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Case closed, but family still wonders how toddler was left on Alafia River island (w/video)

RIVERVIEW — Tina Morris looked into her phone's camera and tried to soothe her frightened son.

It was Halloween. Moments earlier, Morris had dialed her husband Billy's cellphone expecting him to answer and explain why he and 3-year-old August hadn't returned home from what was supposed to be a quick water-scooter ride on the Alafia River. Billy Morris had called earlier saying they'd stopped on a small island just west of Interstate 75 and would be home soon.

Now, two hours later, she was looking at a shaky video image of her son's tear-streaked face. He was on the island, alone.

"Daddy left me," August sobbed.

BACK STORY: Dad dead, son stranded in mysterious river incident

The call sparked a 16-hour search for the 38-year-old truck driver and father of three. His body was found downriver the next day. The death was ruled a drowning.

There are questions about Billy Morris's disappearance that will never be answered, but in those first few frantic hours, Tina Morris was sure of one thing.

"There's no possible way he would leave his son," she said.

•••

They bonded over circus elephants.

Tina Morris moved to Tampa from Budapest, Hungary, in 2008 after Ringling Bros. Circus hired her to perform as an aerialist. That entailed soaring through the air but she also performed atop the circus's famous pachyderms.

Training the mammoth creatures was Billy Morris's speciality. He grew up in Gibsonton, one of two sons of longtime elephant trainer Bill Morris II. The elder Morris trained elephants for Ringling and had his own traveling elephant show, Elephant Encounter, with his wife Cindy. The family is well known in the traveling circus and carnival community anchored by the International Independent Showmens Foundation in Riverview.

Tina Morris moved to America without knowing much English, but as she learned more, she began talking to Billy Morris, a handsome man with blond hair, blue eyes and an assertive personality.

"He always knew what he wants, and he always gets it," Tina Morris, 29, recalled last week in her first in-depth interview since the story of the stranded boy mystified the region. "He always said when he saw me that he knew I'd be his wife."

They married on the road in May 2010, after a Ringling show in Sheboygan, Wis.

For the next five years, they traveled with Ringling and also did stints with the Carden International Circus. When they weren't traveling for work, the couple returned to their home on Oak Street, off Riverview Drive. The second floor rear balcony overlooks the grounds of the International Independent Showmens Foundation and a canal that leads to the Alafia River.

August was born in January 2013. Brown-haired and brown-eyed, he was Augie to his family. He and his father were almost inseparable. Billy also had two sons, 18 and 8, from a previous relationship and he tried to be present in their lives despite all the travel, his family said.

"It was always all about the kids," Cindy Morris said.

In 2015, Billy Morris took a job as a truck driver, mostly moving shipments for Amazon in Florida. For shorter trips, he hoisted Augie into the semi so he could ride along.

At the end of last summer, Tina and Billy bought a used 2015 Sea-Doo. Billy had owned water scooters in the past and wanted one again, Tina recalled. He was comfortable in the water and was an average swimmer, his wife said.

He rode the Sea-Doo nearly every day, sometimes as far as the Gulf of Mexico, and took August on shorter trips. They liked to make the five-minute ride to a small, kidney-shaped island the locals called Island 75 because it's close to the interstate bridge that spans the river.

A Hillsborough Sheriff's Office investigation report released this month sheds more light on his disappearance.

Had a work assignment not fallen through, Morris might be alive.

•••

Morris was scheduled to make a run to the airport for work on Oct. 31 but the job got cancelled. He decided to go out on the Sea-Doo alone. Tina was working at her job with a maid service and her mother, visiting from Hungary, was watching Augie.

Morris rode the water scooter to A.J.'s on the River, a restaurant and bar on the south shoreline just west of Island 75. Receipts showed he bought $10 worth of alcohol. A witness later told investigators he was there for a few hours.

Tina got home about 3:45 p.m. Billy offered to take August on a quick ride while she got ready for an outing to Westfield Brandon Mall, where trick or treating would begin at 5 p.m. Billy said he'd be back by 4:30 so August would have time to don his pirate costume.

About 10 minutes after he left, Billy called Tina on FaceTime. They were on the island, he said, and were going to play for a while and be home soon. It was a clear, breezy day, with highs in the mid 80s.

When 4:30 came and went, Tina began to send texts and make calls. She got voicemail and no replies. The Find my iPhone app showed Billy's phone was still on the island. If they were still there, why wasn't Billy answering?

Finally, about 5:45 p.m., her FaceTime call connected. August, who would turn 4 in a few months, had tapped the green "accept" button.

"He was crying so bad," Tina Morris recalled. "He just said his daddy left him."

That didn't make any sense. She figured Billy must have had an accident and become incapacitated. But when she asked August if he saw daddy, he said no.

Tina called 911 on her mother's phone and kept her son on the line. To calm him, she told him to make a sand castle.

