BRANDON — Shots exploded just after midnight.
Three men lay dead in a family's back yard.
Two had been gunned down, one stabbed.
A fourth was beaten. He ran toward arriving deputies when he saw them.
The triple homicide scene at 507 Oakwood Ave. in Brandon on Tuesday launched a tightly held investigation that quickly led deputies to Orange County.
There, they found a red Ford Mustang they said was used by the killers.
A Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman declined to release any information about the suspects or their whereabouts, but said detectives were interviewing people late Wednesday.
Dead was Vincent Thomas, 22, a school bus driver and married father of two, killed in his back yard. With him were Tony Black, 22, a man with one arrest on his record but someone deputies said was an active gang member; and Rafael Guadalupe, 21, a young father who had no known Florida arrests.
Rumors of gang involvement grew as Hillsborough County sheriff's officials confirmed Black's affiliation with the Bloods gang. But sheriff's spokeswoman Debbie Carter cautioned that it was too soon to call the killings gang-related crime.
"That's just an aspect we're looking for," she said.
The shooting was not random, she said.
Deputies expected to work the case throughout the night and planned a 10 a.m. press conference today. Carter did say that some of the leads detectives were following "may involve gang members" but she said it wasn't clear how they knew their targets.
The victims were all acquaintances and had been hanging out in the back yard together when a car pulled up. More than one person got out — Carter wouldn't say how many — and they went directly to the back yard, confronted the men, then shot and stabbed them.
Investigators didn't release the order in which the killings occurred.
Two of the men lay dead in a backyard shed and one was sprawled in the open yard, Carter said.
The attackers beat Ralph Arroyo, 21, of Lutz, but he escaped. Deputies questioned Arroyo, but Carter would not say what he told them.
The Times could not reach him at home or by phone Tuesday.
Angel Rosa, 20, said he has known Thomas and his family for about three years. Rosa's father was helping Thomas renovate the shed into a game room. He described Thomas as a family man who took his kids on regular family outings and adored his wife of two years, Mira Lee Hill, 22.
"If he had the world in his hands," Rosa said, "he would give it to her."
Thomas' young family was huddled inside the house when the backyard exploded in gunfire, Rosa said. They have since gone to stay with relatives, he said.
Thomas drove buses for Armwood High School and had no disciplinary issues, Hillsborough schools spokeswoman Linda Cobbe confirmed.
Midday Tuesday, sheriff's deputies removed the crime scene tape that had surrounded the one-story home across from Oakwood Baptist Church for most of the day. A sheriff's cruiser kept watch over the home for hours, but drove away just before 5 p.m.
It's a quiet neighborhood. The worst thing neighbors said they could remember happening there was a dispute over squawking peacocks.
Lucille Fuchs, 74, who lives next door, said Thomas was a good neighbor with a wife and two children, a girl about 2 and a boy a bit younger. He would often come over to ask Fuchs' husband for advice on fixing things around the house or to borrow tools.
"My impression of him was that he was very nice," Fuchs said.
As darkness fell again, family friends stopped by the residence, hoping to pay their respects. But the house was empty.
Cao Tran, 24, a friend from middle and elementary school, said Thomas grew up in the Oakwood house where he died. Though he'd moved away years ago, he and his wife moved back soon after they wed, he said.
Billy Bernard, 24, of Brandon, said that Thomas was nicknamed "PeeWee" when he was younger, because of his small stature. He said he was always joking around, "the kind of guy who wanted to keep a smile on your face."
Bernard said he was having a hard time believing the rumors.
"Gang-related?" he said. "No … He was trying to be there for his wife and kids."
Less was known on Tuesday about the other three victims.
Thomas and Black were the only two with criminal records in Florida, according to the Department of Law Enforcement. Neither Guadalupe nor Arroyo showed any record of arrests in Florida.
Thomas was charged with auto theft in 2003 in St. Petersburg and aggravated battery with a weapon in 2005 in Tampa. Black was arrested on burglary charges in 2008 in Osceola County.
A man who identified himself as Black's uncle in Fort Lauderdale but wouldn't give his name called Black a good boy who loved his mother, his brothers and the church.
Jonathan Jiminez, 16, knew Rafael Guadalupe as "Rafi" and called him his cousin because their mothers were close friends. Guadalupe, he said, has a 1-month-old daughter, and recently moved into a new apartment with the girl's mother.
The Times did not reach anyone at his home.
Jiminez said he too was surprised by talk of gang activity.
"He was always straight," Jiminez said, "always a good kid and stayed with his family."
Sgt. Greg Jennings of the Sheriff's Office gang enforcement section wouldn't comment on Tuesday's killings. But he did say that just because a gang member is involved in a crime doesn't in and of itself mean the crime is gang-related. The determining factor is whether gang affiliation was central to motive, he said.
There are 93 gangs in Hillsborough County that include 2,000 "certified" gang members and 200 gang associates.
"Certified" means they meet criteria that law enforcement officials believe show their depth of involvement in the groups. The designator brings with it stiffer penalties when convicted.
Jennings said the biggest obstacle to solving gang-related crime is combating the stigma of snitching.
"The better the information," he said, "the better we can conduct the investigation."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3383.