, while two younger siblings entered foster homes in the Roanoke area. The year was 2017.
Their physical survival no longer a major worry, concern turned to finances. The federal government provides a one-time grant of less than $1,000 to resettled refugees, which meant Kee Lah had to consider going to work. But an anonymous donor agreed to pay rent for her and her brother for three years, she said, a major influx of funds to supplement government assistance.
Rather than take a job, she enrolled in high school. Non-English speakers may attend public schools in Virginia for free to age 22.
“I never met him, he never met me,” she said of the donor. “It’s amazing because I’m lucky that I get to go to school. If not because of him I would have to work and not be able to go to school.”
She soon began making connections. Her family was originally Buddhist but when her father became a Christian, so did Kee Lah, she said. She soon established a church home, New Life Fellowship, which “loves foreigners,” McKinney said.
Kee Lah also loves to sing, at first just at home while cooking, she said. She joined the high school choir her senior year. Because of the pandemic, choir students created and submitted recordings of themselves singing assigned selections. A technical expert created a virtual choir performance now available as a YouTube video.
“You can just tell how much passion she has,” choir teacher Nicole Schmitt said. “She would dress up, she would close her eyes and get really into the song’s meaning. It just looked like she loved it. And that’s what you want” as a teacher.
Roanoke has welcomed immigrants and refugees for years and it’s common for them to find success once basic needs are met, said Bea Sellinger, a former employee of Commonwealth Catholic Charities who assisted with refugee resettlement clients, including Kee Lah.
“Everybody has to work hard,” she added. “It does not come easily.”
Kee Lah earned As, Bs and Cs, she said.
“She worked hard and with a smile … always with a smile and with a song,” said David Higgs, an English language instructor and department chair.
One time, at her request, he permitted her to sing a tune toward the end of a math class, Higgs said.
Students born outside the United States often “bloom” like flowers once they learn English, he said.
Then there was the day she broke down in tears in class upon receiving a phone message from a neighbor in Thailand that her mom had died, Higgs said. Kee Lah said her mom was “murdered.”
She eventually sang again.
“I think it’s something that keeps her sane,” Higgs said.
A student was wounded by gunfire Wednesday afternoon in the parking lot of the Berglund Center as his classmates gathered inside to rehearse for graduation.
The victim, a teenage boy, sustained injuries that didn’t appear life-threatening, police said. Witnesses said it looked like he had been struck in the arm.
He was taken to Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital for treatment.
The shooting erupted around 2 p.m. as members of William Fleming High School’s graduating class were inside the civic center starting to rehearse for their commencement ceremony set to happen Thursday.
Students sheltered inside for about an hour and a half until they could be released to their parents. No one else was injured. The city schools said 301 seniors were present.
The schools said the victim was a student. No other information about him was released by officials. Witnesses said he was a Fleming senior.
The boy’s family had been contacted, administrators said, and counselors were dispatched to the Berglund Center to help other students.
“The health and safety of our students is paramount and No. 1 for us,” said Superintendent Verletta White, adding school leaders were focused on providing support for students and staff.
Wednesday’s shooting appears to have stemmed from an argument between the victim and another juvenile, police said.
There had been an altercation earlier that day that was described as “somewhat resolved” but another argument ensued that afternoon and ended in gunfire, said Chief Sam Roman.
The investigation was still in its early hours and detectives were working to learn more, Roman added during a news conference Wednesday afternoon.
But, he said, authorities don’t believe there is any ongoing danger to the public.
“As with any incident, our goal is to ensure that our community is safe,” Roman said. “And we believe at this point our community is safe. That there is no ongoing threat to our community.”
Investigators on the case roped off a section of the parking lot Wednesday outside the civic center’s front steps. Six evidence markers were placed on the ground.
In addition to police officers, sheriff’s deputies were sent to help provide security around the center. Mayor Sherman Lea also came to the scene after being notified of the gunfire.
He expressed frustration that violence would mar an event meant to celebrate Roanoke’s youth.
“This is horrible, horrible,” he said. “These young people are here getting ready to graduate from high school … It’s just so tragic.”
Combating gun violence has been a top priority for the city. Lea continued to urge the community to partner in that work by taking part in anti-violence initiatives and by reporting information to police.
“I’ve always said it’s going to take a community,” he said. “We’re going to keep working. We’re going to keep protecting our children as best we can.”
The shooter in Wednesday’s altercation fled afterward, police said. No suspects were found on scene. The victim ran and sought help inside the civic center.
Graduating senior Brenden DeCourcey said he was inside waiting to file into the main auditorium when he saw a classmate stumble in, wounded, asking people to call an ambulance. Teachers rushed to help him.
“It was terrifying,” said DeCourcey, 17, pausing to take a deep breath. “It was just crazy.”
Still shaken, DeCourcey said it gave him pause about attending Thursday’s graduation ceremony. His mother still hoped that he’d be able to safely attend.
