SEFFNER — Neighbors often saw Gilbert Velez strolling down his street between the Eliza Varnes subdivision and the hustle and bustle of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
But none could say why he took a walk Thursday toward the Wal-Mart on MLK Boulevard and Mango Road with a toy rifle in hand — a walk that ended when the 56-year-old was shot by a deputy.
"He's been living around here for three years," said Leo Watts, 52, a neighbor. "He never did anything like this before."
At 6:20 p.m., bystanders called 911 to report a man walking through the Wal-Mart parking lot with an assault rifle.
Deputy Ricco Palermo arrived on the scene first, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. He told Velez of 1811 S Oak St. to lower the weapon, but Velez turned toward Palermo, pointing the rifle instead, said Debbie Carter, a sheriff's spokeswoman.
That drew a swift reaction from Palermo, who shot Velez in the stomach.
Rescuers took Velez by helicopter to Tampa General Hospital, where he remained in critical condition Friday, said Carter.
Neighbors said Velez shared his home with tenants who paid him rent.
On Friday, children's bikes lay in the yard behind a chained and padlocked gate.
"When he first got the (toy) gun, he told me to come over and try it out," said Conroy Cadore, 49, another neighbor. "He said he got it to play with, you know, for the kids."
The Airsoft gun shot little round plastic balls and cost Velez $400, he said.
Cadore said he thinks Velez understood the officer's commands, and he wondered why Velez took the fake gun off his property.
"That man spoke good English," he said. "And in this day and age, everybody knows you just don't do something like this."
Ten-year veteran Palermo, 36, has been placed on administrative assignment until the investigation is complete, said Chief Deputy Jose Docobo.
Carter said none of the evidence suggests that Velez was trying to be shot by a deputy.
Robbyn Mitchell can be reached at (813) 226-3373 or [email protected]