TAMPA — Mitch McDonald broke down and cried moments after stepping forward in court Friday to speak about his daughter, Brooke.
A chorus of tears from relatives and friends quickly followed.
"The defendant took my baby girl's life that we all loved so dear," McDonald said. "In my mind, it was definitely not an accident."
Thomas Andrew Grieco said he thought he'd emptied the chamber of a .44-caliber Magnum he had recently bought when he pointed the gun at 17-year-old Brooke McDonald's temple and pulled the trigger inside his Plant City apartment.
She dropped dead instantly.
"No matter what this court does, it cannot bring Brooke back or make me feel any better," Grieco told Brooke's family before Hillsborough Circuit Judge Manuel Lopez sentenced him to 15 years in prison.
"I'm sorry from the bottom of my heart. I'm sorry."
Grieco, 21, pleaded guilty to manslaughter by culpable negligence with a weapon. He faced up to 30 years in prison.
"Son, I believe you are sorry. You're probably suffering greatly. I believe that," Lopez told Grieco. "But at the end of the day, you're living and she's not."
Dozens of supporters packed both sides of the courtroom, many having sent letters ahead of time. Some talked about how their spark had been lost since the Oct. 4, 2008, shooting. Others asked the judge to have leniency on Grieco, saying he spent the past year punishing himself.
"I've heard him talk about suicide before because he's so upset about this," Grieco's father, Andrew, told the judge. "I lost my son a year ago. But please don't take him from me."
Plant City police Sgt. James Cross testified that Grieco initially told him that Brooke McDonald had accidentally shot herself. An hour later, when they arrived at the police station, he changed his story and told the truth, Cross said.
"I believe he thought it was an accident," the officer said in court.
"Pointing a firearm that you don't know is loaded at another human being's face, in my opinion, is not an accident," Lopez said.
Kevin Graham can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3433.