He had worked so hard for this moment, she told him. He deserved to walk across that commencement stage in his cap and gown.
White said the schools will be working with law enforcement to enhance security and safety measures for the ceremony. Officials did not want to cancel the event.
Students already faced so many disruptions and lost milestones during the past year due to the pandemic, White said. They should not lose the chance to be presented with their diploma too.
“We’re not going to let anybody take this away from our babies,” she said. “We are not going to let this incident keep our students from the celebration that they so rightly deserve.”
CHRISTIANSBURG — A Montgomery County jury took just an hour Wednesday to find Kayla Nicole Thomas guilty on all counts for sexually abusing and making child pornography of her son – a toddler who died about a week after the sexual abuse, allegedly at the hands of Thomas’ boyfriend.
The jury took only minutes more to recommend two life sentences plus 10 years for Thomas, 27. Circuit Court Judge Mike Fleenor scheduled a sentencing hearing for Sept. 23.
The verdict came after a day-long trial in Montgomery County Circuit Court, where witnesses described how in 2019, 2-year-old Steven Dale Meek II was sexually abused by Thomas at the request of her boyfriend McKenzie Kyle Hellman, also 27.
Thomas took the witness stand and admitted that she had performed sex acts with her son – and used her phone to document the abuse with five 30-second videos that she sent to Hellman, who was waiting in a bedroom at the other side of the mobile home the couple shared on Christiansburg’s Zinc Lane.
But Thomas said she abused her son because she was terrified that Hellman, who asked her to do it, would harm her, Steven, and the unborn child that she was then pregnant with.
Jurors looked dismayed as they watched Thomas’ videos Wednesday. Christiansburg police Investigator Nathan Delp testified the videos were found on Thomas’ phone.
The jury convicted Thomas of charges of inanimate object sexual penetration, forcible sodomy, making child pornography, and distributing or electronically transmitting child pornography. The convictions and sentencing recommendation for Thomas mirrored those that another jury gave Hellman in March.
Thomas testified that she and Hellman, also 27, had dated for about two years and moved into together in Christiansburg mobile home shortly before Christmas 2018. Steven was abused on Jan. 8, 2019, according to time stamps on the videos. In the weeks between the move and the abuse, Hellman had used methamphetamine, Thomas said, and his personality changed.
“He turned into this monster I did not recognize,” Thomas said.
Steven later died due to physical injuries based on another incident that occurred on Jan. 11, 2019, according to testimony at other hearings connected to case.
Hellman was found guilty in March of being an accessory before the fact to child sex abuse and child pornography charges, and to possessing child pornography for keeping on his phone an image from one of Thomas’ videos. Hellman’s jury also recommended two life sentences, plus an additional 45 years, as his punishment.
Hellman is scheduled for sentencing on June 29. He still faces charges of second-degree murder and child abuse for Steven’s death and has another jury trial scheduled to begin Aug. 10.
Thomas testified Wednesday that Hellman became enraged at her after a pregnancy checkup and accused her of having sex with her doctor. To make up for it, Hellman wanted her to abuse Steven, Thomas testified.
Hellman was not related to Steven. Thomas shared custody of the boy with his biological father.
In a message, Hellman wrote that he wanted Thomas to carry out the three specific sex acts with her son, and that if Thomas would send him videos, “I should be able to touch you again.”
At Hellman’s trial in March, prosecutors played a recorded interrogation in which Hellman told police that he wanted to explore his sexuality and wondered if it would arouse him to see someone having sex with a child.
Thomas said Wednesday that she did not want to abuse her son and told Hellman that she would instead do other things that he wanted, such as doing drugs with him or having a sexual threesome with him and his ex-wife. To try to appease Hellman, Thomas said, she asked for and received nude photos of a female friend and gave them to him.
But on the morning after Hellman sent an electronic message asking Thomas to abuse Steven, she did so. “I finally, I guess, caved,” Thomas said.
Afterward, Thomas said, she “felt disgusted with myself.”
On cross-examination, Thomas said that at the time she abused Steven, fear kept her from leaving the relationship with Hellman.
But Thomas also admitted she still writes love letters to Hellman, who also is in jail, including letters she sent as recently as May 18 and May 23 of this year.
Defense attorney Andrew Harman said jurors had to consider “why she did what she did” and argued that Thomas should be found not guilty because she felt forced to abuse her son.
Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Sam Norman noted that there were no other witnesses or evidence to support what Thomas said about being afraid and told jurors that she was trying to distract them. Even in the moment before Thomas abused Steven, Norman said, she had options.
“She was alone in a room with her son. She very easily could have picked up her phone and left,” Norman said, adding that there were neighbors living very close to the couple’s home on Zinc Lane.
Steven lived about five days after the sexual abuse.
On Jan. 11, 2019, Hellman made a 911 call saying the boy had been injured in a fall. Police and emergency workers restarted Steven’s heart and he was taken to Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital. He died there two days later.