LAKELAND - Despite thousands of hours of manpower, interviews with more than 100 people, and fingerprints lifted from the crime scene, there was just one element that ended up solving a 16-year old murder case: A guilty conscious.
In October of 1996, 37-year old Tommy Smith of Bartow disappeared after a party for his promotion to nurse supervisor at Lakeland Regional Medical Center. His body was found in an orange grove at Edison Road and Old Berkley Road near Auburndale. Smith had been shot in the head, execution style.
While Polk County sheriff's deputies recovered a .22 rifle believed to be the murder weapon, along with Smith's car and fingerprints from the scene, no suspect was ever arrested, and the investigation was filed in the cold case section for the next 16 years.
That is, until Halloween 2012. That's the day Timothy Medders, 35, told investigators what happened to Smith the night he disappeared. Medders, who was 16 at the time, said he was a casual acquaintance with another teenager, 19-year old Timothy Carey, according to Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd.
"He was overridden with guilt," Judd said. "It got to the point where he absolutely couldn't sleep at night."
The sheriff described how Medders came forward after a chance encounter with Carey in August after the two hadn't seen each other in years. Judd said that meeting brought on the confession.
"It caused all that hurtful and hateful night to bubble up inside of him," Judd said.
The sheriff said Medders confessed to witnessing the entire murder, and helped to conceal Smith's body after he died. Judd said Medders story was credible because he knew details of the case only someone at the scene could provide. Detectives also matched Carey's fingerprints to those in Smith's car.
According to investigators, Medders said he went to Carey's home and heard him say he wanted to kill somebody that night. Medders said he watched Carey make a phone call to Smith. Both Medders and Carey then traveled to Smith's house, and all three left in Smith's Jeep Wagoneer.
Medders described how they wound up on a dirt path near Old Berkley road, and Carey ordered Smith to hand over his money. After Smith tossed his wallet and some change, Carey forced Smith to his knees and pointed the rifle at his head. After Smith begged for his life, Carey ended it, shooting him three times.
The sheriff said Carey then pointed the gun at Medders, and ordered him to help drag the body into the orange grove. They left in Smith's Jeep, and abandoned it with a flat tire under the overpass on Berkley.
Both men hitchhiked their way back to Highway 92, and from a convenient store, took a cab back to Highland City.
Investigators are hoping to hear from the family that picked up the hitchhikers, and the cab driver who gave Carey and Medders a ride 16 years ago.
Smith's sister Bonnie McClin said the arrest helped end the uncertainty and frustration of never knowing who killed her brother.
"It's a huge relief. It's been a long time coming," McClin said.
Ron Smith, Tommy's older brother, said he wished their parents were still alive to hear that the murder case had been solved.
"I feel like a great weight has been lifted, and my family would just like to see closure," Smith said. He hopes that Carey gets the ultimate punishment if he's convicted.
"This guy took a life, and maybe he can replace it with his own in the end and get what he has coming and deserves," Smith said.
Although Medders confessed to being an accomplice in the murder, he won't be charged because of his cooperation in the investigation. Carey, meanwhile, is not cooperating with detectives. He's in the Polk County Jail on charges of murder and robbery.
Ron Smith said he appreciated the many hours the sheriff's office devoted to the case, but became emotional talking about losing his brother.
"I wish I could have spent more time with him," he said.
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