DADE CITY — While driving along the usual route to pick up church members Sunday morning, Ezequiel Casarez offered a few words of counsel to those already riding in the van headed to Templo Aposento Alto.
Casarez nodded toward a scrubby, unkempt corner along the Calle De Milagros, which was obscured by the familiar sight of yellow tape and detectives securing a crime scene.
"I told the people to be careful," said Casarez, an assistant pastor at the church, whose name translates to "The Upper Room" in English. "It seems like, now, they could be just walking down the street and get shot."
Casarez's macabre advice came only hours after a man was fatally shot in the Tommytown area north of Dade City early Sunday, the third homicide in the neighborhood in the past two days.
The man was shot about 2:30 a.m. at the corner of 14th and Lock streets after a fight outside a nightclub called La Onda, according to the Pasco County Sheriff's Office. The fight involved a group of people in their mid to late teens and another group in their 20s to 30s.
Deputies said the groups took their dispute from the nightclub to the P Express convenience store across the street, and a dark-colored sport utility vehicle pulled up to the scene of the fight. The victim approached the SUV and was shot, the Sheriff's Office said.
The victim, described only as a man in his 20s, was taken to Pasco Regional Hospital in Dade City, where he later died. His name was not being released pending the notification of his family.
Deputies have interviewed witnesses, though no arrests have been made.
The nightclub shooting does not appear to be related to the double murder Friday night of two migrant workers, deputies said. The bodies of Santos De La Cruz, 33, and Quirino Velasquez, 46, were found at the corner of Hutchinson and Meredith streets in the Tommytown area.
"These appear to be completely different incidents," said Doug Tobin, a spokesman for the Sheriff's Office. "The shooting Sunday was more of a fight after a dance in a parking lot."
De La Cruz and Velasquez were shot only a tenth of a mile from the apartment they shared. The men were heading to a market to cash their paychecks and to wire money to their families in Mexico.
Investigators wouldn't say whether they believe robbery was a motive. Detectives have made no arrests and haven't identified any suspects in the shootings.
The weekend homicides have renewed concerns about increasing drug activity and violent crime in Tommytown, an impoverished neighborhood of dirt roads that fan out from Lock Street in Dade City. In recent years, local authorities have lamented the problem of earning the trust of the largely Hispanic community, which consists of many undocumented workers.
Sunday afternoon, the parking lot of the P Express store was buzzing with activity — some folks were detailing their cars at one end, while others enjoyed tortas and tostadas from the open-air taco stand at the other.
Everyone had heard about the latest fatal shooting.
"Do I feel safe? Kinda," said Tiffany Scott, who watched as her friends wiped down car after car. "Things happen here, sure. But then things will die down for a bit."
Sherali Karani, owner of the P Express, said he had grown used to the rough crowd that sometimes gathers over at La Onda on weekend nights. But Karani had never worried about gunfire before.
"I've seen people get drunk, have a fight or something," Karani said. "But I've never seen a murder."
Over the years, Casarez said his church has tried desperately to provide hope for the residents of Tommytown. Regardless, the crime — mostly petty but occasionally violent — has steadily overwhelmed the neighborhood along Calle de Milagros, which translates to "Street of Miracles."
"The street has a good name," Casarez said. "But right now that's what we really need — some miracles."
Joel Anderson can be reached at (352) 754-6120 or firstname.lastname@example.org.