LARGO — On the surface, the Davis family was completing a perfect Florida vacation, with stops in Miami's South Beach, Tampa's Busch Gardens and finally, a hotel near the Gulf of Mexico.
But the vacation ended in April 2011, when 18-year-old Brandon Davis aimed a 9mm handgun at his father, James Allen Davis, and shot more than half a dozen times.
On Monday, Brandon Davis pleaded guilty to manslaughter for killing his father. Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Nancy Moate Ley sentenced him to three years in prison, followed by three years of probation.
That's more than his defense attorney asked for, but far less than the possible life sentence he faced at one point.
But witnesses who testified in court Monday tried to provide an explanation for the shooting by pointing to secrets lurking beneath the surface of the vacationing Fort Myers family who came to Indian Rocks Beach and the Holiday Inn Harbourside.
James Davis could be wonderful, but he also drank hard, used cocaine and injected steroids, some of his family members testified on Monday. He fought repeatedly with his wife Dana, beating her and controlling who she talked to, they said.
The parents were arguing again in the second floor of the hotel suite on that vacation, and Brandon Davis wanted to leave.
At one point he asked the desk clerk for help getting his things out of the hotel room, but when the clerk offered to call the police, he declined.
He walked out of the hotel, he said, then realized he was leaving his mother to fend for herself against his father. So another idea occurred to him. He went to his father's vehicle, removed his father's handgun, and returned to the hotel room. He said this was so he could be in control.
But inside the hotel room, he said, his father lunged at him — from his knees. At that point, Brandon Davis said, he figured his father would kill him and his mother if he got the gun.
So he shot — eight times. Four of the bullets entered his father's back, Pinellas Sheriff's Sgt. John Spoor said.
"It's such a textbook case of substance abuse and domestic violence gone bad," Ley said. "It's too bad I don't have both parents in front of me to sentence to something."
Still, "that doesn't mean that Brandon didn't make a choice," Ley said. And for that choice, she sentenced him to the three years in prison.
Ley said she was accepting defense attorney Joe Viacava's argument that Brandon Davis qualified as a youthful offender, which is a program for young defendants with light records. That limited his sentence to no more than six years. Without being considered a youthful offender, his minimum sentence would have been more than nine years in prison.
Prosecutors originally charged him with second-degree murder, which could have led to a life sentence. But they agreed to accept Davis' guilty plea to manslaughter, a reduced charge with reduced penalties.
The handling of the case was controversial to some. Spoor testified for the state in Monday's hearing, saying he thought it was his obligation to speak on behalf of the victim. Afterward, he said he was disappointed in a lack of communication between the Sheriff's Office and the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office.
Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett countered that the parameters of the case were discussed fully with a sheriff's lieutenant early on in the case, and that he was satisfied with the outcome.
But friends of James Davis who were not at the court hearing spoke highly of him. He was a hard-working supervisor for an elevator company in Fort Myers.
Alys Roark, 29, of Naples, met Davis when she interviewed for a job at the company.
"He was my mentor — he taught me everything I know about the elevator industry," Roark said. She said Brandon Davis was a pallbearer at his father's funeral.
The funeral was a "slap in the face," Roark said.
"When you shoot someone in the back there really is no excusable defense," Roark said.