TAMPA — Esteban Merchan was just 19 when he pulled a knife on Tony Black and started stabbing him in the shoulder and back.
On Dec. 29, 2009, Merchan and 18-year-old Prentiss Jackson killed three men in a gang-related attack in the back yard of a Brandon home.
Jackson was sentenced to life in prison last year for his role.
Friday, it was Merchan's turn.
After a judge accepted the plea deal — life in prison with no chance of parole — Black's mother got to speak.
"It just hurts me to my heart that children play with guns," said Shardretta Burke, 49. "Why? … It hurts everybody."
Black was her eldest son. When he died, he left an 11-year-old brother who wondered why the doctors couldn't just take out the bullet and make his brother better.
But Tony Black, a 22-year-old man known in his church for his beautiful singing voice, was already dead.
So was Vincent Thomas, 22, fatally shot.
So was Rafael Guadalupe, 21, stabbed to death.
When Guadalupe died, his daughter was 3 weeks old.
The little girl is now almost 3 years old. She has heard about her father's love, but she'll never feel it, her mother, Demi Roberts, said Friday in court.
"At the end of the day, it will be my innocent child who hurts the most," Roberts said.
Merchan faced three counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder for what happened at 507 Oakwood Ave. in Brandon.
Prosecutors had been seeking the death penalty, but the plea agreement that Merchan accepted took that off the table. He would keep his life but spend it behind bars.
So instead of presenting evidence at a trial, a prosecutor rattled off the facts of the case:
Merchan, who lived in Kissimmee, got a ride to the Brandon home with Jackson. The pair walked to the back yard and started stabbing and shooting the three men.
They had been ordered to carry out the killings from a high-ranking member of the Bloods gang. Merchan was a member.
As they left, the pair beat up another man, Ralph Arroyo, 21, who survived. Then they threw the weapons down a storm drain.
When deputies arrived, Black and Thomas were dead, with gunshot wounds to the head and torso.
Guadalupe had 52 knife wounds.
On Friday, Merchan, a slight man who is now 22, was led away in handcuffs, certain to never see the world outside of prison again.
Shardretta Burke said she forgave him.
Burke wasn't planning to speak after the sentencing but said she wanted to say one thing.
"If the world could find a way to stop these young kids from killing each other," she said, "it would just be a miracle."
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3433.