TAMPA — The knock on the door came two months after Marilyn Andreatta visited her son in Phoenix.
Justin Stanfield Thomas had settled in the Arizona city where he worked two jobs and hoped to raise his oldest son, now 4. Andreatta visited them in April for the birth of his second son.
But on June 7, the police officer standing outside her Tampa home arrived with bad news. There was an accident, she told Andreatta.
Thomas had been shot dead by his 4-year-old son.
More than 2,000 miles away, police sorted out the details of the shooting. Thomas, 34, and his son dropped by a former roommate's duplex in Prescott Valley that Friday to pick up some of his belongings. The roommate was asleep and never saw the text message from Thomas saying that he was on his way.
Within minutes of entering the home, the boy noticed a .38-caliber handgun under the TV.
"What is this?" he asked his dad.
Then he fired.
Thomas died from a gunshot wound to the chest. Prescott Valley police ruled the shooting an accident, said spokesman Sgt. Brandon Bonney.
"He really didn't understand what he had done," Andreatta, 61, said in an interview Thursday.
Police questioned the boy. Officers let him pet their canine partners to distract him while his mother, Thomas' ex-wife, spoke to a grief counselor.
Andreatta and her husband flew to Phoenix on June 11. The grieving mother cleared out her son's apartment and truck. She spent time with those who knew her son.
"We were all devastated," she said. "It was so comforting to be around the people who were closest to him. He had so many friends. The funeral was full."
Throughout the services, Thomas' friends approached her with kind words. Some told her Thomas, a U.S. Army Special Forces veteran who served in Iraq for two years, was a fine soldier. Others mentioned his humor.
"The thing that struck me," Andreatta said, "his friends knew what a great father he was."
He often took his son on fishing trips or to the park. He was looking forward to being a father a second time. His newborn, Jace, is 2 months old.
Days before the funeral, Andreatta spent time with her 4-year-old grandson. The boy was calm. Every morning, he bounded to her bed to wake her up with kisses.
At the funeral home, Thomas' body was in an open casket. It would be the last time the boy saw his father.
"We explained to him that people are like Christmas presents, that the outside of us is the wrapping, but the real gift is inside," Andreatta said. "And when we die, just the packaging, just the wrapping is left. The present goes on to live with Jesus and the angels."
The little boy approached his father and tucked flowers in his hands.
Days later, he cried. Daddy's gone, he repeated.
In three weeks, his grandmother will return to Phoenix and stay with him again.
The family is searching for a counselor who will talk to the boy and help him understand.
"Before he figures out," Andreatta said, "he's the one that pulled the trigger."
Times staff researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Laura C. Morel can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386.