KENNETH CITY — Rita Graham found her fiance, Eric Maurice Whitfield, sitting in a car outside her home early Saturday morning. He was bleeding and struggling to breathe.
He had been shot and asked for water and air.
"I love you, I love you," she remembered him saying before the ambulance took him away. "I'll be okay, just pray. I'll be fine."
Whitfield died Monday morning at Bayfront Medical Center, just days after he was released from prison.
The 42-year-old served time for, among other charges, manslaughter. Whitfield was 26 when St. Petersburg police said he fatally beat and stomped 55-year-old Harold A. Brown in 1995.
Brown was known as the "Painter Man," a carefree and well-liked individual who taught people how to draw, according to a 1995 article in the Tampa Tribune.
Whitfield liked him, the article said, but Brown owed him $8 or so. Whitfield beat him up, police said, and Brown died the next day of an infection caused by a stomach blow.
Whitfield spent nearly 17 years in Florida prisons, off and on, since 1986. He served time for manslaughter, possession of narcotics, resisting arrest with violence and robbery.
Graham, 33, said Whitfield was trying to change and had begun to work as a motivational speaker about his troubled past.
"He was trying to make something positive out of all the wrong he had done," she said. "He wanted to be something different. He wanted to be a better person."
Back in 1995, Whitfield assaulted Brown around 2:40 a.m. in front of a large crowd. That was about the same time that police believe he was shot nearly 16 years later on Saturday.
The shooting took place as a crowd gathered near the bar Something Different, 2420 Central Ave. in St. Petersburg.
A fight started inside and continued outside, police said, culminating in gunfire about 2:47 a.m.
Officers in the area heard the shots and saw people running and driving away from the scene. More shots were fired as officers tried to make their way into the crowd, police said.
They found shell casings and blood on the curb, but no victim.
Although there were likely a number of witnesses, none has come forward, said St. Petersburg police spokesman Mike Puetz.
Then at 4 a.m. the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office contacted police and said it found the gunshot victim.
Graham described Whitfield as a "real jokester" and an avid cook. He loved to whip up curry chicken and food from the Caribbean — an homage to his Haitian father.
She also said he was her fiance. They planned to marry this Valentine's Day.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Reach Danny Valentine at [email protected] or (727) 893-8804.