INDIANAPOLIS — A woman grieving the shooting deaths of her son and granddaughter is now trying to come to grips with news that one of the accused is a longtime family friend whom the 7-year-old victim affectionately called "Uncle Mike."
Michael Bell, 21, played high school football with Jeremy Crane and spent many weekends at the Crane family's ranch-style home in suburban Indianapolis. The family stood by Bell even during his 2008 trial for raping a classmate, which ended in an acquittal.
On Wednesday, Bell and another man were formally charged in the deaths of Crane, 21, and his niece, Kyleigh Crane.
Cathy Crane, Jeremy's mother and Kyleigh's grandmother, found the bodies Dec. 12 after returning home from work. She said family members had not had any falling out with Bell and are stunned about his alleged involvement in the killings.
"We're not taking it very well," she said, her voice cracking.
Bell and Jeremy Priel, 25, were scheduled to be arraigned Thursday on two counts of murder, two counts of felony murder, one count of robbery and two handgun-related charges. Neither man has been assigned an attorney.
Prosecutor Terry Curry said Bell gave a statement to police that places both Bell and Priel in the Crane's house the day of the killings. However, Curry said authorities are awaiting the results of a forensic test to help determine which of the suspects fired the fatal shots.
For now, each man is pointing at the other, giving conflicting versions of what happened, Cumberland Police Chief Michael Crooke said.
A probable cause affidavit filed Wednesday along with the formal charges says a surveillance camera filmed the pair boarding a city bus not long after the slayings. One of the men is seen trying to wipe his prints off of a gun, according to the filing.
The affidavit states that a 9-millimeter handgun used in the slayings was found in the home of one of Bell's aunts, in a bedroom used by a woman witnesses said Bell was romantically involved with.
One man carried a loaded backpack onto the bus and the other a jumble of bulky items wrapped in a blanket, authorities allege. Police believe the backpack and blanket were filled with electronic games and other items stolen from the Crane's ranch-style home.
Prosecutors allege Bell showed little emotion as he watched television reports of the killings from his aunt's house, according to witness statements.
Cathy Crane said her son and Bell met in the eighth-grade and became close friends who later played on the same high school football team. They spent weekends together horsing around at she and her husband David's home in Cumberland, a town on Indianapolis' far east side where urban sprawl gives way to farm fields.
The family provided Bell unwavering support during his rape trial, she said. He was also charged with criminal confinement, battery, criminal trespass and criminal mischief in two separate cases in 2009 and 2019, but all those charges were dismissed, prosecutor's office spokeswoman Brienne Delaney said.
Bell remained close after high school and even lived with the Crane family for a few months this year, moving out a couple months ago.
He was such a part of the family that David and Cathy Crane's two grandchildren — Kyleigh and her 5-year-old brother Brayden — saw him as an uncle.
"He'd been around since the day they were born," Cathy Crane said. "Whenever they would show up for a visit and I said 'Uncle Mike is here,' they'd run inside to see him."
On the day of murders, she said her son had the day off from work at a cafeteria. He picked up Kyleigh — who was off sick from school — at his brother's house and brought them home to watch her for the day.
"They were two beautiful people taken from this earth. A gorgeous 7-year-old little girl with bright red hair and big smile that would melt her heart. And an uncle who loved her, who loved his nephew, his mom and dad and did anything for his brother," she said.
Tom Scott, a chaplain with local police who led a prayer vigil last week at Cumberland Christian Church, said it's the most difficult crime aftermath in which he's ever had to try to comfort relatives.
With the killings happening so close to Christmas, he said a Christmas tree was set up in the funeral home and Kyleigh was buried with a toy she dreamed of getting but never received in life.
"Christmas was very much part of the funeral. Kyleigh was buried with a Nintendo 3DS that she'd always wanted," he said.