Brother of Billy Strings Arrested for Murder of Denver Guitarist | Westword


Brother of Billy Strings Arrested for Cold-Case Murder of Denver Guitarist

Court documents connect bluegrass icon Billy Strings to his brother Patrick Apostol, who is charged with the 2020 murder of Denver musician Zack Smith.
Billy Strings, real name William Lee Apostol, and Denver murder suspect Patrick Apostol both had the same dad, Billy, who died of a heroin overdose.
Billy Strings, real name William Lee Apostol, and Denver murder suspect Patrick Apostol both had the same dad, Billy, who died of a heroin overdose. Facebook/Denver Police Department
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The brother of Grammy Award-winning bluegrass singer and guitarist Billy Strings is facing murder charges in Denver, with police saying that he gunned down a local musician more than three years ago.

Patrick Lee Apostol, 45, was arrested last week in connection with the death of Zackary Smith, who was shot in the head while driving down an alley in east Denver on September 10, 2020, according to police.

Court documents from a federal 2022 weapons and drugs case tie Apostol directly to Strings, whose real name is William Lee Apostol; the two men are half-brothers with the same father, Billy Apostol, who died from a heroin overdose.

The Denver District Court confirms that the Patrick Lee Apostol involved in the 2022 case — born April 30, 1978 — is the same man charged with Smith's murder.

Cops had suspected Apostol was behind the unsolved homicide and were investigating him in 2020 when they stumbled on the drugs and firearms that prompted the 2022 case — and Apostol's eventual plea and conviction. Since authorities didn't have "clear and convincing" evidence at the time that he'd committed the shooting, they went after Apostol on the lesser charges and continued to build their murder case.

Filings from the 2022 drug case show that Apostol routinely brought up his guitar-picking sibling, asking his wife on one occasion during a June 1, 2021, phone call from behind bars to tell a pretrial services officer that he has a "very rich brother" who "won a Grammy." At one point during the trial, Federal Public Defender Mary Butterton went so far as to use Apostol's connection to Strings as a way to defend him from "the government's assertion" that Apostol was a drug dealer with "private jets and lavish items" reflective of a "drug-trafficking issue."
click to enlarge Patrick Apostol, brother of Billy Strings, siting on a private jet.
Patrick Apostol was known to have a money-fueled lifestyle filled with trips on private jets and "lavish items," per court documents.
"Mr. Apostol mentioned to me...much of that is because Mr. Apostol's younger brother is a Grammy Award-winning artist by the name of Billy Strings. Being not cool, I had to Google him. But it does appear that Billy Strings is, in fact, a Grammy Award-winning musician who is, you know, very wealthy," Butterton said at trial. "And Mr. Apostol has traveled around with his brother on private jets, and his brother has, has been very generous with him. ... So I just wanted to put that on the record as well, as Mr. Apostol just informed me of that."

On June 2, 2022, Apostol filed a motion for a below-guideline sentence of time served (386 days, or nearly thirteen months) that would be followed by a period of probation after he pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute fifty kilograms or more of marijuana. One of the reasons listed for the shorter sentence request was "Mr. Apostol's history and characteristics," which — according to him — included a "chaotic" childhood and the loss of his father.

"See Exhibit A," the motion reads, citing a 2021 New York Times article with the headline "How Billy Strings Picked His Way to the Other Side."

"Born William Lee Apostol, Strings grew up in the tiny lake-bound Central Michigan town of Muir, where his childhood seemed an insurmountable obstacle course," the article explains. "His father, Billy, died from a heroin overdose when Strings, his youngest son, was two. His mother, Debra Apostol, married her first love, Terry Barber, who reared Strings as his own."

In the sentencing motion, Apostol is described as having a "challenging upbringing." His father had "two other sons who are Mr. Apostol's half brothers," but "thanks to his mother, Mr. Apostol mostly avoided the fate of his half brothers, who grew up in poverty." The Times piece about Strings delves into how the singer stayed with his mother, Debra, and the pair "slid into penury" as she struggled with depression "prompted by her sister's murder." Strings would go on to use music as his life raft, learning to play guitar at the age of five so his parents "would pay attention" to him, he told the Times.

While Apostol thought his life experiences would persuade the judge to let him out early, the idea backfired: Federal prosecutors, in their official response to the motion for non-guideline sentencing, cited Apostol's upbringing and relation to Strings as reasons why Apostol's "history and characteristics" should not support a request for a shorter sentence.

"Compared to other defendants, there's not much in his history that serves to mitigate this conduct," their response noted. "By his own admission, he has the support of his mother and 'went to good schools, was a Boy Scout, and went to college.' If Apostol is to be believed, his brother lavished him with gifts and money. Despite no reported income, Apostol could afford to rent a six-bedroom house. Inside that house were expensive clothes, shoes and jewelry (including an $18,000 watch). In sum, Apostol has had natural advantages that many defendants could only dream of. His greed more than anything else explains his conduct here."

Apostol wound up being sentenced to thirty months behind bars, but only served fourteen after his conviction, according to prison records.

The self-described "philanthropist" had tried using his ties to Strings to help argue for his release from jail after his initial drugs and weapons arrest, but the court had ordered him detained instead.
click to enlarge Billy Strings performing on stage.
Despite having different upbringings, Apostol and Strings managed to reconnect later in life.

