TAMPA — Sheriff's investigators say they have recovered two weapons and believe they have identified "key players" in the murder of three men and the attempted murder of another man Monday night.
Residents of the quiet Brandon neighborhood where the attacks happened should not worry that a random killer is responsible, Deputy Larry McKinnon said at a news conference Wednesday.
"These individuals were all known to each other," McKinnon said.
Deputies say one of the dead men, 22-year-old Tony Black, was a member of the notorious Bloods gang, though they have not detailed his involvement.
Deputies have not said that the other victims — Vincent Thomas, 22, Rafael G. Guadalupe, 21, and Ralph Arroyo, 21, who survived — are gang members. But they are suspicious because they were friends with Black. Gang members generally associate only with other gang members, deputies said.
The people responsible for the killings were from out of town and targeted the men, who were hanging out in the back yard of 507 S Oakwood Ave., McKinnon said. Illegal drug activity may have been involved, he said.
"We don't simply believe they were back there innocently enjoying their evening," McKinnon said.
Black and Thomas were shot, and Guadalupe was stabbed. McKinnon said deputies found the gun and knife used in the killings in a nearby drain pipe.
An early clue led investigators to the Orlando area Tuesday, where they found a Mercury Cougar they said was used by the killers. (That car was previously identified by deputies as a Ford Mustang.) Key evidence also was recovered from the car, McKinnon said.
He said Hillsborough deputies were working with other law enforcement agencies to track down suspects. No one has been arrested, he said.
Arroyo was beaten but survived and was interviewed by detectives. Because he is a key witness, deputies are taking Arroyo's safety very seriously, McKinnon said.
Detectives have pinpointed others as possible witnesses or suspects, he said, and some already have been questioned.
Deputies say the violence may have been the result of a dispute within the same gang.
Association with members of a gang is one of 12 criteria deputies use to identify gang members, said Detective Marc Wilder of the Sheriff's Office gang unit.
Other criteria include wearing gang insignia, being identified by a family member or participating in certain gang activities. Once someone meets two of those conditions, his or her name is added to a county database.
Black's name was on that list.
Is it possible for someone to hang out with gang members and not be involved? Anything's possible, Wilder said, but "these guys select their friends. They're usually not friendly with other people not in that same lifestyle."
Wilder said the Bloods, which originated in the 1960s, is one of the fastest growing gangs in the area. Many smaller hybrid gangs have latched on to the well-known group, which has its own colors, motto and prayers.
Gang members often migrate to quiet parts of town to keep a low profile, Wilder said.
Black and Thomas were the only two victims with criminal records in Florida, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Black was arrested on burglary charges in 2008 in Osceola County.
Thomas, a bus driver for Armwood High School, was arrested in 2005 on a charge of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon. He pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor trespassing charge, was adjudicated guilty and sentenced to 12 months' probation, 50 hours of community service and anger management classes.
Thomas' driving record includes tickets in 2005 for driving 67 mph in a 60 mph zone and driving with a suspended license.
The school district uses fingerprints for background checks of job applicants and considers the totality of circumstances before making a hiring decision, said Hillsborough County school spokesman Steve Hegarty.
Whether a brush with the law would disqualify someone depends in part on the job, as well as how long ago the offense took place, what the original charge was and what the disposition was, Hegarty said. For example, he said, a driving-under-the-influence conviction might not matter as much for some jobs as it would for someone applying to be a bus driver.
In Thomas' case, he said, the background check found nothing serious enough to prevent his employment. "He was a good employee," Hegarty said.
Thomas was married and the father of two children, his friends and neighbors said. Guadalupe was also a young father.
Family friends were surprised at assertions of gang activity.
"We certainly don't want to put them in a category of being gang members simply because they were with a gang member, but it certainly rises to a level of investigating further," McKinnon said. "It's the old guilt by association sometimes."
Times staff writers Emily Nipps and Richard Danielson and Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Kim Wilmath can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3386.