RILEY COUNTY, Kan. (WIBW) -- A Manhattan man faces 24 years in prison in connection with a deadly shooting along a dirt road in Riley County.
Michael Blake Layne, 20, entered a plea of no contest to reduced charges in Riley County District Court on Tuesday, November 6 in connection with the murder of Steven Freel, 31, last December. Freel, a father of five, was from Topeka but family members say he was staying in Manhattan at the time of his death.
Layne took a plea deal with the state and was found guilty by Judge Meryl Wilson on charges of Second Degree Intentional Murder, Aggravated Robbery and Kidnapping. He was originally charged with First Degree Premeditated Murder and a slew of other charges and his trial was set to start in December but he has opted not to let his case be heard by a jury.
Freel’s body was found at 11 AM on December 7, 2011 in the 5400 block of North 48th Street, just north of Manhattan. A passerby found him on the dirt road and called police. Detectives say an autopsy showed that Freel had died from a .45 caliber gunshot wound to the upper right chest. It is believed he was killed the day before his body was discovered. According to police, a .45 caliber casing was later found during a search warrant at Layne’s house on Pottawatomie Court.
Riley County investigators say Layne admitted to the deadly shooting but claims he did it to protect himself. Layne told investigators that Freel was at his house on December 6, 2011 with a .22 caliber handgun looking to buy another gun and Layne told him to get in the car so they could go to a friend’s house to get a weapon. Layne said that he was just going to drop Freel off somewhere and pulled down the dirt road and told Freel to get out. But when Freel got out of the car, Layne thought he was reaching for the .22 caliber gun and shot him. Layne took the gun from Freel’s pocket and tossed it in Tuttle Creek, police said.
Prosecutors say Layne and Freel had been committing robberies together and that the investigation into the crimes was starting to heat up after police convicted two other people the men had been working with. Assistant Riley County Attorney Barry Disney says Layne became paranoid that Freel would talk to authorities and panicked, killing him.
Authorities say after Layne shot Freel, he drove away, leaving Freel on the side of the road to die. Layne later told several people what had happened and when his friend’s didn’t believe him, detectives say he drove them back out to the dirt road to show them Freel’s body.
Layne's plea comes on the heels of a guilty verdict in the trial for his former "boss."
Domingo “Diablo” Soto, 42, was convicted last Wednesday of Aiding and Abetting First Degree Murder for the part he played in Freel's death.
Soto admitted to lending his gun to Layne, who sold drugs for him.
Layne asked Soto if he could borrow his pistol so he could kill Freel, the state maintains.
Prosecutors say Soto gave his gun to Layne, knowing that it would be used to murder him.
Soto told police he didn’t think Layne would actually go through with the killing when he gave him the weapon.
Soto was also found guilty of Possession of Cocaine With the Intent to Distribute, Possession of Methamphetamine With the Intent to Distribute and Possession of Marijuana. His sentencing has been set for December 17th at 3:30 PM.
Layne, meanwhile, is scheduled to be sentenced on December 19th at 1:15 PM at the Riley County Courthouse. Disney says both the prosecution and defense have "agreed to jointly recommend" a prison sentence of 287 months, or 24 years.
Disney says the plea deal provides "certainty" in the case and Layne waived his rights to any appeals.