A months-long investigation reveals overlooked details after two central Indiana women went out in downtown Indianapolis and ended up dead.
INDIANAPOLIS (FOX59) — Anger and frustration. You can feel it from the words and emotions of two families of young moms who recently died. They claim the investigation into the deaths of the women overlooked key details. Working together, FOX59 and the IndyStar have uncovered lapses in the investigation that may mean the full story will remain unknown.
For three months, our two news organizations spent months talking with witnesses, scouring public records, and piecing together the events that led to the deaths of Courtney Smith and Chelsea McKinney. We have also identified missed opportunities to get more answers about exactly what happened.
We begin in downtown Indianapolis where Smith and McKinney spent the last night of their lives.
A night out
Smith and McKinney were friends since high school. The two were single mothers raising young children. Smith had three. Chelsea had two. Their lives were busy but remained close.
On the night of May 21st, they were going out to separate birthday celebrations with the same destination in mind, a stretch of South Meridian Street which features several popular bars.
Courtney Smith was with a small group of family members for her cousin’s birthday.
“We all had matching t-shirts,” said Brittany Smith.
On the drive downtown, those in the Smith party sang along to blaring hip-hop songs. They arrived around 10 p.m. and set out to have a fun time.
“We were taking shots and then just doing what we always do,” explained Tiffany Smith, Courtney’s sister.
Chelsea McKinney was spending the evening celebrating the birthday of a friend.
“She was kinda excited to go out because she didn’t go out very often,” explained Brittany McKinney, Chelsea’s sister.
At the bars
For both birthday parties, most of the night was spent at two downtown bars: Tiki Bob’s and Taps & Dolls. And while the parties started out indifferent locations, they got together and hung out as a group.
Photos from Chelsea McKinney’s phone show a series of selfies, often with a cousin in the background.
There were also videos of the Smith party singing and dancing to the music being played and one light-hearted disagreement about drinks.
But there was more than just drinking going on.
A witness describes Smith and McKinney using cocaine in the women’s restroom at Tiki Bob’s. Months later, IMPD would tell the families of the women it suspects the women used cocaine more than once that night.
As the final hour before closing time rolled around, some of the women partying with Smith and McKinney were ready to call it a night.
In a video shared with FOX59, you can see Courtney Smith telling her sister and cousin she was going to stay.
“She was drunk. She had her annoying drunk voice, and I was like, ‘Go back in and party. I’m fine’,” said Tiffany Smith.
At the end of the night, it was the two long-time friends together, but they had company.
Chelsea McKinney’s SUV was parked in a ramp close to the concentration of South Meridian Street bars.
After the taverns closed at 3 a.m., it was McKinney, Courtney Smith, and a man inside the ramp. A witness said McKinney was behind the wheel at first, but when she tried to exit the parking spot, she hit a column.
After assessing the damage, the man with them got behind the wheel with Smith and McKinney now both as passengers.
FOX59 knows the man’s name but is not disclosing it at this time, because he has not been charged in connection with the deaths of Smith and McKinney and it appears unlikely, he ever will be.
But that man is a central figure in this story and is the last known person to see the women alive.
At 3:58 am, McKinney’s phone captures a photo of herself and the man. Both are smiling. The setting appears to be the same location the man would record a Snapchat video, about four blocks south on South Meridian between West Henry and West Merrill Streets.
This is where the man’s car was parked. In the video, he laughingly points out both women are now unconscious. Smith is seated in the front passenger seat of McKinney’s SUV. McKinney is sprawled, face-down in the back seat of the man’s car. He jostles both, and pulls on McKinney’s leg but there is no response from either woman. The video ends and eventually both women wind up in the man’s home on the west side of Indianapolis.
Missing that morning
By late morning on May 22nd, the families of the women knew something was wrong.
Courtney Smith missed a tumbling class with one daughter and cheer practice with the other daughter.
“She never misses a Sunday,” explained Katina Latham, Smith’s mother.
