PORT TAMPA — Bedridden and paralyzed, Brandyn Preston would ask his mom, "Who did this and why?"
Why did someone fire the gun? Why did the bullet steal the 6-foot-7 bean stalk of a man's mobility? Why did it cut him down at the age of 19, his whole adult life before him?
"I told him it would come out," Kimberly Wood recalled this week. "In the end justice will prevail. You can't do something like that and get away with it. It's not going to happen."
What Wood told her son may have come true after Fort Dodge, Iowa, police arrested a man July 12 suspected of firing the shot that paralyzed Preston, who was visiting relatives. His injuries led to his eventual death in Tampa earlier this year.
Police say 26-year-old Derrick McElroy, of Fort Dodge, was charged with first-degree murder. Police Chief Tim Carmody told the Messenger newspaper in Iowa that a team that included investigators from the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, Webster County Sheriff's Office and police made the arrest based on tips from CrimeStoppers and other leads they developed over 14 months.
"For me it's a bittersweet kind of situation," Wood said. "Now we know there's somebody. Now we have to make sure there's justice. It's too bad Brandyn isn't around to see closure."
The tragic trip that led to Preston's death began in Port Tampa, where he lived with his mother and stepfather. The former East Bay and Robinson high school student had gone on a quest in early 2011 to learn more about his biological father's family in Iowa. He connected with several family members and was attending his cousin's backyard graduation party May 8, 2011, when someone fired a gun. A bullet struck Preston's spinal cord, paralyzing him from the neck down.
After spending months in Iowa and Nebraska hospitals and rehabilitation centers, Preston's mother flew him home where Preston hoped to rehabilitate enough to breathe without a ventilator. But on Jan. 22, eight months after the shooting, he died in the middle of the night at home.
On the anniversary of the shooting this year, about 15 close friends and family members gathered at Picnic Island Beach, a spot Preston loved. They wrote messages on green and blue balloons — the color of his favorite NBA team, the Dallas Mavericks — and released them.
Wood wished for an arrest. Now that she has it she said she plans to return to Iowa and see the case all the way through.
"I will be there for the trial and the sentencing," she said.
Justin George can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3368.