Sunday, January 21, 2018
Public safety

Phone left at Ybor shooting scene led cops to shooting suspect

TAMPA — The man police say is responsible for killing Christian "Snookie" Ma'afu might not have been arrested but for a simple mistake: He dropped his cellphone at the scene of the crime.

One of Ma'afu's friends, who saw the 20-year-old St. Petersburg man's shooting death early last Saturday in an Ybor City parking lot, spotted the phone lying on the ground and pointed it out to police.

That phone revealed text messages and links to a Facebook profile belonging to the man authorities later charged.

The investigation spanned a single weekend. Police catalogued the events of that early morning. They questioned Ma'afu's friends. They followed a digital trail that led them to a car, to an apartment and, finally, to John Fitzgerald Chatman Jr.

The story of the swift detective work that culminated with Chatman's arrest on a charge of second-degree murder is detailed in a search warrant authorities obtained a day after the shooting.

The document doesn't tell the whole story. But it does illuminate a sketch of a young man who died trying to protect his friends.

• • •

It started on a Friday night when 12 friends from Pinellas County ventured across the bay to visit the Amphitheatre, 1609 E Seventh Ave., for the nightclub's weekly bass-soaked dance party known as "Pound Friday." Among them were Myrom Londono, 20, and Brandon Hernandez, 19. They stayed until the club closed around 3 a.m.

Walking out, they traded loud banter as they ventured down 16th Street, toward a parking lot at the corner of Fifth Avenue. Nearby, two other men — one short and stocky, the other tall and lean — overheard the conversation and began to mock the group, Londono said.

Idle chatter turned to an argument between Ma'afu and the two men. The short man walked away to a parked Infinity sedan, according to the warrant. When he returned, a fight broke out. The short man pulled out a handgun and hit Londono on the cheek. He then pointed the gun at Hernandez.

"Are you ready to die tonight?" the man said, Londono told police.

Ma'afu charged, tackling the gunman. They tussled on the ground before the man scrambled to his feet and fired, the warrant said. The bullet pierced Ma'afu's shoulder, sliced through his torso and lodged in his spine.

As the two men fled, Londono cradled Ma'afu.

"Please don't die," he said. "Please wake up."

• • •

Detectives later got a search warrant for the stray cellphone. In it was a series of messages on an open Facebook profile dubbed "Bout Dem Racks."

The profile, still visible nearly a week after the shooting, displays several photos of a man showing off a stack of bills, raising his middle finger and flashing a set of gold teeth.

On one photo, a friend wrote "My best friend Chatman!"

Police ran the name through a database. That turned up an entry for John Fitzgerald Chatman Jr. They showed Chatman's mug shot to each of Ma'afu's friends in a lineup. All said he was the shooter.

When authorities arrived to search his Clearwater apartment, Chatman ran to the apartment's bathroom, threw the keys to his Toyota Avalon in the toilet and tried to flush them away before police stopped him, according to the warrant.

He remains in jail without bail.

Christian Ma'afu's friends have set up a memorial fund on gofundme.com to help his family. They organized a memorial volleyball game to do the same.

They want to honor the man they knew — the man who brought them smiles with the strum of his ukulele, the man who provided for his toddler nephew whom he adored, the man who died in defense of those who loved him.

Times staff writer Laura C. Morel contributed to this report. Dan Sullivan can be reached at (813) 226-3386 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @TimesDan.

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