"I just told him the policeman would come and get him and bring him home to me," Morris recalled.

Deputies arrived on the island about 6 p.m. to find August with a man who said he rode by on a water scooter and stopped when he spotted the boy alone. Tina was waiting at A.J.'s when a Sheriff's Office boat pulled up with August aboard. Mother and son ran to each other.

Deputies found the Sea-Doo, undamaged, on the south shore of the river, about 100 yards away from the island. Billy's neon orange and yellow life jacket had been draped over the handlebars. In the water scooter front compartment, they found Billy's black Armani Exchange wallet, two empty cans of Bud Ice and a third unopened can.

The location of the scooter made detectives wonder if Morris had motored over to the shore and left. Before they launched a full-scale search, detectives needed to be sure Billy Morris hadn't disappeared on purpose.

•••

Sitting in a Sheriff's Office car parked at A.J.'s,, detectives interviewed Tina Morris, apologizing for asking probing details about their marriage. Would he have any reason to leave?

In a calm, even tone, Tina said Billy Morris was on probation for a domestic violence arrest in November 2015 and needed to finish court-mandated anger management classes. He had a class that night, and planned to go after the Halloween outing, she said. He had a ticket to fly to New York the next day for a court appearance on a DUI charge.

Tina acknowledged their marriage had been strained for a while, and that they had grown apart. Billy drank a lot, she said, and she didn't like him when he was drunk. She'd left him before but came back, trying to make it work for August.

Billy was also struggling with health issues, Tina said. He had gained a lot of weight and suffered a serious seizure in 2015. He was with his parents at the time, and they called for help.

"He must have had an attack or seizure or something and fell in the water," Morris told the detectives. "If he was awake, he would get his son because I know he loves him so much."

The detectives then questioned August, who offered conflicting accounts.

The boy said he was sleeping on the island and "daddy disappear." He said he thought his father had gone back to his house to get some food and go to work. He said his father "rescued himself" but didn't elaborate.

"I was digging in the sand to find some treasure and he disappear," August said. He found the iPhone "on the floor."

The Sheriff's Office searched by land, sea and air, dispatching divers, boats and a helicopter while other deputies canvassed the surrounding neighborhood. Meanwhile, Tina Morris waited with a feeling of dread.

"I knew he wasn't just going to jump out from somewhere like, 'Oh, I'm back," she said. "I was hoping they'd find him somewhere, maybe unconscious but still alive."

At 11:30 the next morning, a Hillsborough County Fire Rescue boat spotted a man's body floating face down among mangrove trees along an undeveloped stretch of the southern shoreline, about a mile and a half west of the island. The man was wearing Crocs sandals and his navy blue T-shirt shirt had crept up to reveal a distinctive tattoo on the small of his back — two elephant heads facing each other, their tusks crossed, trunks intertwined.

Tina Morris was at her mother-in-law's house when a detective showed up with the news. She asked the detective if they were sure it was Billy.

"Then I just fell apart."

•••

An autopsy offered little to solve the mystery.

Morris had some minor bruises on his head, but nothing that could have contributed to his death, said Dr. Mary Mainland, Hillsborough County's chief medical examiner. He had a body mass index of 42, which is considered obese, and his heart was enlarged, a result of high blood pressure, Mainland said.

Tests of his blood and ocular fluid put his blood alcohol level at 0.08 and 0.09, respectively. Florida law presumes impairment in motorists at 0.08.

Morris could have had a heart attack or seizure, but there's no way to know that for sure, Mainland said.

"Most seizures, if they're not witnessed, are almost impossible to prove," she said. "In most cases, the brain looks completely normal."

For Cindy Morris, it was another sudden, tragic loss. Her husband Bill Morris II had died suddenly six months earlier, on Easter, at 70.

Cindy Morris said detectives theorized that the Sea-Doo started to float away and Billy, while trying to swim to retrieve it, got caught in the current and swept away. She's not sure foul play wasn't involved, but she doesn't know who would want to hurt Billy.

The Sea-Doo is parked at her house.

"I'm waiting for it to speak to me."

•••

One recent day, Tina and August returned home from a trip to Ikea. He was excited about a new toy train and showed off his battery-powered Batmobile.

When a reporter asked about the day his daddy disappeared, August fell silent. His mother tried to coax him, but he didn't want to talk about it.

Tina is working part time as an acrobatics teacher and collecting Billy's Social Security benefits. She said he had no life insurance policy.

She misses Billy but mourns most for her son, who will now grow up without a father.

"I just have to do my best to take care of him," she said.

August occasionally asks about his father. When he does, Tina always responds the same way.

"I try to explain to him he's in heaven with the angels, and when you go up there you can't call and you can't come down."

Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

Case closed, but family still wonders how toddler was left on Alafia River island (w/video) 03/28/17 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 29, 2017 11:26am]
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