Two men quarrel in the night. They are neighbors, but neighborliness has not characterized their relationship of late. Tonight they’re arguing about litter. Both carry guns. One gets shot. The trio of bullets punctures his chest, wrist, abdomen. He dies quickly, without having fired his weapon.
The shooter quickly retreats to his home across the street. The wife, sitting in the passenger seat of the car next to where her husband falls and dies, does not see what happens in the crucial seconds before the shooting. The neighborhood is dense with houses, but it’s near midnight on a weeknight, and the night is dark. No eyewitnesses come forward; police and prosecutors are left to piece together what happened based on the widow’s statements, 911 calls by her, the shooter and a neighbor who heard the shots but says she saw nothing, and the tale told by the physical evidence. The wife’s 911 call is what one might expect—hysterical, grief-stricken, horrified. She begs the operator to send help fast. “Please, can you hurry up, please … please, please.” She begs her husband not to die, “Baby, please wake up … baby, please hang in there.” The shooter’s call is more subdued. “I had a neighbor pull a gun on me. Send police and emergency personnel,” he says. Later, again, “He pulled a gun on me.” He says he doesn’t want to go outside because he’s fearful for his life. When police take him into custody, he invokes his right to counsel. The officer who transports him to the station writes in his report that while in the patrol car, he makes the following “spontaneous statements”: “I had to do it; he had a gun to my head. I had to shoot him.” Otherwise, he will not provide a statement on this night.
Keegan Von Roberts, 22, is pronounced dead at the scene at 12:31 a.m. on Thursday, July 20, 2017. His body is taken to the medical examiner’s office. After five hours at the police station, his killer is released. He is not charged with a crime.
Thirty-three days later, police still have made no arrest. The family is getting restless; they’ve retained counsel. Some members of the public have been swept up into the event, calling it an outrage—a white man has shot a black man dead in front of his own home, they say, and he still walks free? Two detectives go to the killer’s house to take his statement. He reiterates that he had no choice, that it was self-defense. The interview lasts less than an hour. The conversation is cordial. The killer complains that he has not slept well since the shooting, says that his life has been turned upside-down, that Roberts’ family and their attorney have been lying about him. He says he’s reluctant to talk.
“Their story changes every day and it just makes their situation worse,” he says. “… Which is why I didn’t want to get my side of the story out there because I’m noticing every time they put their story out there, they look dumber.”
The detective who does most of the speaking comes across as sympathetic; he reassures the killer that neighbors have said nice things about him and says that he wants to get his side of the story to contradict some of what the family has been saying. He does not ask about several potential inconsistencies between the killer’s story and the physical evidence. He does not ask how closely the killer had been watching Roberts beforehand, though it is apparent in the interview that he had been watching very closely indeed.
“Sometimes [detectives] can get more flies with honey, well, OK, I understand that logic, but you still have to ask the tough questions,” said John Phillips, who represents Roberts’ family in their wrongful death suit. “… The interview does read as if they’re seeking excuses.”
Citing the length and volume of the questions FW submitted on Dec. 7, JSO indicated that it would not be possible to respond before press deadline. On the morning of Dec. 10, FW requested responses to three of its questions, one comprising two parts, by end of business Dec. 11. As of press time, JSO had not responded.
Police do not arrest Michael Centanni IV, 26, on this day.
(Though typically FW would not reveal the identity of someone who has not been charged with a crime, Centanni’s identity has previously been widely reported. Unable to obtain his phone number through numerous channels, on Dec. 10, FW knocked on Centanni’s door; when no one answered, a reporter left their business card, a letter identifying themselves and this outlet, which contained questions for Centanni, their deadline and contact information. Centanni did not respond.)
Six weeks later, Centanni is still free. Prosecutors assemble Roberts’ widow, Eliany Diaz Roberts (hence referred to as Diaz), his mother, Cecilia Shepard, and Phillips, to deliver the news: They are not pressing charges. They give a detailed presentation, complete with visual aid, in which the prosecutors lay out all the ways that the family would lose the case. Given the length of time that has passed, it cannot come as a complete surprise. Nevertheless, they are upset. They do not understand how a man can leave his house with a loaded gun, confront a neighbor and his pregnant wife in their car in front of the family home, kill him, and go free. That’s the law, is the explanation they are given.
It does not help that their grief has been compounded in the interim: on Aug. 10, Roberts’ wife, then just five months pregnant, went into labor. The baby, a girl, did not survive. “She was in the palm of your hand,” Shepard said. “She was 365 grams.” She shows a reporter a photo of the tiny girl; Diaz blinks away tears and says she can’t bear to look.