"While the government has pointed out that Mr. Apostol appears to have access to significant funds and, perhaps a private jet, Mr. Apostol has explained that is the result of the largesse of his successful musician-brother," the Order of Detention reads. "Since that brother would risk significant financial and criminal penalties if he allowed Mr. Apostol to use those resources to abscond from justice, he would seem unlikely to participate in a scheme to abscond. ...In any event, since the government has shown by clear and convincing evidence that no combination of conditions will reasonably mitigate the danger Mr. Apostol would present to the community if released, he must be detained, and the Court need not decide whether he is also a flight risk."

From May 26 to June 13, 2022, Apostol was incarcerated at the ICE Detention Center in Aurora. His relation to Strings was brought up multiple times during phone calls with people on the outside, including one with a friend identified as "Matt," who, according to case documents, told Apostol: "If your brother wasn't famous you wouldn't be in this situation."

Lindsay Wadman, a Denver resident who knows Apostol through friends, tells Westword he would regularly mention Strings when around others. "He talks about him all the time," Wadman says. "Before I knew what his full name was, I knew him as 'Billy Strings's brother.' That's his thing; he name-drops his brother."

The connection wasn't enough to prevent Apostol's arrest on November 17.
click to enlarge Billy Strings performing on stage.
Apostol has been known to travel with Billy Strings and go to his shows, according to court documents.
Apostol is accused of opening fire on Smith during the early hours of September 10, 2020, as Smith was driving away from a residence where Apostol lived with his wife, who was romantically involved with the slain Autonomix guitarist, according to case documents obtained by CBS News. Inmate records show that the woman was taken into custody on November 17 and booked at the Downtown Detention Center on a "U.S. Marshal Offense/Hold," but CBS reports that she has not been charged.

According to court documents, Apostol "settled in Colorado" in 2010 and met his wife in 2016. The two were living together at the time of Smith's murder.
Zack Smith playing guitar with his band Autonomix.
Police believe Zack Smith, left, was killed by Patrick Apostol after meeting up with Apostol's wife.
Taylor Joerger
At the murder scene, by East 17th Avenue between Quince and Quebec streets, Denver Police Department investigators saw a Ring security camera system on a nearby residence at 7315 East 17th, where Apostol lived, and contacted him to see if he would hand over the footage. He declined.

During their investigation, authorities learned that Smith was romantically involved with a woman before knowing she was married to Apostol, according to CBS.

"Upon learning [the woman's] forwarding address — 7315 East 17th Avenue — detectives realized this was the same address where [detectives] had contacted Apostol the day of the shooting and asked him about the video surveillance on the exterior of the house," says Apostol's arrest affidavit.

"The house is located on the northeast corner of E. 17th Ave. and Quebec Street," it adds. "The front door faces E. 17th Ave. There is a detached two-car garage north of the residence, and a driveway north of the detached garage. North of the driveway is a white single car garage. ... Detectives observed that you can access this north driveway from the north gate. This is also the gate where the second Ring doorbell camera was located. Additionally, this north driveway is easily accessible to the alley and is directly west of where the spent 9mm cartridge casing was located and recovered. According to Google Maps, the spent 9mm cartridge casing that was recovered from the alley was approximately 55 feet from the rear gate to where the 9mm spent cartridge casing was recovered."

Apostol's wife admitted to police that she had met Smith outside their residence "early in the morning" of September 10 while Apostol was asleep inside, CBS reports.

Investigators say Smith and Apostol's wife engaged in at least eight months of conversation "including up to the time of the murder, where they planned to meet outside the house for drugs and sex," according to Apostol's arrest affidavit, which was heavily redacted and missing his wife's name when it was released by the DPD on November 17; CBS confirmed her involvement through a "document from the DPD investigation."

Investigators say Apostol's wife denied having sex with Smith before his murder. According to CBS, they first learned of their relationship through a tipster, who informed them that "the only time [Smith] could see her" was when Apostol "was out of town."

click to enlarge Patrick Apostol standing by a private jet in Denver, Colorado.
Apostol has claimed in court that his lavish lifestyle can be attributed to Billy Strings's success.

Apostol and his wife flew to Florida the same day that Smith was murdered. "Upon her arrival in Florida on September 10th, her cell phone stopped working and she had to factory reset her phone on the trip due to having issues with it," the arrest affidavit says. "This caused her to lose all of her text messages between her and Smith."

That trip was part of the mounting evidence that led DPD investigators to search Apostol's home on September 21, 2020, when they stumbled upon a marijuana shed and nearly a dozen firearms, according to the affidavit, prompting the drugs and weapons case. Earlier in the day, Apostol had "voluntarily responded" to DPD headquarters and agreed to a video interview, the affidavit says; cops subsequently got approval for a search warrant.

One of the smoking guns in the murder case was the black robe that Apostol was wearing when he answered the door to speak with cops on September 10, after Smith's murder; investigators later found gunshot residue on it.

Another major piece of evidence came in the form of a "gun trace" conducted by the DPD, which matched a Canik 9mm handgun that Apostol had purchased with a bullet fragment found inside Smith's head, according to the arrest affidavit.

"The bullet that was recovered during the autopsy of Smith was analyzed and compared to the recovered Canik 9mm," the affidavit says. "The Crime Lab indicated that the spent bullet had the same class and characteristics to the Canik 9mm that was recovered."

Apostol is currently facing charges of first-degree murder and tampering with evidence. He was taken into custody in Lakewood just two and a half months after getting out of prison for his 2022 case. His bond was set at $3 million.

When asked about his brother's criminal history and current situation, a spokesperson for Strings told Westword: "No comment."
click to enlarge Billy Strings performing on stage.
Apostol has posted photos and video on his Instagram of his famous "little brother."
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