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Robert Cheek

Patrick Sullivan - August 8th, 2011
‘She was the Sweetest Person in the World’: Benzie man faces trial in hammer death of Valerie Smith
By Patrick Sullivan
In retrospect, there was something creepy about the day Jerry Bolton was
called to a trailer park to fix a broken septic tank and a man peered out
of his trailer and stared at the workers.
It was only the next day, after the police arrived and put up crime scene
tape, that Bolton learned the man inside, Robert Lester Cheek, allegedly
spent days in the trailer with the corpse of his girlfriend, who Cheek is
now accused of killing.
At the time, all Bolton knew is someone had gone to a lot of trouble to
cause the sewage backup.
A concrete pad had been moved and someone had filled the septic tank with
chunks of broken concrete
“Maybe he was looking for a way to make it smell like shit around his
trailer, instead of a dead body,” Bolton said, speculating that Cheek
caused the sewage backup.

Cheek is scheduled to stand trial later this month for the April, 2009
death of Valerie Maidella Smith, who he is accused of beating on the head
with a hammer.
The trial is scheduled to begin on Aug. 31 in Beulah.
Cheek also awaits trial in Manistee County for an alleged attack on his
friend Richard Nanni, just after Smith’s death. He is charged there with
assault with intent to do great bodily harm and attempted murder.
That trial is scheduled to begin on Sept. 14 in Manistee.
Nanni says he arranged transportation for Cheek, 56, to bring him to his
home at the Kampvilla mobile home park near Bear Lake and that Cheek
attacked him without provocation.
Trials in both cases were delayed as Cheek underwent testing to determine
whether he was competent to stand trial.
Cheek was found to be competent but he refused to cooperate with the
criminal responsibility portion of the exam. If he wants to use the
insanity defense, he needs to be examined for criminal responsibility,
according to court records.
His attorney, James Bearinger, did not return a message seeking comment.

At the Harbor Village Community trailer park at the northeastern edge of
Frankfort, residents wonder how one of their neighbors presumably just
Neighbor Karen Packer knew Smith and Cheek.
Packer said the couple met when Cheek drove a truck for a food delivery
service and Smith was a customer.
Cheek moved into Smith’s trailer several years before Smith’s death and,
for a time at least, the couple seemed happy.
“They seemed to be really happy for a while,” Packer said. “She was a
beautiful woman when she dressed up.”
Later Cheek was hired by their landlord to fix up a trailer near Packer’s
and she went out to talk with him. “He was pretty nice,” Packer said.
In recent years, however, Smith was in poor health and Cheek apparently
developed a drug problem, Packer said.
“Valerie was sick,” she said. “Her days were numbered, health-wise.”
Smith was rarely seen outside of her trailer, Packer said.
“When Val left that house, everybody looked: ‘Oh my God, Val’s outside
today,’” she said.

Cheek’s behavior became odd, Packer said. The last time Packer saw Cheek,
his normally neat hair was unkempt and he looked disturbed.
“He didn’t look right in the eyes,” she said.
Packer suspects Cheek stole drugs from Smith and may have finally snapped
after she threatened to cut him off.
“She said she was thinking about calling the cops on him because he was
taking all her drugs,” Packer said.
A short while after Smith is thought to have died, Packer said she saw
Cheek one last time.
“That one Sunday he acted weird,” Packer said. “And he looked old and he
had a blank stare in his eyes and I knew something was wrong.”
Packer said she heard Cheek wrapped Smith in an Elvis blanket after her
“She was an Elvis fan and her brother told me he wrapped her in that and
dragged her to the bedroom and he left her there for three days,” Packer

Melissa Wollen, a friend of Smith, was among the last to see her alive.
“She was the sweetest person in the world,” she testified at a preliminary
hearing in March.
Normally, she said, she would knock on the door to the trailer Cheek and
Smith shared, someone would answer, and she’d go right inside.
Not this time, she testified. The last time she saw Smith, Cheek blocked
her way into the trailer. She nonetheless looked around him and saw Smith
on the couch, apparently asleep.
Wollen figured Cheek was looking out for his girlfriend, making sure the
visit didn’t wake her.
“He’s usually, you know, respectful and nice, and he was that day, but he
was shaky, he wasn’t -- the look in his eyes was not normal that day,”
Wollen said in court. “Like a crazy look. And I won’t forget that look. He
don’t normally look like that.”
Wollen testified she believed Smith was still alive when she saw her on
the couch.
“I must have got there right before it happened,” she said.