Prosecutors release a detailed disposition to the media explaining why they’re not pressing charges. In it, they claim that Diaz changed her story after the initial interview; that on Aug. 15 she told police “for the first time” that Centanni had previously used racial slurs to describe her Cuban family and her husband, that there was a delay between the second and third shots, and that Centanni taunted Roberts that night, saying, “You want to play?” (Centanni later tells police that he may have paused between the first and second shots to get a better grip on the weapon and denies taunting Roberts.) An officer reports moving the weapon from beneath Roberts’ abdomen before the scene was photographed. The same officer has been accused of falsifying a report in the case of a woman whom video shows being battered by officers while handcuffed and in custody. Phillips represents the woman, Mayra Martinez.
The State Attorney’s Office (SAO) also says Diaz offered additional information on Oct. 1, when she told them that her husband’s gun hadn’t been in the holster, but in his lap in the car, to explain why it ended up under his body. The disposition statement does not mention any inconsistencies between the evidence and Centanni’s statement. Citing the family’s impending wrongful death civil suit against Centanni, the SAO declined to answer FW’s questions.
The disposition states that they “found no competent evidence” that Centanni was racist. It also appears to credit him for talking to police. “Importantly, Cetnanni’s [sic] voluntary statement was provided to the detectives on August 22, without knowing what, if any, evidence had been collected.” It notes that Centanni was a concealed weapons permit-holder, and says that in the event of a trial, Centanni could argue he was lawfully armed. Though Roberts also possessed a concealed weapons permit, the SAO says that marijuana found in the car and other evidence that points to him dealing the same precludes his lawful possession of a weapon.
“Centanni would also assert that the reason he actually armed himself was because he knew Roberts to be an armed drug-dealer,” the report states. “The strong link between firearms and drug-dealing is inescapable.”
Phillips likens the disposition report to “a map to the defense.” “They’ve spent so much time building him up and tearing Eli [Diaz] down in this public document that they’ve made it virtually impossible for him to ever be prosecuted in a justice system where that’s not required.”
WHO IS ENTITLED TO STAND THEIR GROUND?
The Stand Your Ground law removes the duty to retreat before using deadly force. To invoke it, one must be legally entitled to be in the place where they utilize such force. Many have complained that stand your ground effectively removes the burden of proving self-defense from the accused and requires prosecutors to prove before trial that a killing was not justified. Prosecutors have said that this makes their jobs more difficult and allows people to kill with impunity. George Zimmerman famously claimed that his 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin was justified under stand your ground. Though he did not deny targeting, following and killing Martin, an unarmed teenager, Zimmerman was acquitted of murder.
Though prosecutors say this is a case of self-defense, Roberts’ family is not convinced. To them and to others—such as the more than 50,000 people who signed a petition asking the SAO to charge Centanni—this is a stand your ground case. To them, this is a miscarriage of justice, of one man becoming fixated on another, initiating a confrontation, escalating it, killing his target, and hiding behind the law and the fact that the only person other than Centanni who knows precisely what happened is dead. And the dead cannot speak.
The Roberts case has parallels to the Martin case that extend beyond race. (Zimmerman, who is Latino, was widely reported to be white; Martin was black.) There, as here, the killer had profiled his victim as being a criminal. Zimmerman thought Martin was a thief; Centanni suspected Roberts of being a drug dealer. Neither killer was a member of law enforcement, but both may have had aspirations to become such—Zimmerman was part of a neighborhood watch and criminal justice student, Centanni also studies criminal justice, perhaps intending to follow in the footsteps of his stepfather, a police sergeant. There, as here, the only living eyewitness is the killer.
There are a few key differences between the cases, however. For one, both Centanni and Roberts were armed. The location of the shooting may also differ. Neither Zimmerman nor Martin was on their own property; Centanni claims the same. He told detectives that he was at least halfway across the street when he heard Roberts exit the vehicle. He said he turned around and saw a gun pointed at him. “I know that at one point he was in the street with me … his gun was so close to me I was able to hit it,” he said to detectives. He said that after slapping the gun away, he drew his own handgun from a makeshift pocket holster and quickly fired three times, hitting Roberts each time. If true, he would have been in the street when he fired. The evidence indicates close proximity; the ME found gunpowder stippling and bullet wipe around the entrance wound of the bullet that penetrated Roberts’ lung and perforated his right pulmonary artery, killing him, which indicates the weapon was likely fired within a few feet at most.
