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Murder charge against suspended Hokie player Etute is elevated to grand jury
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Murder charge against suspended Hokie player Etute is elevated to grand jury

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CHRISTIANSBURG — A Montgomery County grand jury will consider a second-degree murder charge against suspended Hokie linebacker Isimemen David Etute.

Judge Gordon Saunders certified the charge to a grand jury at Etute’s preliminary hearing on Thursday. The grand jury is scheduled to decide Oct. 26 whether Etute should be tried in the county’s Circuit Court.

The witnesses at Thursday’s hearing in General District Court were three Blacksburg police detectives who added details to the public description of Etute’s final encounter with restaurant project manager Jerry Paul Smith.

Etute, 18, is accused of killing Smith, 40, in Smith’s downtown Blacksburg apartment on Memorial Day. Attorneys said Thursday that the two men connected through the Tinder app and met for oral sex on April 10, then again on May 31.

But in April, Etute thought that he was meeting a woman, not a man, witnesses and Etute’s defense attorney said Thursday. And in May, Etute wanted to see who it was he’d been with.

On Thursday, police testified that although Etute entered Smith’s apartment alone, he arrived at the building at 119 N. Main St. with two friends — who were not identified Thursday.

Other details from the detectives’ testimony and defense attorney Jimmy Turk of Radford’s cross-examination included that after Etute and Smith had oral sex on April 10, Smith paid Etute $50; that a detective recognized Smith’s body because Smith had been a defendant or witness in prior cases; and that police found a knife between Smith’s mattress and box springs.

In June, a spokesperson for Smith’s family described him as a proud, openly gay man.

On Thursday Detective Ryan Hite testified that records obtained from Tinder showed that Smith presented himself on the app as a woman named Angie Renee. Etute said that after he met Angie on April 10, he wondered if he had been with a man or woman and stopped communicating with the person, Hite said, recounting what Etute told investigators after Smith’s death.

Then the person Etute knew as Angie sent a message asking if he would put in a good word about her to a friend of his, Hite said in response to questions from Turk and Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Jason Morgan. Etute’s friend also asked if Etute could vouch for Angie, Hite said.

Etute arranged to go back to the North Main Street apartment on May 31 to find out if Angie was a man or woman — and to “engage in another consensual act” with Angie if she was a woman, Hite said.

As during his first visit, the multi-level apartment was only dimly lit and Angie seemed to be concealing her face, Hite said that Etute told officers. Etute groped Angie to “determine if this was a male or female,” the detective said.

After that, Etute used the light on his phone to illuminate Smith’s face in the dark apartment. When Etute saw facial hair, “he said he just started hitting him,” Hite said.

Etute told police that Smith was sitting on his bed when Etute began punching, and that he struck him about five times, using his right hand. Smith “swatted” at Etute and fell to the floor in a space about 4 feet wide between the bed and wall, Etute said.

Etute said that he stepped over Smith and kicked him in the face as he did so. There were bloody footprints on the apartment’s carpet, its kitchen floor and in the hallway outside the apartment door, Hite and Detective Heather Rose-Semple said.

Etute told police he heard breathing and “gurgling” as he left, Hite said. Security camera footage showed Etute and his two friends went outside to a parking lot and waited 10 to 15 minutes before driving away, Hite said.

None of them called 911, Hite said. Days later, when Etute spoke to police, Hite told him that Smith had died and Etute broke into tears, Hite said.

Asked by Turk if Etute told police why he hit Smith, Hite said, “His statement was that none of this would ever have happened if he’d known this was a man and not a female.”

Etute told police that he had nothing to drink and had taken no drugs before going to Smith’s apartment.

Rose-Semple said that Smith’s body was found lying on its back, that Smith sustained “severe trauma to the face,” and that blood was splashed on the wall near him.

Cross-examining Hite on Thursday, Turk asked if the detective had seen a knife between the mattress and box springs of Smith’s bed on the side adjacent to where Smith’s body was found. Hite replied he had only seen the knife in other officers’ photos of the scene.

When Turk mentioned the knife, a friend of Smith’s family, Rebecca Snavely, stood in the courtroom’s spectator area and angrily left the courtroom.

Smith’s killing “was premeditated,” Snavely said outside, with tears streaming down her face.

Premeditation is a requirement for a first-degree murder charge. A second-degree murder charge involves an unlawful killing but not necessarily premeditation.

At Thursday’s hearing, Turk asked the judge to strike the second-degree charge, saying the evidence at worst supported a charge of involuntary manslaughter. Saunders quickly denied Turk’s motion, but the attorney reiterated his position after the hearing.

“This is not second-degree murder. This is just a very, very sad case all around for both sides,” Turk said.

After the hearing, bailiffs escorted Turk, Etute and about a dozen of his friends and relatives out a side door to the courthouse.

About a dozen of Smith’s friends and relatives waited by the main exit. Some pulled on T-shirts bearing Smith’s face and #justiceforjerrysmith.

Snavely said the family is grieving and that Smith’s brother and 13-year-old nephew are trying to come to terms with having discovered Smith’s body on June 1.

“They never went 24 hours without talking to him,” Snavely said. “This was a 13-year-old — he was found by his nephew with his face beaten.”

Smith’s aunt Doris May expressed frustration with the way her nephew was portrayed in the courtroom. “What they say, I know it’s all a lie,” May said. “Jerry wasn’t afraid to say he was gay and he didn’t try to be a woman. I don’t care what they say.”

Smith’s relatives said they also were frustrated that the two people who accompanied Etute to Smith’s apartment had not been arrested.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Mary Pettitt said after the hearing that she was not expecting anyone else to be charged.

Surveillance footage from Smith’s apartment building that was viewed by The Roanoke Times showed the two other people walking up a hallway to Smith’s apartment.

The time-stamped surveillance footage that building owner Corky Cranwell said that she provided to the police shows Etute entering the apartment at 10:07 p.m. and the footage picks back up at 10:10 p.m. with the three running away.

The cameras were activated by a motion sensor and stopped recording during that three-minute gap.

Arrested on June 2, Etute was released on a $75,000 secured bond and placed under electronic monitoring and house arrest at his family’s home. On Thursday, the judge said Etute could return with his family to Virginia Beach and remain free on the same bond conditions.

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