ST. PETERSBURG — An 18-year-old man was charged Sunday evening with killing an 8-year-old girl as she lay asleep in her home.
Paris Whitehead-Hamilton was hit once in the upper torso about 2:20 a.m. Sunday as more than 50 bullets from a semiautomatic rifle poured into her home in Bartlett Park, a neighborhood south of downtown St. Petersburg, police said. They believe the shooting was connected to a neighborhood dispute.
"It's shocking to see that baby get hurt," said Twynette Green, 37, a six-year resident of the street whose 2-year-old grandchild was among the nine people in the house during the shooting. "At first, we thought it was firecrackers, but then it just locked in and all we heard was shooting."
Police charged Stephan C. Harper of St. Petersburg, whose criminal history began as a 9-year-old, with first-degree murder, saying he planned and participated in the shooting.
"We are outraged and incensed," St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon said.
Paris, a student at Imagine Charter School in St. Petersburg, was living at the house at 771 Preston Ave. S with her aunt, Shenita Joseph, 42. She would ride her pink and purple bicycle up and down Preston Avenue. Sunday, she was to go fishing with an uncle, a neighbor said.
The girl's mother, Robin D. Whitehead, died in 2006 at the age of 37 of injuries she sustained in a fall. Police on Sunday evening had not been able to contact Paris' father, Robert E. Hamilton, who neighbors said is in the military.
"She was a nice, friendly little girl," said Jacquelyn Fleming, 52. "She would always stop and talk to you. She was a sweet-hearted little girl."
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Harper is not new to police. In 1999, when he was 9, he was charged with disrupting a school environment. The misdemeanor charges would continue, at ages 11 and 12.
In 2006, Harper, of 731 15th St. S, Apartment E106, was charged with possession of cocaine. In February, he was charged with aggravated fleeing and eluding, marijuana possession and operating a vehicle without a license. He was being held Sunday at the Pinellas County Jail, and police say they have more suspects.
Police said there was an ongoing disagreement between one of the men who lived at the Preston Avenue house and a group from another neighborhood.
Police said the early morning shooting was an act of retaliation but were not clear on what caused the dispute.
Police seized three assault rifles, two shotguns and one bulletproof vest from an apartment at Citrus Grove Apartments, 711 15th St. S. They believe some of the weapons were used in the shooting. The car that was used was also recovered.
Harmon expressed his condolences to the victim's family for "this tragic and senseless shooting" and praised the efforts of his officers and detectives who "worked extremely hard all day to bring closure to this case in less than 24 hours."
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker said justice will be sought.
"We are going to very aggressively go after the folks that were responsible for this, and we'll seek the most severe penalties."
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Sunday morning, yellow crime tape stretched along Preston Avenue.
In front of the ranch-style house riddled with bullet holes was a small plastic tricycle with purple wheels, yellow handle bars and a red seat.
By late afternoon, much of the crime tape was gone and folks returned to their front porch chairs, watching and waving at passersby. On a vacant lot, a group of children chased one another at play.
For residents of one of the city's poorest communities, murder has become all too common.
"This is the second murder this year and it's just April," Green said. "For this little neighborhood, that's two too many."
In 2006, Green's neighbor Jacqueline Johnson was killed by a longtime friend when she was stabbed in the neck with a screwdriver.
In September, Mandy M. Sampson was shot and killed by robbers. She was found in an alley just off Preston Avenue, Green said. Sampson was 27 and a mother of two.
In January, 15-year-old Malayshia Kierra Gamble's body was found in a vacant lot on Preston Avenue. She had been shot in the head.
Sunday morning, it was 8-year-old Paris.
Staff writer Mike Brassfield and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Demorris A. Lee can be reached at 727-445-4174 or firstname.lastname@example.org.