ELKTON — A man accused of gunning down a man and a woman inside their Elkton residence in 2015 received a six-year prison term Monday, after accepting a binding plea deal that prosecutors offered to salvage what they assessed to be a weak case against him.

The defendant, Erik John McNeely, 39, entered Alford pleas to two counts of voluntary manslaughter, which carries a maximum 10-year sentence per conviction.

(In an Alford plea, the defendant maintains his innocence while acknowledging that the state possesses enough evidence to convict him at trial. McNeely’s jury had been scheduled to start Monday.)

Those counts had been listed as first-degree murder, which is punishable by up to life in prison per conviction, before they were amended to voluntary manslaughter as part of the binding plea agreement.

Retired Cecil County Circuit Court Judge V. Michael Whelan accepted McNeely’s Alford pleas and then found him guilty of those two manslaughter charges, after Assistant State’s Attorney Patricia Fitzgerald read the state’s statement of fact aloud in the courtroom.

Whelan imposed two six-year sentences on McNeely — running them concurrently — in accordance with the agreed-upon penalty specified in the binding plea agreement.

McNeely will serve his six-year term in a Maryland Department of Corrections prison.

Interim Cecil County State’s Attorney James Dellmyer told the Cecil Whig that, with the blessing of the victims’ surviving family members, prosecutors offered the binding plea deal to McNeely, rather than run the risk of “not guilty” verdicts at the conclusion of a jury trial.

Prosecutors also received the approval of Elkton Police Department Det. Lindsey Ziegenfuss, lead investigator, he noted.

“This has been a particularly challenging case since it occurred. After meeting with Det. Ziegenfuss and the victims’ families, all agreed to offer this plea bargain, rather than risk the uncertainty of a trial. We are grateful for the support of EPD and the victims’ families, whose opinions mattered most to us,” Dellmyer outlined.

During Monday’s hearing, Fitzgerald told the judge that the binding plea deal was “discussed extensively with police and the families of the victims” before it was offered to McNeely.

“This is a compromised situation,” Fitzgerald commented during the proceeding.

At the other end of the spectrum, McNeely accepted the deal because he did not want to run the risk of the jury finding him guilty of first-degree murder or of second-degree murder, which is punishable by up to 40 years in prison, after going to trial.

McNeely’s defense lawyer, C. Thomas Brown, told the judge that accepting the binding plea agreement was “the best course of action we can take under the circumstances of this case.”

Moments before sentencing, McNeely, under the advisement of Brown, declined his opportunity to make a statement to the judge.

The crime

McNeely fatally shot Derrick Smith, 38, and Tayonna Russ, 22 — the daughter of Smith’s live-in girlfriend — inside their shared residence at 170 E. Village Road in the Buckhill Farms neighborhood about 1:30 a.m. May 3, 2015.

Fitzgerald reported in court that Smith owed McNeely money and that McNeely had gone to that Village Road residence “with the intent of getting his money back.” The prosecutor did not detail the circumstances of the debt Smith purportedly owed McNeely.

After he and Smith argued at the front door, McNeely entered the house with him, she said. Moments later, after gunshots rang out from inside the residence, McNeely was seen leaving the house, Fitzgerald added.

EPD officials reported back in 2015 that Smith was the sole target and that the gunning down of Russ was incidental to the fatal shooting of Smith.

Smith’s live-in girlfriend, Tamekia Russ, was asleep upstairs when the deadly double shooting occurred — but she had not heard anyone enter the home, nor did she see any suspect or suspects when she went downstairs and found her slain boyfriend and daughter.

“The initial investigation revealed a lack of physical evidence and no eyewitnesses, which resulted in the case being cold for a period of time,” Dellmyer said.

The investigation and indictment

The county’s chief prosecutor complimented Ziegenfuss for her perseverance and “diligent investigation,” which allowed her to develop McNeely as a suspect.

Ziegenfuss reported that, in November 2015, investigators conducted a court-approved search of McNeely’s then-residence in the 300 block of Friendship Road in Elkton, where they arrested McNeely and confiscated more than 3,000 baggies of heroin with a street value of $10,000, a handgun — unrelated to the fatal double shooting in Elkton — and other evidence.

In December 2015, a month later, McNeely was indicted in connection with an unrelated fatal shooting that occurred in Wilmington, Del., in 2010. In January 2017, however, the first-degree murder case against McNeely in Delaware was dropped, after the lead prosecutor left the Wilmington office and was replaced by another prosecutor.

As for his Elkton drug case, which was incidental to the double-homicide investigation, McNeely received a five-year prison term in July 2016 after pleading guilty to possession of heroin with intent to distribute, according to court records.

(Specifically, the judge imposed a 15-year sentence and then suspended 10 years of it and ordered him to serve five years of supervised probation after his release, court records show.)

