Timothy Carey was arrested last week and booked into the Polk County Jail on one count of first degree murder, and one count of armed robbery. He’s being held on no bond.
Carey was being charged in the decade-old death of Tommy Eugene Smith, a resident of Bartow who was found dead on Oct. 11, 1996, in an orange grove near Edison and Berkley Roads in Auburndale.
An autopsy indicated that Smith, who was 37 years old, had been shot to death. His death was ruled a homicide, but for 16 years the case remained unsolved — until now.
Judd credited the arrest to detectives who never gave up working for a resolution, while also benefitting from a tip from a witness to the brutal crime.
“Our cold case homicide detectives are dedicated to solving every one of our unsolved homicides, and this recently solved case is a perfect example of how someone who had knowledge of a crime came forward and help us put a murderer behind bars,” the sheriff said.
Smith was last seen on Oct. 10, 1996, leaving his home around 8 p.m. in his Jeep. His family reported him missing the next day, and his Jeep was found during the early morning hours on that day by a Polk County Sheriff’s Office deputy. The Jeep had been abandoned under the Interstate 4 overpass on Berkley Road in Auburndale with a flat tire and with a rear passenger door left open.
“His body was found later that day in the aforementioned orange grove,” noted Carrie Eleazer, public information officer for the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, in her report on the case. “Five days later, a .22 caliber rifle was found near the area where Smith’s abandoned Jeep was located. Ballistic tests confirmed the rifle was used in Tommy Smith’s homicide.”
For more than a decade, this case remained cold. Then on this past Oct. 31, close to the anniversary of Smith’s death, a witness contacted the sheriff’s office with a tip.
The witness “voluntarily provided details about the homicide that only someone who had intimate knowledge of the crime would have known,” Eleazer noted.
The witness told detectives that Carey, 35, of 430 Skyline Drive E. in Lakeland, had killed Smith back in 1996 when Carey was just 19 years old. It was part of a robbery, the witness claimed.
“The witness told detectives that he and Carey were in Smith’s Jeep the night of the homicide, and Carey directed Smith to drive them down a dirt road,” Eleazer noted. “When all three got out of the Jeep, Carey robbed and then shot Tommy Smith to death, and then pointed the rifle at the witness, forcing him at gunpoint to drag Smith’s body into an orange grove.”
Carey and the witness drove off in Smith’s Jeep until it got a flat tire, at which point they abandoned it on Berkley Road, Eleazer noted.
On Nov. 1, Polk County Sheriff’s Office Crime Scene investigators and Latent Print examiners processed fingerprints found in Smith’s Jeep. Those fingerprints were positively identified as being Carey’s, the arrest report notes.
Judd said this case demonstrates that while criminal suspects might become complacent over time, detectives do not take on the same attitude.
“We know there are other criminals out there who think they’ve gotten away with it,” Judd said. “But we also know there are people out there who can help us put them behind bars too. We encourage anyone who has information about any crime, not matter how big or small, to come forward and help put criminals in jail where they belong. It’s the right thing to do.”
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