Mike Smith traded in a life of crime for stand-up comedy — or did he?
The Lodge of Overland Park is a run-of-the-mill suburban apartment complex that sits just north of Interstate 435, between that highway’s Metcalf and Antioch exits. Despite its proximity to heavy traffic, the place feels isolated, tucked away down a winding road and bounded on its western and northern edges by Indian Creek. The property is vast — more than 30 squat, beige-and-brown buildings spread across several acres — and outside the units on the southernmost end, you can hear, but not see, cars whooshing down 435. Billy Jo Goodface says she was talking on the phone outside one of these units on the afternoon of Thursday, February 2, 2017, when she heard gunfire in the apartment where she was staying. As Goodface backed away toward the stairwell to flee, she saw a man she would later identify as Michael Collins Smith emerge from the apartment. He had a gun in his hand, she says, and when he saw her, he turned and started firing it at her.
“I looked at him, and he looked at me, and I screamed, No! And I ran and yelled for help,” Goodface testified at a preliminary hearing in August. She hid behind some cars in a parking lot and called the police. Asked if the shooter was still on the scene, Goodface told the 911 dispatcher that she wasn’t sure. The call was then disconnected.
Goodface says that when she exited the apartment, there were three people inside: Goodface’s 3-month-old granddaughter, Kalahni; Anthony Shuster, 28, father of Kalahni and fiancé of Goodface’s daughter, Kayla; and Smith. Goodface frequently stayed at the apartment to help take care of Kalahni, and she had seen Smith before. She knew him as Shuster’s barber, and lately he’d been coming by to cut Shuster’s hair at the apartment. She passed him in the doorway on her way outside, she says. He was carrying a large black duffel bag.
When police arrived at the Lodge, Smith wasn’t there. A baby’s wail and the smell of burnt marijuana greeted two officers as they entered Shuster’s apartment, where they saw a large jar of marijuana on the mantle. In the living room, they found Shuster lying on his left side, the lining in the right front pocket of his pants turned inside-out. He’d suffered six gunshot wounds to the body and two blunt-force injuries to the face. He was dead. Six inches from Shuster’s limp hand, Kalahni squealed atop a bloody rug. One of the officers scooped her up and carried her outside into the late-winter air.
For the past 15 years, Mike Smith has worked as a standup comic and lived in Kansas City. He performed often at the two top comedy venues in the area — Stanford & Sons and the Improv — and he regularly toured Midwest comedy clubs: the Loony Bin, in Little Rock, the Funny Bone, in Des Moines, places like that. You might recognize him from his occasional guest appearances on the local morning show KC Live! About a decade ago, Smith appeared on BET’s ComicView, which showcases up-and-coming black comedians.
A trope Smith often returned to in his act was his own troubled past. Now 47 years old, Smith grew up in Wyandotte County and attended Sumner Academy. After high school, he fell into a life of crime — “robbing dope boys and getting into trouble,” as he has described it on various bios online. He served a decade in prison for aggravated robbery and unlawful firearm possession and was released on parole in 2000. Smith soon began pursuing a career in comedy. He viewed standup, friends say, as an opportunity for redemption.
“I met Mike probably around 2002, when he was just starting out,” says Will Clifton, a local comic who goes by the stage name Will C. “He was bouncing back from prison and trying to take his life in a positive direction. Early on, he was mining his experiences in prison for his act, which — I think, as a result of that, there was a little bit of an edge to his act that you didn’t see very much around here.”
Elliott Threatt, also a black comic based in Kansas City, describes Smith as a confrontational performer, with an alpha-male energy.
“I remember early on him asking me if I thought he should use the N-word in his set,” Threatt recalls. “And I said absolutely not. I never use that word, and I don’t think it belongs anywhere, comedy included. And then I see him go up onstage and he’s saying it over and over. He was kind of his own guy, in that way.”