EPD’s double-homicide investigation continued throughout the course of McNeely’s heroin case and the ultimately-dismissed Delaware murder case — and beyond.

“This case was difficult because we lacked any DNA evidence linking McNeely to the crime scene; however, there was enough circumstantial evidence, to include witnesses after the fact and cell phone records eventually linking him to those crimes,” Ziegenfuss told the Cecil Whig.

After McNeely was released from prison on his heroin conviction, EPD detectives received court approval to conduct a “wire tap” on McNeely’s cell phone, she reported.

“Further circumstantial evidence was obtained as a result of the wire tap, which eventually lead to the arrest of McNeely on Oct. 31, 2018,” Ziegenfuss explained.

The gun used in the fatal double-shooting was never recovered, however.

The state also lacked eyewitnesses. One of two men who accompanied McNeely to the Village Road residence — but elected to remain in the car — offered only an inadmissible hearsay account of McNeely “indirectly admitting to the shooting(s),” Fitzgerald told the judge Monday. Other possible witnesses, including the other man in the car, reportedly made themselves unavailable to investigators and prosecutors.

Prosecutors and investigators elected to move forward with their criminal case against McNeely, even though there were concerns about the strength of it, according to Dellmyer.

“Despite exhaustive efforts by law enforcement, the state’s case against McNeely remained largely circumstantial. Regardless of these difficulties, my office, after meeting with the detective and the victims’ families, agreed to present the case to the grand jury. This was the right thing to do, to hold McNeely accountable,” Dellmyer said.

In late October 2018 — nearly three and a half years after the deadly double-shooting had occurred — that grand jury handed up a 14-count indictment against McNeely.

The charges included two counts each of first-degree murder and second-degree murder.

Then in early November 2018, less than a week after the indictment had been filed, members of the Maryland State Police Apprehension Team captured McNeely at his residence on Thatch Court in Elkton.

Salvaging a weak case

While there was enough probable cause to convince the grand jury to indict McNeely, investigators and prosecutors were concerned if there was enough evidence to find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt at trial.

“Throughout the course of the investigation, I have been as transparent as possible with the victims’ families in this case. They knew that this was a circumstantial case. We had these honest discussions even up until the defendant was criminally charged in this case,” Ziegenfuss said.

Prosecutors and investigators also kept the victims’ family members in the loop, as McNeely’s trial date grew closer.

“The decision to offer the defendant a plea in this case was a difficult one to make; however, the lead prosecutor (Fitzgerald) and I, left that decision up to the families,” Ziegenfuss said.

She added, “We were aware that a trial based on witness testimony and circumstantial evidence is a difficult one to prosecute. What complicated matters more was there were some witnesses who made themselves unavailable weeks leading up to the trial. This definitely complicated our case.”

The goal was to make McNeely take responsibility for the homicides of Smith and Russ – in some way – and to honor the wishes of the victims’ family members.

“At the end of the day, the victims wanted the defendant to be held accountable for the crimes he committed,” Ziegenfuss explained. We understand that the time he will serve will never be enough justice for the lives of Tayonna Russ and Derrick Smith, but it provides closure to the families after all of these years.”

Victims’ relatives speak

Katherine Lewis, the mother of Smith, her only son, put the binding plea deal in perspective while addressing the judge in court during her victim-impact statement.

“Even though he (McNeely) took manslaughter, that still means he admitted that he did it,” Lewis said, after commenting, “I pray that Mr. McNeely asks God to forgive him. He can forgive anything. I ask God to have mercy on his soul.”

She described Smith as a loving, doting son.

“I talked to him every day. He’d always say ‘Are you sure you’re OK?’ Lewis said, before giving an account of one particular phone conversation with her son, who was battling insomnia, and recalling, “He said, ‘I always feel better after I talk with you. I can sleep.’”

After acknowledging, “No, Derrick, wasn’t perfect,” Lewis said, “But (McNeely) took my child. He isn’t God, but he played God. He killed the flesh, but he didn’t kill his soul . . . Derrick was light. He was loved so much.”

Tamekia Russ, who was Smith’s girlfriend and the mother of Tayonna Russ, told the judge that she is haunted by memories of the fatal double shooting. She found her slain boyfriend and her daughter, after coming downstairs moments after the shootings.

“I wake up and find my daughter like that,” she said, telling the judge that the chilling memory will be with her forever.

Russ tried to erase memories of her daughter to ease her grief.

“I tried for days and days to forget her – just to make the pain go away,” she said.

Smith’s high-school-aged daughter, Jayda Smith, told the judge that McNeely killed her father “because of something stupid.”

“He was my best friend. He was my hero . . . He made me confident and made sure I didn’t judge someone,” Jayda said, adding, “And he was so funny.”

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