Walter "J.J." Revear walked out of the Hillsborough County jail that day into hugs from relatives and questions from reporters.
"Do you know what a break you got? Are you going to stay out of trouble now?"
It was his 13th birthday, Oct. 20, 1995. And he was the chubby-cheeked face of a flawed juvenile justice system at a time judges wrestled over punishments for kids who committed grown-up crimes.
The fifth-grader, who stood at 4-foot-6, had driven the getaway car in an armed robbery. The victim caught a glimpse of him, giggling.
In court, he had to sit tall to see over the jury box. He swam in a button-up dress shirt. Prosecutors wanted him to go to prison, but community activists asked the judge to believe in his future.
He got house arrest — that time. The next time he walked out of jail, no one met him. He lost his baby fat, grew facial hair, began to stick out less among the chained men. News reports logged in arrests with fading interest.
Then, on Wednesday, reporters gathered around a Tampa Police Department spokeswoman to hear about a murder outside a Nebraska Avenue bar. The victim was someone familiar; the news, not unexpected.
It was J.J.
Dead at 28.
• • •
Named after his father and grandfather, nicknamed for a character on Good Times, he grew up in Tampa's rough neighborhoods.
He lived with his mother until his grandmother got custody. He saw his father on the street. The cocaine hustler and sometimes-roofer would give him money for candy. One day, the father saw the boy using it to buy meat and bread. He saw his son pumping gas, trying to earn cash at age 7 or 8.
His mom did time in prison. So did his dad.
By the time the boy hit 12, the juvenile judge knew him.
"Walter's a little kid," Circuit Judge Chet A. Tharpe said in 1995. "When you look at him, you love him. And then you look at his case file and you realize you've got a 12-year-old that's very dangerous."
There was the getaway incident. The parking garage robbery. Fifteen counts of car theft.
He had seen the juvenile justice system. "They don't do anything to them when they first start getting in trouble," his aunt Shannon Brown said in 1995. "They need to give them something hard, so they know it's not a joke."
Two days after Revear's no-prison sentence, a 17-year-old with a gun invoked his name. After an arrest, Marcos Alfonso told police, "They didn't do anything to J.J., and they ain't doing anything to me." He got 10 years that following spring.
And Revear got arrested again, for more car thefts. He was acquitted, but admitted to violating probation by playing basketball late at night, and the judge gave him more house arrest.
But the violations collected — smoking marijuana, straying from home, fighting at school.
The chances kept coming. A judge thought maybe boot camp would be the solution. A family brought him into their home in an affluent suburb. Maybe that would make a difference.
He went to church. Made honor roll. Started going by "Walter." But then, he pocketed a gun. And a judge sent him to prison.
Circuit Judge Jack Espinosa called it one of the hardest decisions he had ever made.
"Give them something hard," his aunt had said years earlier.
Maybe this sentence would change him.
• • •
The Interstate Lounge is a windowless bar on N Nebraska Avenue with a list of rules on the outside wall. No weapons. No fighting. Patrons are frisked at the door.
Tuesday was ladies' night. And Revear was a free man.
In the past decade, he had been in prison, out, in and out again. He had spent some time in a state mental hospital, after being found incompetent in court, and doctors prescribed him medicine for bipolar disorder.
Given more probation in April, for a burglary charge, he was ordered to take his medicine.
On Tuesday night, someone else started the trouble.
Revear was there that night with his sister, his brother and two friends. His sister, Kendra, saw a man arguing with Revear's friend, Lyshunda Jackson. Jackson told a man he was too old to be picking up her 18-year-old sister, and she told him he didn't know how to dress. The man's friends began laughing at him.
Revear and his group started to walk away after midnight when that man threw a drink. Punches flew. At some point, the man walked to a red Dodge Charger and returned with a gun. He shot Revear in the temple.
Tampa police say that man is 34-year-old Jimmy Lee Cruz.
He fled, but turned himself in Wednesday evening at the Orient Road Jail. He was charged with second-degree murder.
Revear's sister watched her brother fall, and she held him, cradling his head in her lap, trying to staunch the blood.
She had seen him get chances, and she'd seen him fail. But when he came home this past month, he felt like a grown man really trying to change. He was taking his meds. He wanted to go back to school and study graphic design; as a boy, he loved to draw.
Maybe this time, she thought, would be different.
"J.J.," she told him, "I'm here. I love you. Don't give up on us."
But she couldn't feel a heartbeat.
Times staff writers Kim Wilmath, Sue Carlton, Ileana Morales and researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3354.