Though Threatt and Smith’s styles diverged — Threatt works clean, Smith blue — he says Smith nevertheless found ways to connect with the predominantly white comedy audiences in the Midwest.
“You go to Fargo, and there’s not a lot of minorities in the crowd up there, you know?” Threatt says. “And Mike would take the stage to rap music and talk about his past. And I’m watching, thinking, These North Dakotans are not going to be able to relate. But then he would kill. His swagger and confidence got him over.”
Craig Glazer, owner of Stanford & Sons, says he saw in Smith’s crossover appeal a potential worth pursuing in Hollywood.
“This is not some schmoe comedian we’re talking about,” Glazer says. “I always thought Mike had the skills and the talent and the unique perspective to move to L.A. and break out. I would always tell him, You could be in the same league as guys like Katt [Williams] and [Kevin] Hart, but it ain’t gonna happen if you stick around KC. But he had two little boys he was raising [Smith shared custody of them with his ex], and he was dedicated to them. He didn’t feel that moving to L.A. was an option.”
Comedians who opt not to light out for the coasts have limited earning potential. At the traditional clubs in which Smith primarily worked, a hierarchy exists. A typical show includes three performers: an opener, a featured act and the headliner. Average pay for an opener — often a comic just starting out — hovers around $150 for a week’s worth of shows (Thursday through Sunday, two shows each night). Pay for a featured act varies: $250 on the low end, $600 for more experienced performers. A headliner’s pay depends on his or her level of fame; a comic with name recognition who regularly appears on TV can command several thousand dollars for a week of shows, whereas somebody more local and less well-known might receive only $1,000 or $1,500 to headline.
“If you feature, you can maybe travel regionally and do one-off shows, but the pay is not great and you’re on your own dime, trying to figure out whether to get a hotel or crash at somebody’s place or sleep in your car,” Clifton says. “Then you get to be a headliner and at first you think you’re on top of the world, but there’s only so many clubs and they’ll only book you once a year, maybe twice. For example, I headline Stanford’s twice a year, and the Improv maybe once a year. There are thousands of comics trying to get these gigs.”
“Touring is really tough because the money is the same as it was 20 years ago, but everything else — the price of gas, hotels, whatever — is way more expensive,” Threatt says. “That’s why almost everybody has some kind of side hustle, whether it’s Uber or acting or serving in a restaurant.”
Smith’s hustle — one of them, at least — was cutting hair, a skill he’d picked up while in prison. He barbered at Milan for Hair, a salon off 80th Street and Parallel Parkway, in Kansas City, Kansas. Among his loyal customers there was Anthony Shuster, who’d been coming to Smith for cuts from the time he was a teenager until the day Smith allegedly killed him.
Like Smith, Shuster was a child of Wyandotte County. He grew up near 84th Street and Leavenworth Road. He played varsity football and basketball at Washington High School, and his mother, Toni Maltbia, says college football scouts were recruiting him until his thigh bone was snapped in half during a senior-year football game. He dropped out of school shortly thereafter.
Maltbia says that, at the time of his death, Shuster was “no longer in the streets.” She says that, during the early years of this decade, her son was part of a rap scene that would sometimes congregate at now-closed establishments such as America’s Pub, in Westport, and Balanca’s, in the Crossroads. In 2012, Shuster was convicted in Wyandotte County of possession with intent to sell a depressant; he received probation. In 2014, Shuster was shot in the face outside a gas station in Kansas City, Kansas. He had several reconstructive surgeries for the injury but ultimately lost vision in his right eye.
“He was living that life — doing music, going to clubs, out in the streets — and that [getting shot] scared the shit out of him,” Maltbia says. “He never went back to the apartment he was living in at the time. By the time he got out of the hospital, they [Shuster and Robinson, his girlfriend] had a new place in Shawnee. Anthony wouldn’t go back to KCK after that. He wouldn’t even come visit me in Missouri.”
