By Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 20, 2008
Gary Smith, a former U.S. Army Ranger, sobbed heavily as he told a 911 operator that he had found his roommate, also a former Ranger, dead of a gunshot wound inside their Gaithersburg apartment.
"Oh my God, help me," Smith said in September 2006, according to a recording of the call played yesterday in Montgomery County Circuit Court, where Smith, 25, is being tried on a first-degree murder charge.
"We were drinking," Smith told the operator later, "and I dropped him off at the house, and I came back, and he had a big hole in his head."
Hours later, while being questioned by detectives, Smith changed his account of events.
He actually was in the apartment when his roommate shot himself, he told the detectives. He told them that he dumped the gun, a revolver he owned, into a nearby lake.
To prosecutors, the 911 call goes to the heart of their case: Smith gave several versions of events after the shooting.
But defense attorney Andrew Jezic said in his opening statement that post-traumatic stress could explain Smith's unusual behavior after what the defense contends was a suicide. Jezic said a psychiatrist will tell the jury that when someone with the disorder "sees something that is very violent and very disturbing . . . certain bizarre actions follow, or could follow."
Smith also was terrified the gun would link him to the shooting, and he was worried about a water pipe for smoking marijuana that was found in the apartment, Jezic said. During questioning with detectives, Smith said he was "scared" or "terrified" 37 times, Jezic said in his opening statement.
The 911 call offered a window into the events of late Sept. 25 or early the next morning. Smith's speech was dominated by heaving cries, leading the 911 operator to ask him to repeat himself. At one point, he described his roommate, 22-year-old Michael McQueen, as his "best friend."
"I went to war with him. We went to war with him. He was . . . " Smith said.
As his voice trailed off, the operator broke in: "Okay. Do you know, do you see a gun or anything?"
"No," Smith said.
Smith, who grew up in Montgomery, has told a defense psychiatrist that he was loyal to his roommate, to a fault. Smith said he discarded the gun and later lied to detectives because he didn't want McQueen to be remembered as a drunk, despondent veteran, according to a report in the case's court file.
On Tuesday, the first day of testimony, a friend of McQueen's testified that, in a phone conversation hours before his death, McQueen described Smith as "not right in the head" and said he couldn't live with him anymore.
Prosecutors called the friend, Ronnie McKay, in part to support their contention that McQueen wasn't depressed or suicidal at the time of his death.
McKay said McQueen had plans to go to the University of the District of Columbia and transfer to Howard University. Asked about McQueen's demeanor at the time, McKay said: "He was still funny, still had jokes, sense of humor. Had big plans. Telling me a whole bunch of plans he had and what he was willing to do."
McKay, a former Ranger, said that he spoke on the phone with McQueen on Sept. 25 and that they made plans to get haircuts Sept. 26 and go to a job fair Sept. 27. "He also was saying basically he can't live there no more . . . because, he said, 'You know, Gary's not right in the head.' "
McQueen and Smith had lived in the apartment for less than a month. Prosecutors say that they weren't close friends and that McQueen lived in the apartment only because other housing options had fallen through.
The defense contends that McQueen and Smith were good friends. Under cross-examination, McKay said he had seen the two working together in the Army and socializing on at least one occasion. Twice, he said, the two were together at a Hooters restaurant in Columbus, Ga., near Fort Benning, where they all were stationed.