The location of Roberts’ body in police photos appears inconsistent with the shooting occurring in the road, as Centanni asserts. Photos show Roberts’ body right next to the SUV he was driving, partially on the sidewalk, but mostly in the grass on the property line between his and the neighboring house. Separating the sidewalk and the road is another strip of grass roughly two feet wide. There is a small amount of blood on the sidewalk beside him, but most is beneath and on Roberts. Nowhere in the police files FW reviewed, nor in the SAO’s disposition, does it state that his body was moved before being photographed. Centanni told police that Roberts fell immediately upon being shot, saying, “I’m basically running backwards while shooting, he’s falling backwards.” Detectives did not ask Centanni about this discrepancy; nor does the SAO disposition mention it.
Diaz told police that Centanni shot Roberts next to the car after a brief scuffle at the rear of the vehicle. When the detective asked, Centanni denied arguing with Roberts outside the vehicle prior to shooting him. Centanni does not appear to be injured in either police photos or video from the station that night; the ME’s report does not reference injuries on Roberts other than the gunshot wounds.
Further, police recovered two .40 caliber shell casings from the scene, believed to be from Centanni’s gun—both were in the grass northeast of Roberts’ feet. Spent gun casing trajectories vary widely, and depend on numerous factors. But when detectives asked Centanni where, based on his experience with the weapon, the casings should’ve fallen, Centanni, after saying that he hadn’t fired that gun in a long time, guessed that they would have fallen in the road. “If I’m right here, they would probably be somewhere by this arrow,” he said, adding that the road slopes, so the casings could’ve rolled downhill. As it is an audio recording, it is not clear where he was indicating, but Centanni had previously asked about the arrow police painted on the road right next to his driveway to assist with aerial photography and review of the images. The casings were on the other side of the road, the strip of grass and the sidewalk, in the yard by Roberts’ feet. Detectives did not ask Centanni about this potential discrepancy; nor does the SAO disposition mention it.
“The shell casings and the body and the bullet trajectories are inconsistent with him firing from a public place,” said Phillips. “He was on the grass and they kind of let that fly.”
“BUILDING THE MOUNTAIN”
Diaz and Centanni disagree on many points, but both do agree that, after weeks of silently escalating tensions between the men, Centanni approached Diaz’s mother, with whom Roberts, Diaz, and their 2-year-old daughter lived, along with her stepfather, and accused Roberts of selling drugs. “I told Keegan and Keegan felt a certain kind of way,” Diaz told FW, “’Cause he’s a man, Keegan’s a man, he could’ve came and talked to him personally.” She says she told Roberts to stop having people come by the house.
“For a while, he would drive down to the O’Reilly’s or to the park to do his thing,” Centanni told detectives. O’Reilly Auto Parts is nearly a half-mile away; the closest park is roughly the same distance in the opposite direction. Neither is within line of sight, but detectives did not ask how he knew this. Centanni told detectives that eventually, Roberts resumed having customers come by the house.
Around midnight on July 4, Roberts and a second man spotted Centanni taking a picture of the latter’s license plate. (Diaz told FW this happened about a week after the prior incident.) Roberts confronted him. The two exchanged words. Centanni told detectives that he cautioned Roberts. “I’m not trying to get the police involved and take you away from your family.” Early in the interview, he said that Roberts lifted his shirt to reveal a gun tucked into his waistband; later he said that Roberts pointed it at him. Detectives did not ask him about the discrepancy. Centanni also told them he said to Roberts, “Nobody needs to die over this.”
Centanni told detectives he called his stepfather, who advised him to report it, so he called police. He also reported his suspicions about Roberts’ drug-dealing. “[I] gave a slew of license plates I’d been taking down,” he said.
Shepard said afterward, her son told her that he had his “first enemy,” and she urged him to move his family in with her. Roberts refused. “I said, ‘Do I need to say something to him?’” she said. “… He said, ‘No, I just ignore him.’” Both Shepard and Diaz say that Roberts preferred to avoid conflict. Like Centanni has been characterized, those who knew Roberts describe him as friendly and polite.
Centanni told police he stopped speaking with Roberts after the incident and that, subsequently, their interactions were “just notes.” But he kept watching.
“Apparently he was logging every tag that came through,” Phillips said, adding that he believes Centanni was “infatuated with this family,” which speaks to his frame of mind that night.