Life in Johnson County was quieter but not without incident. In 2015, Shuster was arrested and pleaded guilty to charges of criminal destruction of property and obstruction of justice, receiving a year of probation. Not long after, Robinson became pregnant; the child would be Shuster’s third. (He had two other children with different mothers.) Unemployed, he spent time promoting his younger brother’s musical endeavors and dabbling in hip-hop himself.
“He encouraged those around him to follow their dreams, and if he could help, he would,” recalls a cousin of Shuster’s, Falysha Andersen. “And he was dedicated to his three kids more than anything else.”
Before he died, Shuster recorded a video for his song “Rain,” under the stage name Bandoe. In it, he wears a flat-bill Chiefs cap and a red T-shirt, and raps from a front yard, a park bench and the top of a swing set in a nondescript suburban setting. I’m just stuck in the rain/With a Glock and a hoodie, goes the refrain.
The day after the shooting at the Lodge, Smith turned himself in to authorities and was charged with first-degree murder in Shuster’s death. He was also charged with attempted first-degree murder (for allegedly shooting at Goodface) and aggravated endangerment of a child (because Kalahni was present).
On August 8, a preliminary hearing was held in Johnson County District Court for the purposes of convincing Judge Thomas M. Sutherland that the state’s prosecutors had sufficient evidence to justify criminal proceedings against Smith. After a day of witness and expert testimony, Sutherland found that the state had met its burden, after which Smith — who sat silent in an orange jumpsuit, thick brown belt and eyeglasses — entered a not-guilty plea to the charges against him.
In such a hearing (at which no jury is present), the defense is permitted to cross-examine the state’s witnesses but cannot call its own. As a result, the information that surfaced was skewed in favor of the prosecution. Should the case go to trial, Smith’s attorneys will have the chance to present their version of what happened in that apartment on February 2. Conversations with those who have spoken to Smith since the shooting suggest that he will likely claim he acted in self-defense. (Both the prosecutor and Smith’s public defender declined to comment for this story. A scheduling conference for the trial is planned for mid-September.)
Because the only known witness to the shooting was an infant, it will be difficult for either side to establish facts about what occurred in the moments before Shuster’s death. But clues exist. When police searched the home, they found $31,000 in cash stuffed in a jacket hanging in Shuster’s closet. They also discovered, in the bedroom, a handgun (not believed to have been used in the killing), two digital scales, six cell phones hidden in a shoebox (three iPhones and three flip phones), and well over a pound of marijuana inside vacuum-sealed bags. Prints on the marijuana bags trace to Shuster, not to Smith.
Both Goodface and Robinson testified that they were unaware of any of the incriminating evidence — the gun, the drugs, the phones, the scales — found in the small apartment where they had been staying. There also came a moment, while the prosecution was questioning Robinson, when she seemed to back away from statements she had previously given to the state.
“You told us after Anthony was killed that you talked to his friends about what happened,” the prosecutor said. “Who were those friends?”
Robinson hesitated and then said that she had spoken only to Shuster’s younger brother, M.J. In the back of the courtroom, four young men — one of whom had earlier been sitting beside Maltbia, Shuster’s mother — sat watching the proceedings.
“I know you don’t want to get anyone else involved, but you told me you spoke to Anthony’s friends about what happened,” the prosecutor returned. “You told me their names.”
Robinson repeated that she had talked to M.J. alone. During cross examination, Smith’s attorney asked Robinson if she was afraid of Shuster’s friends. After a few seconds, Robinson said no. “You hesitated,” Smith’s attorney said. “Why?” A meaningful response did not appear to be forthcoming, and the line of questioning was abandoned.
