ELKHART — Dustin McKee, 31, Elkhart, was found guilty of the 2021 murder of 38-year-old Brandon Lowe, his former roommate, and unlawful possession of a firearm, by jury trial Wednesday evening after a three-day trial.
As the jury deliberated, McKee pleaded guilty to unlawful possession of a firearm by a serious violent felon, level four felony, and unlawful use of a firearm, an enhancement.
“This is complicated by the fact that count one is murder, a felony, with has a non-suspendable 45 years, the enhancement of which is 20 years,” Elkhart County Circuit Judge Michael Christofeno told McKee. “If you’re found guilty and the plea is put in place on either one of those, there are no terms to that plea. Sometimes we call it, ‘Let the chips fall where they may.’”
Sentencing is scheduled for Feb. 23.
McKee took the stand Wednesday for the first time in the three-day-long trial ahead of the verdict. He recounted he’d been released from parole following a domestic battery charge against his father ahead of the Aug. 25 shooting.
He’d been staying at the Desmos House of Indiana, a non-profit organization that provides transitional housing and support services to men and women who have been recently released from incarceration, in South Bend. Executive Director of Desmos House said McKee had moved out first March 15, 2021, but moved back in April 3, and back out July 23. He’d gotten a house apartment and was working 10-hour shifts at his job when Lowe had been kicked out of where he was staying.
McKee and Lowe met at Desmos House in 2020 and became friends.
“We didn’t see eye-to-eye all the time, but we got along,” McKee said.
In April, Lowe moved out of the group home and to Elkhart. McKee said when he left Desmos House for the final time, he decided to move to Elkhart, and, knowing Lowe also lived in Elkhart at the time, they started hanging out again. When Lowe was kicked out of his place, he asked McKee if he could move in with him.
Lowe was still on probation on the day of the shooting.
“I invited him over to hang out occasionally then he got kicked out of his old roommate's house and he was living at a hotel and about to get kicked out there,” McKee told the Jury.
McKee explained that Lowe was asking to move in with him so he agreed. He was even attempting to get Lowe onto the lease, and Lowe had agreed to help pay for food but hadn’t begun yet. He’d been staying at McKee’s one-bedroom apartment home a week and a half at the time of the shooting. Lowe regularly used McKee’s electric scooter to get to work, and McKee got a ride to his job.
McKee indicated that he got home between 4 and 5 p.m. Lowe was already home. Later, McKee went to the liquor store and bought rum. Lowe already had his own beer, and the two men were drinking throughout the evening.
McKee said Lowe was angry and telling McKee that he had to go buy blinds for the living room. He explained that Lowe could have made the trip to the store himself, and McKee didn’t want to drive because he had been drinking.
The argument evolved into a physical confrontation. Lowe lunged at him so he started throwing punches and the altercation turned into a wrestling match. During cross-examination, Prosecutor Lucas Shoemake confirmed through McKee that the initial fight was started by McKee, after Lowe made a gesture that made McKee think Lowe was going to strike him.
“I had quite a bit of physical damage to my front, back, face,” McKee said.
At the time, Lowe weighed about 90 pounds more than him and McKee said he was confident he lost the fight.
In police photos from the early morning hours of Aug. 26, there’s a noticeable cut above his eyebrow, cuts and bruises behind the ear, a large lump on his forehead, many bruises and scratches across his back, shoulders, neck, and waist, and injuries to elbows and knees. McKee asserts that the injuries came during the fight that evening. McKee said he was taken to the ground during the fight, and claims marks to his neck were caused due to being choked as Lowe had placed him in a headlock.
McKee said after the fight, he went to his bedroom, but Lowe started getting aggressive again, so he called 911 on his cell phone to have Lowe removed from his property.
Elkhart City Police Corporal Jason Tripp explained the call.
“He calls us out there wanting his roommate removed," Tripp said. "I’m speaking with him. I’m trying to establish what exactly the relation was… He kept going back and forth on this stuff.”
Tripp was one of the officers that went to the initial call at 424 N. Michigan St.
On Tripp’s bodycam, McKee could be seen telling officers that he didn’t want Lowe to go to jail although they had been drinking, and that he just wanted him out. Tripp told him it seemed like Low was starting to establish residency at the location.
McKee also acknowledged that he’d initially refused to tell 911 the name of the person he was calling about because he knew that Lowe was on probation and believed if they’d been drinking and fighting, Lowe, at least, would most certainly be arrested. When police arrived, he and Lowe both told them there was no physical fight.
Police told them to remain separated until they sobered up the next day, and even had Lowe agree to move out that Friday. Tripp said it was their only recourse for the house call. Then officers left. McKee said he stayed in his bedroom after the police left, but Lowe kept approaching him.
“He was ****** off because I called the cops on him and I wanted to kick him out,” he explained.
He closed his door but left it cracked because, he said, the only air conditioner in the house was in his bedroom and he didn’t want Lowe to be too hot in the living room.
“After the cops left without taking him out, is when I got the gun out of the dresser,” McKee recalled. “I bought a kit, as everybody knows, online, and I had it put together just in case I had to defend myself.”
He was sitting on the edge of his bed looking at his phone.