“Then I blew up Courtney’s phone texting her, ‘Hey, what’s wrong? I’m worried about you.’ “
The same questions were being asked about Chelsea McKinney.
“My mom asked me, ‘Did you talk to your sister?’ I said no,” said sister Brittany McKinney.
Brittany immediately began working her phone calling, texting, and messaging everyone she could think of who might know where Chelsea was.
Eventually, she got a name, a phone number and two screenshots. The images were of the two women. McKinney was on a sofa and Smith was laying on the floor. A friend had just finished a video chat with the man who had brought the women to his home.
Relieved, Brittany McKinney texted the man and was soon on her way to get her sister and her sister’s friend.
The address was on Patricia Street, a neighborhood Brittany McKinney was unfamiliar with and was hoping the women would be outside when she pulled up.
They were not.
Brittany was invited in to collect the women, but as a nurse, she quickly discovered the awful truth.
Brittany quickly checked on Courtney Smith and discovered she was also dead.
The man called 911.
Man: “I need an ambulance… please. 4008 Patricia Street.”
911 Operator: “What the problem there today?”
Man: “I think one of our friends are dead.”
911 Operator: “Are they awake?”
911 Operator: “How many people are not awake?”
Man: “Two of them.”
911 Operator: “Can we start C-P-R on them?”
Man: “No. They’re real cold. I don’t know how to do this.”
911 Operator: “Are you willing to do it if I give you instructions?”
Brittany McKinney: “I’m a nurse. I’m telling you she’s dead.”
The radio call to responding IMPD officers indicated this was a “possible DOA times two.”
Soon, six officers were on the scene. Shortly after, members of the Smith and McKinney families arrived quickly got the impression the investigation was already over.
Chelsea McKinney’s mother Kelly Bryan said, “They believed this was a possible drug overdose and that these girls did drugs, and this is what happens.”
“They handed me her purse that had her phone in it, her jewelry and some lipstick and that was it,” said Katina Latham, the mother of Courtney Smith.
With the loss so fresh, neither family was willing to accept the women were overdose victims. And it bugged the families that police were not asking questions of them or anyone at the scene. Quickly, the focus of the families shifted to the man who had called 911. It was his house where the women were discovered dead. Who was this man?
“He never looked me in the face. He never said a word to me,” said Bryan.
Bryan noticed that the man was wearing an electronic monitor around his ankle. There was another piece of publicly available information that it appears officers on the scene were not aware of… the man was also awaiting trial for rape.
Late to the Coroner’s Office
Kelly Bryan refused to accept the suggestion that her daughter had become just another person killed in a drug overdose. So, she called an IMPD homicide detective she knew and filled him in about the ankle monitor and the pending trial for the man where Chelsea McKinney and her friend were declared dead.
Bryan was convincing enough that another detective was dispatched to the Marion County Coroner’s Office. That day autopsies were scheduled for Chelsea McKinney and Courtney Smith. Evidence collection during an autopsy only happens when a police officer is present and requests it. The detective was sent to ensure a sexual assault examination was done on both bodies, but he arrived late. McKinney’s autopsy was completed eliminating the chance to collect viable evidence. Smith’s body was examined for possible sexual assault evidence. IMPD has not stated publicly the results of that testing.
Both women were also tested for a variety of drugs. Each came back positive for alcohol and cocaine use. Also, substantial amounts of fentanyl were found in the systems of the women. Toxicology experts, we spoke with say the fentanyl dose was so large it is likely the women were dead within minutes.
McKinney also tested positive for GHB, referred to as the “date rape drug.” The testing sample for Smith became corrupted, so she could not be tested for the drug.
In conversations with members of IMPD, the Smith and McKinney families have recently been told the man whose house the women were found in is unlikely to face criminal charges. The families have also been told the police investigation has pivoted, focusing now on drug sales.
None of this satisfies the families, who still have questions.
“It’s like all I think about is why? and how? and who? I can’t believe this,” said Katina Latham.
“I just want the truth, said Kelly Bryan.