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Murder suspect identified by state police, but prosecutor wants "futher investigation"

A Michigan State Police file photo.
Michigan State Police

Three possible suspects have emerged from a year-long Michigan State Police investigation into a quadruple homicide in 2007.

That investigation helped clear Davontae Sanford, who walked out of prison earlier this month after eight years of wrongful incarceration.

Davontae Sanford with family and supporters after his release.
Credit Sarah Cwiek / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Davontae Sanford with family and supporters after his release

Two of the State Police suspects are currently behind bars for other crimes, but the third, Leroy Payne, is believed to be a free man.

The State Police investigation resulted in warrant requests for three homicide suspects. But the Wayne County Prosecutor’s office is asking for “further investigation.”

“I will confirm that the Runyon St. homicide is for Vincent Smothers and two other suspects,” assistant prosecutor Maria Miller said in an email Wednesday, who declined to identify the subjects of the other two warrant requests. “I will not comment on other suspects connected to the Runyon Street case.... We will submit our request for further investigation in the next few weeks.”

State Police are willing to do more investigating, says Michigan State Police public affairs officer Shanon Banner.

"We’re obviously invested in this investigation, because this was a lengthy, involved investigation that culminated in these warrant requests,” Banner says. “It’s not unusual for a prosecutor to request additional investigation, and if that’s what the prosecutor’s office needs, we will make sure it gets done."

Davontae Sanford is free, but will prosecutors charge alleged killers?

State Police evidence shows Sanford didn’t do the killings – but the following three people are identified as possible suspects in the report presented to the Wayne County prosecutor’s office last month:

  1. Vincent Smothers, the hitman who’s repeatedly confessed to police about the night he says he gunned down four people in a home on Runyon Street as part of a professional hit. Smothers was charged and convicted for all 12 murders he confessed to – except the four on Runyon Street.
  2. Ernest “Nemo” Davis, the man Smothers says he brought as an accomplice to carry out the hit, and who is currently in prison on unrelated firearms and assault convictions.
  3. And finally: Leroy Payne, who Smothers says hired him to do numerous hits, including those on Runyon Street. Payne is believed to be a free man.

The Runyon Street homicides were “one of several contract killings that were contracted by a Leroy Payne,” the Michigan State Police report says.

Credit MDOC
Vincent Smothers, the convicted hit man who says he - along with two accomplices - committed the Runyon Street homicides

Payne allegedly paid Vincent Smothers to kill a reported drug dealer, Mike “Big Mike” Robinson, who lived in the Runyon Street home.

“Smothers indicated that he was hired to kill ‘Big Mike’ by Leroy Payne on behalf of a drug dealer named Delano Thomas,” the report says, noting that Thomas has since died. “Smothers states that Leroy Payne directed him to the target house and pointed out the target, Michael Robinson.”

So who is Leroy Payne? Hit man says Payne organized numerous contract killings

In a 2015 affidavit, Smothers talks about going to high school with the man who would later become his alleged accomplice, Ernest “Nemo” Davis, and group of friends who hung out and played basketball together after graduation.  

Leroy Payne, Smothers says, would sometimes hang out with them too. “I had known Leroy for about seven years when, one day in the summer of 2006, he asked me how much I would charge to kill someone. I did not take him seriously at first, but I threw out a number anyway,” Smothers says in the affidavit. “He stepped out, made a phone call, and told me it was a deal.”

Credit MDOC
Ernest "Nemo" Davis, who Smothers alleges was his accomplice in the Runyon Street homicides. Davis is in prison on unrelated charges.

Smothers goes on to detail how Payne drove him past his first target’s house: Willie “Black Will” Watson, whom Smothers says he killed in 2006.

After that, Smothers says, he got in a motorcycle accident that kept him from working his job at an HVAC manufacturing company. “Within a few weeks, Leroy asked me to do another hit. I agreed.… Committing hits for Leroy soon became my primary source of income.”

Smothers says Payne told him he was the “middle man” for a drug dealer who was commissioning the hits: “Delano ‘Lano’ Thomas, who is now deceased.”

State troopers even arrested Payne and Smothers when they were driving together to Chicago in May 2007, the state police report finds, with "two pistols located in the vehicle." 

But Smothers says even after that scare, Payne kept hiring him to kill people. 

“By June of 2007, I had committed five hits at Leroy’s request, which resulted in seven murders,” Smothers continues in his affidavit. “I never asked too much about why these people were being murdered. I stayed out of Lano’s and Leroy’s drug business and just focused on completing my assigned hits.”

Smothers says Payne hired him in August 2007 to kill Mike “Big Mike” Robinson, a reported drug dealer who lived on Runyon Street. Smothers says he asked his high school buddy, Ernest “Nemo” Davis to help him carry out the hit.

“I asked Nemo to come with me to Runyon because Leroy had told me that Robinson was a drug dealer and I knew drug dealers typically keep guns in their home and often have associates nearby who also have guns. I wanted Nemo with me to make sure that somebody had my back if anyone caused problems or pulled out a gun. I trusted Nemo with my life and I knew that Nemo was the kind of guy who would pull a trigger with no questions asked.”

Smothers says he watched the house on Runyon Street for weeks, observing his target’s daily routine, watching the neighbors, and sketching out a map of the area.

On September 17, 2007, Smothers says he and Ernest “Nemo” Davis carried out the hit on Mike Robinson, bursting inside the house while people inside were watching “Monday Night Football” in the living room.

Smothers talks about gunning down four people, with a fifth person – Valerie Glover – crawling from the room and hiding underneath the bed of a sleeping child. Glover and the child were the only two victims who survived.

After stealing a shoebox full of weed, cash, and a .40 caliber pistol, Smothers says he and Nemo left the Runyon Street house. As they left, they exchanged shots with a neighbor who was standing on a nearby porch, before running to an abandoned lot where they’d stashed a getaway car.

“I talked to Leroy sometime after committing the murders at Runyon to tell him the job was done…. I told him there were other people in the house and that most of them were now dead. Leroy did not appear to be concerned about the survivors or the neighbors.”

Detroit Police never investigated Payne for Runyon Street – and he’s still free

Smothers was arrested in 2008, at which point, he says, he told police about all 12 of the murders he’d committed. He was charged and convicted for all of them – except the four on Runyon Street.

And even though Smothers was able to lead Detroit police to guns matching those used in the Runyon Street homicide (they were right where Smothers said they'd be: Nemo's cousin's home) and gave them information about his alleged accomplices, Ernest “Nemo” Davis and Leroy Payne, it appears the Detroit police never did any further investigation into the other two suspects.

The Michigan State Police investigators say they could not find even a single interview between DPD and Davis or Payne in connection to their alleged involvement in these homicides.

“Futhermore, there does not appear to be any follow up or additional investigation conducted by DPD in relation to the statements made by Vincent Smothers concerning the homicides that occurred at 19741 Runyon,” the state police report says.

The State Police were granted interviews with Vincent Smothers and Ernest “Nemo” Davis (both of whom are in prison - Smothers for the other murders he confessed to, and Davis on unrelated firearms and assault charges) but Leroy Payne declined to speak with the detectives.

In a letter to State Police from Payne’s attorney, Mark Magidson, on April 20 of this year, the attorney confirmed that “Mr. Payne is going to decline the invitation to talk with you. If any warrant or other court order is obtained, please advise me and I will arrange for his appearance.”

Magidson did not immediately respond to requests for comment from Michigan Radio. 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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