ST. PETERSBURG — Vinson Phillips was the man people turned to when they needed a reliable car for a cheap price. Or body work on a payment plan.
He was the man neighbors sought out for an extra tool, for help cutting an overhanging branch, for removing a dead bird from the back yard.
And Phillips, a father of four, was the man his son Tomas turned to for just about anything.
"He showed me how to work on cars," Tomas, 15, recalled Tuesday. "He was showing me how to be a man. He was my everything. I always looked up to him."
Three years ago, Phillips, 46, was shot to death by robbers who burst into his home. Tomas and his family now are hoping for justice.
Brandon McCalvin Sutton, 24, has been charged with first-degree murder. His trial began Monday.
Prosecutors say he is one of two men who donned black masks and dark clothes and broke into the Phillipses' house at 2227 33rd St. S in an effort to steal a "fifty stack" — $50,000 — they believed was stored in a safe in Phillips' closet.
Phillips didn't have that kind of money in the safe, only coins and jewelry. The invaders killed him anyway.
"They shot my daddy," his daughter Shanika, 18, testified on Tuesday.
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At Phillips Enterprise, his body shop near the corner of 18th Avenue South and 16th Street, everybody knew Phillips. Carnell Walker, 59, a body man at the shop, says, "his family came first, his shop came next," and everybody around the shop came next after that.
Follow the rich, smoky smell to Connie's barbecue around the corner, and owner Melvin Hall will tell you: "He's very, very missed in St. Petersburg." Hall said Phillips' name still comes up almost every day. When someone talks about car problems, he always says: "If Vinson was here, I could get it fixed for you."
Cross 18th Avenue to the Blue Nile food store and manger Ali Oliver says he learned a lot about Phillips just by seeing his children come into the store. They were always respectful, always friendly and easy to talk to, Oliver said.
Phillips and Renea Powell Phillips have four children: Vinson Jr., 27; Shanika, 18; Tomas, 15; and Keshone, 13.
Phillips loved family time, fishing at the Pier and the Sunshine Skyway, and eating seafood, Renea Phillips said. They watched home-improvement shows together, and he built a waterfall in the back yard. She said he saved coins all year and gave them to her around Christmas to buy $400 or $500 worth of presents. He liked football, and painted youth football team helmets in the shop using his auto painting gear.
Shanika called him "loving, caring, sharing, understanding." Tomas said he taught him how to sand down car bodies, and tape up the windows and rims to get them ready for painting.
Even though Tomas was only 12 at the time of the shooting, he recalls his father preparing him for things he would need to know as a young man. "He always told me, when you find a girl, don't find a girl for 'benefits.' Find a girl that you really like and they like you."
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The prosecutors in this case "'will prove murder, they will prove a home invasion robbery," attorney Charles Holloway said.
But Holloway, a defense attorney, also said the evidence will show Sutton didn't do it.
Prosecutors say Sutton admitted to being at the house during the crime, though he has denied shooting anyone. But prosecutors also say only two men came into the home and that Phillips was shot with two weapons, implicating Sutton in the shooting.
Renea Phillips said her husband was heating some crab legs in the microwave, and she was on the bed talking to a friend on the phone, when two masked men burst into their bedroom, pointing handguns and demanding money from the safe. Shanika came in, and one of the men yanked her hair and tossed her to the floor. Her mother slipped off the bed and crawled on top of her then-16-year-old daughter, trying to protect her.
Renea Phillips said one of the men aimed a gun at her husband, demanding he open the safe and telling him: "I'm not playing, man, I'm going to shoot you."
There was one shot, then a burst of others, Renea and Shanika said.
Then the men ran away. The safe, which contained some coins and pieces of gold jewelry, was never opened. The family called an ambulance for Phillips, but he was pronounced dead at Bayfront Medical Center.
Sutton was arrested about six months after Phillips' death. A second person has not been charged in the killing.
The trial resumes today.
Curtis Krueger can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8232.