“He was talking to me from the doorway — he was standing in the doorway,” McKee said. “He was basically demanding my moped scooter so he could get to work the next day.”
McKee told him no, due to the incident earlier in the day. Lowe eventually entered the room.
“The way he came in was more of an aggressive demeanor so I showed him I had the gun and he left the room and I closed (the door) and locked it,” McKee explained.
When asked why he kept the gun nearby and loaded, McKee explained to Shoemake that he’d already been attacked once, and Lowe had already entered the room once, so he had reason to believe it could happen again.
“If he knows you have a gun and he enters your room, you know he’s not there to shake hands,” McKee said.
McKee told the Jury that Lowe continued to knock at the door, asking for the key to the scooter, which McKee continued to refuse, claiming that he did actually plan on giving him the key before work the next morning — he just didn’t want to engage with him at the time. Lowe was also making phone calls in the living room including calls to his uncle and Stancati.
“I didn’t know that they were living together,” she said during testimony.
She told the Jury that she talked to Lowe more than once a week, but not McKee. She didn’t know about the alcohol in Lowe’s system at the time.
“I had no idea (they were living together), and so when I found out during this phone call I said Uber to work, I’m going to pick you up and bring you home," she said.
They talked for about 15 minutes, she recalled, and Stancati said she believed Lowe left the conversation feeling better than when he’d called her distraught.
“I went to bed expecting for a phone call after his first break (at work) and I was going to pick him up and he was going to move back into Desmos,” she asserted.
Lowe also called McKee’s phone several times until McKee blocked his number. He told the jury he didn’t remember getting other calls, such as one made by Lowe’s uncle, but acknowledged that his phone may have been on silent.
“He forced his way into the bedroom, that’s when I got the gun back out, chambered it around and that’s when I started shooting,” McKee said. “I heard the door get forced open and I seen him standing there. I thought he kicked it open. I don’t know how he opened it, but it was by force.”
McKee said he started shooting the semi-automatic handgun, unsure of how many shots he’d fired, adding that he stopped within a second, after he realized Lowe had gone down. Forensics indicated that the gun jammed at some point during the evening, but it’s unclear whether it jammed as shots were fired, or when McKee threw the gun onto the sidewalk outside.
“I wish I had just turned him into the cops to have him get arrested,” he said during his testimony.
When asked, McKee said that he didn’t ever think that Lowe would force open the door, and he knew Lowe was unarmed. He claimed he simply didn’t have time to think, with the bed where he was seated 6.5 feet from the doorway, according to the later police investigation of the bedroom. He was in shock, angry, and scared.
When asked by Shoemaker during cross-examination, why he didn’t try to call the police a second time McKee told the Jury he didn’t have a reason to call.
“What would I have told them? ‘Oh, he’s knocking on my door and calling my phone?’” McKee said.
Shoemake asked why the answers were different during the two times he was interviewed by police.
“My memory of the incident isn’t nearly as clear as I thought it was,” he said. “I was trying to piece (things) together in my mind as best I could.”
He admitted that he was going by what other witnesses had said and had little independent recollection of the evening. In both his first and second interviews, he told detectives he shot Lowe in an open doorway.
“Maybe I thought it was open because he forced it open,” he said.
Elkhart County Homicide Detective Lieutenant Matt Walsh twice returned on the third day of the trial to testify.
“There is no damage to that door that would be consistent with it being forced open,” Walsh directed. According to Walsh, evidence — that of blood stains on both the door and the surrounding trim — suggested was closed during the incident. Investigators experimented with a variety of ways to open, slam, and force the door open and claimed that McKee’s argument that the door being locked, but forced open was unlikely.
Former Goshen Police Officer Nick McCloughen, who assisted the Elkhart County Homicide Unit, told the Jury certain evidence did not line up with McKee’s testimony, such as the fact that the door was locked.
“Part of our team had went back and checked to see if there was damage to the door frame,” McCloughen said. “There did not appear to be any.”
McCloughen also said Lowe’s claimed positioning did not make sense based on the bullet trajectory, and did not gain indication from McKee during interviews following the shooting that he did fear for his life.
“I specifically asked if he was afraid for his life and he said ‘I was afraid I was going to get my ass kicked,’” McCloughen recalled.
Joseph Prahlow, a forensic pathologist and professor of pathology at the Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine at Western University told Jurors that he and his cohorts determined many facts revolving around the shooting including the positioning of Lowe upon shooting. He told the jury that one bullet entered and exited the body near the left shoulder, exited and re-exited through the throat, found in the chest cavity, and declared that bullets would have been shot downward to create the pathway.
In McKee’s defense, Majerek argued that the directionality of the gunshot wounds could have also been caused if McKee was standing on the nightstand or the bed, but Shoemake argued it could have also been Lowe sitting on the floor and that the case relied on the credibility of the witnesses, claiming that his lack on consistency in his testimony proved he wasn’t to believed and wasn’t consistent with the other evidence.
“That door being shut blows the defendant’s case out of the water,” Ashley Fair, Deputy Prosecuting Attorney for Elkhart County Prosecutor's Office, said.
She admitted the case is unique because McKee acknowledged that he shot Lowe and that the gun was his.
“The elements of murder are not in dispute,” she added.