The state appears to have plenty on Smith, though. Cell-phone records obtained by the prosecution suggest that giving Shuster a trim was not the only reason Smith had stopped by the apartment that day. According to phone numbers the prosecution claims to be associated with Smith and Shuster, the following exchange took place a few hours before the shooting:
Smith: Gotcha covered, be through at 4
Shuster: Gone at 4:30 to pick up my chick
Smith: Can we do same thing again? I’ve
got ways to get rid of it quicker
Shuster: My dude
Also earlier that day, a phone believed to be associated with Smith received a text from an unidentified phone number that said: “2gs for 30?” This, paired with the exchange with Shuster, seem to suggest Smith may have been dealing small amounts of marijuana purchased from Shuster.
Besides Goodface’s account of Smith shooting at her, the most damning testimony against Smith so far has come from his mother, Zella. The prosecutor asked her to confirm the contents of a message Smith had sent her three days before Shuster’s death. In it, he asked for financial help from his parents in exchange for him doing work around their house. He said he’d hit “rock bottom” due to poor decisions he’d recently made. “I thought I could help myself through my own methods, but I was wrong,” Smith is alleged to have written his mother. “I need to lean on my family and loved ones.”
Zella, an elderly woman who seemed foggy and bewildered on the stand, testified that she’d told her son she would keep his request under consideration. But before the end of the week, Smith was in custody.
The prosecution recently amended its complaint against Smith to accommodate other explanations for Shuster’s death. Smith was initially charged with premeditated murder. Now, room has been made in the charges for two alternative, non-premeditated counts: murder while committing an armed robbery, and murder committed in the course of distributing marijuana.
Beneath these three formal charges lie several possible sub-narratives: Smith had a problem with Shuster and went over there to kill him; Smith was desperate for money and went over there to rob and kill Shuster; Smith planned only to rob Shuster but the situation escalated and he killed him; Smith came over only to buy drugs, but an argument over the price turned deadly; Smith came over only to cut Shuster’s hair, and an argument arose that ended fatally; Shuster attempted to rob Smith, and Smith shot him in self-defense. It’s also possible that Goodface knows more about what happened inside the apartment than she has so far revealed.
Outside of court, advocates for Smith and Shuster seem sure of their own version.
“He went out there with bad intentions,” Maltbia says of Smith. “It was not some drug deal gone bad. He knew Kayla wasn’t going to be home when he went over there. He was a greedy little bastard — a hateful, greedy little bastard who shot Anthony with his 3-month-old in the room. Absolutely, he premeditated that murder.”
Glazer says Smith was at Stanford & Sons “normal as can be” the night before the killing. “There is no way on God’s green Earth that Mike Smith went over there with the intention of killing somebody,” Glazer says.
Laurie Fank, a former comedian and close friend of Smith’s, says she has spoken to Smith since he turned himself in.
“I know he’s looking forward to telling his side of the story,” Fank says. “I have no doubt that when all the information comes to light, it will be clear that he acted in self-defense. I believe that man attacked him and things went horribly awry from there.”
What about the “rock bottom” text? Fank says the mother of Smith’s children had recently married someone in the Army and had received permission to move Smith’s children away from Kansas City for a year while the new husband was in basic training.
“She took his kids around December and he was bummed about that,” Fank says. “But that should not be interpreted as, he was in a dark place and that led to a life of crime. That’s not it.” (Smith’s ex could not be reached.)
Smith website, mikeyoulaugh.com, has been removed from the internet, owing to subpoenas issued related to the state’s investigation. But a handful of YouTube videos of Smith continue to live online. In 2013, he appeared on a morning segment of KC Live! to promote an upcoming headlining gig at Stanford & Sons. He joked about Paula Deen saying the N-word, expressed admiration for Bill Maher, and spoke of how nerve-racking his BET appearance had been.
“If you weren’t doing standup comedy, what sort of career would you be in?” host Michael Mackie asked toward the end of the interview.
“I would probably, uh, be selling drugs,” Smith said. Mackie threw his interview notes in the air. “Oh, can I not say that on TV?”
“No, you can say that — you just did,” Mackie replied.
“Oh, OK, because if you need the hookup: mikeyoulaugh.com,” Smith said, pointing at the camera and spelling out the words.