“Never underestimate the power of women.”
After sending a man and a woman to a Hamilton County grand jury Tuesday for allegedly scamming gun ranges of spent brass, Judge Christie Sell turned to the two women who took them down in Chattanooga.
"Never underestimate the power of women," Sell said with a wink.
Amiee Smith and Kristi Manning returned to Hamilton County General Sessions Court to outline the scheme they say Michael Santini Mitchell tried to pull off earlier this month at their respective gun stores. Police said Mitchell and his companion, Christine Thompson, are suspects in a multistate crime spree involving a stolen truck, fake IDs and lots of spent brass from an unknown number of gun ranges nationwide.
Except, at the time, Mitchell used a different name, Manning said.
Posing as a representative of Tennessee Metals, a recycling company, "Steve Rhodes" offered to buy 1,000 pounds of shells for $2 a pound, said Manning, who owns Carter Shooting Supply in Harrison. The offer wasn't too unusual, since gun ranges tend to accumulate and recycle used brass by the barrel in exchange for cash.
But it was strange when Rhodes never returned with 1,000 pounds of shells that he said he needed to weigh, Manning said. He had allowed Manning to take a photo of his driver's license and pickup truck. He responded to a few text messages and said he'd be back by 5 p.m. "Then I tried calling him three times. No response."
Feeling scammed, Manning said she contacted Amiee Smith, who owns Shooter's Depot on Shallowford Road with her father. Turns out, "Rhodes" had contacted them with a similar pitch, Manning said. So the women hatched a plan on Jan. 7.
On speakerphone the next morning, Smith said her father, John Martin, told "Rhodes" that he had 5,000 pounds of brass, and that his son had some, as well. "You may wanna bring a trailer and come get them at the same time," they told him.
"Rhodes" seemed excited and agreed to come two days later. He canceled once. But around noon on Jan. 12, Smith's father and three employees helped him load 18 buckets onto his trailer, ushering him inside to sign a receipt, Smith said. With a positive identification in hand, police swarmed the parking lot, arrested "Rhodes" and Thompson, and recovered 3.5 grams of heroin from a car that was stolen in Pennsylvania, police said.
On Tuesday, Judge Sell agreed to lower Thompson's bond to $50,000 and sent her case to the grand jury without a preliminary hearing. Mitchell, meanwhile, was represented by public defender Steve Brown, who convinced Sell to dismiss one of his theft charges because the prosecution couldn't summon the vehicle's owner to court.
Brown spent most of his cross examination picking holes in the investigation.
"So you assumed that because he did it at Carter Shooting, he was going to do it at Shooter's Depot?" he asked Chattanooga Police Department Detective Joe Kerns. "Is that the basis of his arrest?"
"The basis," Kerns said, "is he was using a false name."
Kerns said he found several fake IDs using the name "Steve Rhodes" during his investigation and located a Texas warrant under the same name. He said Mitchell also signed a receipt under the name "Steve Rhodes" the day he was arrested.
During one cross examination, Brown asked one of the women about what the police instructed them to do.
"So [the police said to load] all of the brass," he said. "Not some of it. Did the police give you any other instructions?"
"They just asked to get a receipt," Smith replied.
All told, Mitchell faces charges of theft of property, criminal simulation and possession of a controlled substance. Thompson faces the same charges, except for the criminal simulation count.
If a grand jury returns an indictment in their case, both their cases will proceed to Hamilton County Criminal Court.
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6347. Follow on Twitter @zackpeterson918.