“That’s not a useless fact; that shows a level of kind of building the mountain that added to the crescendo of what happened July 20,” he said.
Centanni told police that he saw Roberts throw a piece of trash on the ground the day before the shooting; the morning of July 20, it had blown into his yard. So he wrote on it, “Pick up your trash neighbor,” and put it back in Roberts’ yard. He says he later found it back in his yard. So he wrote another note and waited.
But he told detectives the issue really wasn’t about litter. “It wasn’t as big a deal about trash. All over trash. That note was to let him know I’m still alert, watching what he’s doing.”
DATE NIGHT TURNED DEADLY
It was supposed to be a special night for the couple who’d been high school sweethearts. “They were just two young kids in love, madly in love,” Shepard said. Together since 2010 and married since 2013, a few months after both graduated from Englewood High School, this was their first full night without their daughter since she had been born. They’d dropped the toddler off with Shepard, then gone to The Jacksonville Landing and strolled the Riverwalk. Diaz said that staring at the swirling surface of the St. Johns River made her husband feel sick, so they went home so he could use the bathroom.
They parked the car and were sitting there talking when someone knocked on the window. It was Centanni.
“He walked to Keegan’s driver’s side window and looked us both in the eye and is waving this little piece of plastic,” Diaz said. She said that Roberts opened the door because the window didn’t roll down—Centanni contests this, telling detectives that the window did roll down—and asked him what he was doing out there this time of night. She told FW he said, “I’m tired of you leaving this trash, trashing my neighborhood,” and that her husband told him to go away and leave them alone, then shut the door. Centanni, she said, didn’t budge.
“Michael’s still standing there staring at us,” she said. She said that Roberts opened the door a second time, told him to go away, then shut it again.
In Centanni’s interview with police, he said that he didn’t realize anyone was in the car when he walked over, intending to tape the plastic and second note to the window. Once he saw them inside, he decided to go through with it anyway. “What am I going to walk up, look like a weirdo, walk away?” he said.
When Roberts either rolled up the window or shut the door, Centanni taped the note to the driver’s side window, right at eye level.
Diaz said Roberts immediately got out of the car. Centanni said that he was at least halfway across the street by the time Roberts exited the vehicle. She says they exchanged words, then she heard shots. Centanni says that the moment he turned around, Roberts had a gun in his face.
He also said that Diaz came at him with a sword. She says he lied, telling FW, “I told everybody, I told the cops, if I would’ve pulled a sword out on him, I would’ve used it.” Police did recover large knives that could be described as swords from the car; nowhere do police reports state that Diaz was armed with a sword or anything else when they arrived.
Though he took a loaded weapon with one in the chamber—the way he always keeps his guns, Centanni said in his statement—he said he didn’t intend to confront them. “What I’m trying to relay to you is, no, I didn’t go over there for a confrontation, I went over there to leave a note on the vehicle,” he said. “After there was a confrontation, I ended this confrontation.”
ARMED AND DANGEROUS
The Trayvon Martin case caused increased scrutiny on stand your ground cases nationwide. Florida was the first state to pass such a law in 2005; the targeting and killing of the unarmed teen fit almost precisely with the worst-case scenario predicted by opponents. In a 2012 story about four such cases, CNN cited a 2007 study commissioned by the National District Attorneys Association. The study found that police and prosecutors were concerned that stand your ground laws could lead to what it called “an increasingly armed and trigger-happy citizenry.”
“Stand your ground is a solution looking for a problem, and this is one of those cases,” said Phillips.
As a Navy veteran and stepson of a cop, it’s not surprising that Centanni is a weapons enthusiast. Police photos from inside his home and vehicle show gun, after gun, after gun, spent shell casings, bullets—some boxed, others not—of various calibers, and other tools of violence. Photos show a holster mounted just beneath the ignition in his truck, as well as two axes, one with an elongated handle, behind the seat; in his bedroom, an assault rifle leans against the wall next to the bed. A pile of gun enthusiast magazines is stacked on a living room table. The SAO disposition states that he has no criminal record; his military record includes a reported battery on a fellow servicemember, but Centanni wasn’t disciplined and ultimately received an honorable discharge. FW found no evidence that anyone other than Centanni has accused Roberts of violence.
By all accounts, Centanni and Diaz’s parents were on good terms before Roberts, his wife and child moved in with them. He’d help her stepfather out, working on cars from time to time; Centanni told police he’d also given them rides to work. Phillips and Roberts’ family believe that when Roberts moved in and Centanni started noticing what he assumed was drug activity, he began an extrajudicial investigation. In Centanni’s statement, he said he was concerned that Roberts was putting others in the neighborhood in jeopardy.
