After 19-year-old UC Berkeley student Seth Smith was gunned down by an unknown assailant on Dwight Way in Berkeley in mid-June, police were initially at a loss for suspects and a $50,000 reward was offered for information. But murder charges were filed in August against a neighborhood resident with a criminal past, and now a key witness has testified that the suspect confessed to the killing in the weeks after it happened.
Smith was shot in the back of the head at point-blank range on the night of June 15. He had said goodbye to his roommate around 10 p.m. and headed out for one of his regular nighttime walks, carrying his cellphone but leaving his wallet behind. His mother, Michelle Rode-Smith, posted to Twitter, "He enjoyed walking. He’d always been a night owl kid."
There were no witnesses to the shooting, which is believed to have happened just before 11 p.m. about a mile from Smith's apartment. Neighbors reported hearing a sound like a single gunshot, but no one reported it. His body was discovered by a man walking his dog about a half hour later, sprawled on his back, with blood pooling around his head.
60-year-old Tony Walker, who lived in an apartment a few hundred feet from where the shooting took place at Dwight Way and Valley Street, was not arrested for the murder until August. But, as Berkeleyside reports, he became a suspect within days of the shooting thanks to an anonymous tip that instructed police to look into him as the potential shooter.
This week, Berkeleyside reports that a friend of Walker's, Marine Corps veteran Roger Ellis, has been cooperating with police and provided testimony in a hearing that offered ample circumstantial evidence putting a gun and ammunition like those used in the killing in Walker's hands just days before the shooting took place. Ellis says that he traveled to a gun shop in Vallejo with Walker on June 13, and agreed to purchase ammunition for him for a .40-caliber Glock 22 pistol — Walker was not legally able to purchase ammunition because of his criminal record, which included a 2016 case in which he was caught in possession of a firearm as an already convicted felon, for which he served several months in jail.
Ellis told police that he had been friends with Walker for 20 years and that the friendship had ended this summer when he said he felt "betrayed" by Walker as this investigation unfolded. Ellis said Walker had gotten in touch with him shortly after an initial visit by Berkeley police to his apartment, and he allegedly told Ellis to delete any texts he had about their gun-shopping trip, and to lie to police about having ammunition he purchased stolen out of his car.
"I acted like I agreed," Ellis testified, per Berkeleyside, "but in my mind, I wasn’t agreeing to that."
During a later visit to his house in Oakland, Ellis says that Walker confessed to killing someone, and at that point Ellis says he seriously questioned why he agreed to purchase ammunition on his behalf, given his history.
Investigators have said that Walker became hostile during multiple searches of his apartment, and in one instance allegedly said, "A white kid gets killed and the damn whole world stops. Fuck that white motherfucker." Detectives say they did not tell Walker what crime they were investigating, however the shooting had been well publicized on the news.
Detectives also say they found texts from Walker to his friend Elmo Dill on the day following the shooting in which he said, "Still waitin’ on da news. I wanna see it."
Ellis's testimony is certainly the most damning, and the judge agreed, telling prosecutors this week, "There is reasonable cause and probable cause and more" to bring the case to trial.
Walker's defense attorney has argued Ellis previously lied to investigators about his knowledge of the murder, and that he's primarily motivated by the $50,000 reward. However he has receipts to document the Vallejo gun-shopping trip, as well as a photo he took of Walker's Glock pistol in order to determine what kind of ammunition to buy for it.
As Berkeleyside reports, Ellis only agreed to talk to investigators in early August after someone shot up his car in a drive-by — an act that Ellis believes was Walker trying to "send a message" to him not to keep talking to police. Fearing for his life and displaced from his home, he said he decided to cooperate — and that he had hesitated at first before speaking to a lawyer, due to his own possible culpability in abetting the crime.
Smith's mother says she won't rest until there's a conviction, adding that she misses her son terribly and he was "incredibly intelligent, crazy smart." Smith was just shy of his 20th birthday and was already set to graduate early, after three years at Cal, with a double-major in economics and history.
Photo of Smith courtesy of Michelle Rode-Smith