Richard Nanni, who lived at the Kampvilla trailer park near Bear Lake --
the one on US 31 with the giant yellow dinosaur out front -- said he knew
Cheek for 15 years.
He said at the preliminary exam he considered Cheek a good friend.
“I thought (our relationship) was great. I mean, he took me to cancer
treatment appointments... I thought, you know, we were really good
friends,” Nanni testified.
In later testimony he said: “I’ve talked to him many-a-time, he’s come
over many-a-time, and we’ve never had problems. We’d play Risk. We’d watch
movies, eat pizza.”
Nanni also considered Smith a close friend.
Nanni said several years earlier Smith had used Social Security money to
buy her trailer and fix it up. A while later, Cheek moved in.
He said he never saw them fight. Then one day, Cheek told Nanni that Smith
had died of hepatitis C.
He called because he was raising money for funeral expenses and he wanted
to sell Nanni a large amethyst stone, something they both collected.
They tentatively agreed on a price of $200 for the stone.
Nanni arranged for transportation so Cheek could get to Kampvilla.

Nanni and Cheek looked over the stone inside Nanni’s trailer and Nanni
agreed to the $200 price, he said.
It was when Nanni reached down to get the cash that he felt a sharp pain
on the back of his head, he testified.
“And then he goes, ‘I’m going to bash you like I bashed Valerie.’ And then
he hit me about two more times I remember.”
Cheek allegedly bound Nanni with tape and rolled him into a sleeping bag.
The attack left Nanni permanently injured, he testified. He lost hearing
in one ear, sight in one eye and suffered memory problems.
When Bearinger, Cheek’s defense attorney, asked whether Nanni’s memory
problems might have affected his ability to recount exactly what happened
to him in the attack, Nanni insisted he knew it was Cheek who attacked
“I know exactly who it was,” he said. “And I get nightmares about it every
single night.”

Thomas Peck, who drove Cheek from Frankfort to Nanni’s home, testified at
the preliminary hearing that he returned later that evening to take Cheek
home and he saw that Nanni had been attacked.
The next thing he knew, he was inside Nanni’s trailer with a gun to his
head, Peck testified.
Peck said Cheek told him to get down on the floor but Peck decided to
stall. He said he could see what happened to Nanni. He was slumped over a
couch with blood running from his head, pooling on the upholstery. He
didn’t want to wind up like that.
“I tried to talk Mr. Cheek down, saying, you know, come on, it’s not too
late, give me the gun, you know, something can be worked out. Mr. Nanni’s
not dead, you know,” Peck testified.
Peck said he tossed Cheek the keys to his car, hoping he would leave, but
he realized he needed to get his dog out of the car first.
He walked out to the car with Cheek holding a gun to his head and got the
dog, he testified.
Back in the trailer, Peck said Cheek ordered him to the floor again, but
Peck bought more time by telling Cheek he needed to smoke before he was
tied up. Cheek took him to the kitchen and gave him a cigarette, he said.
While Peck smoked, he testified, Cheek became preoccupied with Nanni’s pills.
At some point, Cheek put the gun down.
“That’s when I decided that was the time to spring and grab the gun,” he
He got the gun and pointed it at Cheek, but he couldn’t hold him. Cheek
got out the back door of the trailer and fled into the woods.
Peck called 911.

It didn’t take long before police descended upon the Manistee County
trailer park. A Benzie County K-9 unit tracked Cheek into the woods, he
When police caught up with him, Cheek pretended to have a gun and
threatened to shoot himself according to testimony.
Trooper Paul Butterfield of the state police testified that the gun didn’t
appear to be real and after Cheek was brought down with a taser and
arrested it was found to be a holster.
The owner of the property later found a blood-stained hammer not far from
the scene of the arrest, according to testimony. Blood from the hammer was
later tested and found to be a DNA match with Valerie Smith.
Not long after Cheek’s arrest for assault, police learned Smith’s family
members had been unable to reach her and were concerned about her
Officers from the Frankfort Police Department searched Smith’s trailer and
made the gruesome discovery.

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