Closing the Case
It’s unclear what passed through the mind of Michael Gary on the evening of June 5, 2007. He is, at the same time, the pettiest and most dangerous kind of criminal.
After breaking in to the Edmond home of Joe and Shirley Shell, he held 67-year-old Shirley and her mother-in-law hostage while trying to obtain the pin numbers of the Shells’ credit cards. With $100 in spare change and credit cards in hand, he fled the house – after slitting Shirley’s throat.
Within an hour of the crime’s commission, Detective Tommy Evans and the rest of the team from the Edmond Police Department were on the scene. Everything about the case indicated it would be a tough one to crack. The killer had a head start. Because Shirley’s mother-in-law was blind, there was no description of the killer. There were no eye witnesses. Neighbors noticed a red, four-door car at the Shells’ house, but could not provide a make or model. It was going to be a tough rundown.
Despite the odds, Edmond’s detectives, including Evans, never flagged – they were confident they’d get their man. “At first I thought the case was going to be extremely difficult, especially since it was my first homicide case I were a part of,” says Evans. “After learning from the veteran detectives and supervisors from our department, I began to figure out a lot of things I had never thought of. It was an incredible learning experience working with these people, interviewing individuals, following leads and preparing evidence for the case. Much of this happened during the first few days and I was confident that the person would be found.”
Evans was immediately assigned to video surveillance. He quickly began canvassing local all-night businesses, pulling security tapes for review. Eventually, his video review would expand to the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority and countless convenience stores in Ohio. By the end of the investigation, Evans would spend thousands of man-hours intently focused on a video screen, looking for a break in the case. “Each time we found a car we wanted to look at, that was several days of trying to figure out who that person was,” says Evans.
Evans caught a break in the case when Gary began using one of the credit cards en route to Ohio. Luck was moving Evans’s way. The card was used near the last exit on the turnpike near Joplin, Missouri. The card usage left a trail from Joplin to the Cleveland, Ohio area. While that information helped immensely, it wasn’t nearly good enough. Evans and the rest of his team needed to attach the credit card to a person. When security tapes from the convenience store in Joplin turned up nothing new, Evans hit on a novel idea. Mapping the distance from the turnpike exit to the convenience store and factoring in the average speed limits between the two points, he calculated roughly when Gary left the turnpike. This gave him a time window of roughly an hour when Gary had passed through the exit. And turnpike exits use cameras. Evans went to work on the turnpike video. Multiple cameras over multiple lanes. But luck favored the investigation again.
The turnpike was performing a video audit, using cameras to make sure vehicles were being charged the correct payment. To do this, one of the cameras was pointed at just the right angle. It was grueling, non-stop hours of playing, rewinding and fast-forwarding video but he hit the jackpot. With several purchases on the stolen credit card in Cleveland, Evans kept an eye out for Ohio license plates. “Within 15 minutes of our estimation, a red vehicle pulled through,” says Evans. “It didn’t have a tag on the front and we knew that Ohio requires tags on the fronts and backs of cars. This particular car had taken the tag off the front and put it on the dash. And it was an Ohio tag.” Evans surmises that Gary removed the front tag to avoid having it captured by gas station video cameras. But because it was on his dashboard, it was right in the line of sight of the turnpike’s audit camera – along with his face. Working with the Ohio Department of Transportation, Technical Investigator Christy Meadows came up with a plate number match of an owner
in Akron, Ohio.
When Akron police ran a background check on the car’s owner, Gary came up as a fairly likely candidate. His record included aggravated burglary, grand theft, sex offender violations and other offenses. And a local, open warrant for his arrest.
While an extremely cooperative Akron Police Department picked up Gary, Evans and Detective Mike Chesley hopped a flight to Ohio. The next morning they came face-to-face with their number one suspect. After talking to the Edmond detectives for several hours, Gary finally asked for an attorney.
Talking with Gary left Evans and his colleague feeling pretty certain that Gary was their man. While there was still no admission on Gary’s part, there was enough evidence to warrant seizure of his car. The car was brought to Edmond by detectives themselves, an unusual practice that allowed the detectives to avoid potential chain-of-custody issues. No chances were taken on this one. After a search warrant was issued, Evans and another detective, Christy Williams, went to work on the car, ripping it apart from top to bottom. Buried in a center console underneath a mound of change, Evans found a small key chain with a name on it: Joe Shell. Says Evans, “That was huge for us. We knew that was going to be the breaker since [Gary] hadn’t admitted to anything yet.” This small keychain had been placed in the Shells’ change jar years earlier by Joe Shell. It had gone unnoticed when Gary dumped the stolen change in his car. And Evans was right. It was huge. And it was Gary’s undoing. It was enough for the detectives to obtain an arrest warrant and transfer Gary back to Oklahoma for trial.
The Edmond P.D.’s tenacious rundown paid off. Almost a year after the crime, with his back against the judicial wall, Gary confessed to everything. Gary finally broke. At his arraignment he pleaded guilty to Michelle Shell’s murder. For the murder, Gary was given a sentence of life without parole. After he serves that sentence he can go on to serve the other three for burglary, possession of the stolen cards and unauthorized usage of the cards.