“It’s only going to take one strung-out idiot to come over there without drug money who’s going to try to rob him of his drugs … [and] hit one of the kids,” he said.
Since July 20, Centanni has called police on his neighbors at least twice; once, on the day before Veterans Day, when a reporter observed two officers respond to his home during an early morning prayer vigil for Roberts. In his 911 call, Centanni says that chants of “justice or else” led him to fear for his safety, construing “or else” as a threat to him. Phillips told FW that on Dec. 8, he called police on a process server parked at Diaz’s house.
Though Centanni claims otherwise, Roberts’ family and attorney believe that he intended to pick a fight that night. Otherwise, they wonder, why did he wait for them to return before leaving the second note? And after he saw that the car was occupied, why did he knock on the window, particularly if he was, as he previously claimed, afraid of Roberts? What was his frame of mind? Was he intoxicated? Police photos from that night show empty beer cans in his house. Diaz said that he’s drunk “all the time.” Police performed no toxicology test on him that night, nor did detectives ask if he’d been drinking. Intoxication could call into question the reasonableness of Centanni’s perception of a threat. The ME report states that Roberts had marijuana and opiates in his system; police reports state that there was a strong smell of marijuana in his car.
Roberts’ family also believes that law enforcement has given Centanni preferential treatment, while treating Roberts and Diaz like suspects. They believe police failed to thoroughly investigate whether Centanni targeted Roberts, or if his knowledge of the law gave him unique understanding of the elements of self-defense. In his statement, Centanni mentioned that he turned to his stepfather for advice after the shooting. “He actually worked homicide and narcotics and all the stuff, he’s been pretty helpful,” he said, referencing the killing. Detectives did not ask what advice his stepfather gave him.
Many have wondered whether race was a factor in the investigation. “Based upon the facts, I can’t take race out of the equation,” Phillips said. “… The other side of it is, black male who sold pot versus white veteran who wrapped himself around the second amendment and the flag.”
A 2015 study published in the journal Social Science and Medicine that examined 204 stand your ground cases in Florida found that, after accounting for variables, defendants were twice as likely to be convicted if their victim was white, compared to if the victim was nonwhite. “These results are similar to pre-civil rights era statistics, with strict enforcement for crimes when the victim was white and less-rigorous enforcement with the victim is nonwhite,” the researchers wrote.
The night of the shooting, police put Diaz in the back of a patrol car where she couldn’t see what was happening with her husband. She told FW that when medical personnel rolled a gurney away without Roberts on it, she started screaming and punching the window; she says an officer then threatened to arrest her. Subsequently, she was taken to the station, where she was interviewed for hours, she says, until seven o’clock in the morning, going over and over what happened—much of it without being told whether her husband had survived. Centanni was released just after seven a.m.
Meanwhile, officers were busy collecting evidence from both their cars and residences. Diaz said someone put a search consent form in front of her at the station, telling her they needed to see her husband’s gun box. She signed it, thinking that was all they wanted. “When I get home, my room is completely upside-down. They pulled the drawers out, everything from underneath the bed … they just wrecked my entire room,” she said.
Phillips believes that law enforcement may be using evidence from this case to go after others associated with Roberts, and wonders whether the evidence of him selling marijuana may have influenced the investigation. “Now you’re using a dead guy to prosecute up the chain for a drug deal?” he said. “… I have problems with that.” Among the 900 photos in the police file that FW reviewed for this story are images from Roberts’ SUV and bedroom, showing marijuana, paraphernalia for smoking marijuana, digital scales, baggies, a book on growing marijuana, blunts and cash. Just over a pound of marijuana was found in their car.
But Roberts selling pot does not justify Centanni’s conduct, Phillips says. He says Centanni had no authority to investigate his neighbor, and that, depending on the level of his fixation, his actions could rise to criminal stalking. He believes Centanni should have been charged. “This to me is a manslaughter case with murder potential if there was a level of premeditation,” he said.
Only two people could have known what happened in the seconds leading up the deadly shooting on the Southside on the night of July 20, 2017. And one of those people, Keegan Von Roberts, is dead.
“No independent eyewitnesses to the shooting exist,” the SAO’s disposition reads. “There is no surveillance video that captured the shooting. We are left with what Centanni said happened and what the physical evidence shows.”