TAMPA — Police call Jimmy Lee Cruz a killer, blaming him for the death last week of J.J. Revear, once Tampa's most notorious child criminal.
But scores of young boys knew the 33-year-old Cruz as something else over the past five years: coach.
Cruz, despite 20 state arrests, has helped lead youth football teams, his record apparently overlooked by the Mid-Florida Football & Cheerleading Conference, which requires background checks of volunteers.
He might have been excluded for having distributed cocaine within 1,000 feet of a school or soliciting prostitution, both past convictions. He was also charged with shooting a man in 1996, though that case was dropped.
The city, which requires leagues to background volunteers, would not have allowed him on city fields had parks officials been aware of his record.
"Not at all," Parks and Recreation Department spokeswoman Linda Carlo said.
Cruz's family said the one-time Alfred State College football player coached several Tampa area teams. His sons played football. Most recently, he assisted 7- and 8-year-old boys playing for the Tampa Bay Panthers at city-owned Cuscaden Park.
The Panthers are registered to Christopher Keel, 40, of Tampa, according to Florida business records. Keel did not return phone messages Friday, Monday or Tuesday. Nor did Mid-Florida league officials contacted this week.
The city requires teams that use its fields to report names of volunteers and coaches and to be part of a sanctioned league, such as Mid-Florida. The league's website includes a volunteer registration form that authorizes background checks. It also includes questions about convictions. It's not clear whether Cruz was screened.
After the St. Petersburg Times inquired, Carlo said a city parks employee asked Keel about Cruz's record — and that Keel seemed surprised.
Keel told the city that Cruz only participated in a few practices and unofficial workouts, Carlo said, and so he wasn't on the Panthers list of coaches or volunteers filed with the city.
But Cruz's family said he participated extensively over the years. He stood with players to pose for official team photographs.
Tuesday, city officials learned that he had also coached the Cowboys, another Mid-Florida league team that practices at another city park, said Cathie Schanz, a Tampa parks manager.
Most youth sports associations such as the Tampa Bay Youth Football League, which includes 4,000 kids and 1,500 volunteers, require background checks. Everyone who comes in contact with a child must pay $20 for a nationwide criminal check, said president Scott Levinson.
"If you were arrested for DUI eight years ago, I don't think that's going to hurt you coaching a child," Levinson said. "But if you were arrested for drugs or distribution … that's a different story. Anything dealing with domestic violence, anything dealing with a child, anything sexual, you're done."
The Tampa Metro YMCA, which has flag football teams, also requires background checks for employees and volunteers, spokeswoman Becky Bray said. The YMCA weighs criminal charges against a long list of offenses the state uses to exclude some government workers. Prohibited convictions include crimes involving sex and drugs.
The city is still looking into Cruz's role, Carlo said. It's unclear whether sanctions against the team or league will follow.
Cruz's older brother acknowledged that Jimmy wasn't an "angel" but said he loved kids. His last arrest before the latest shooting was in 2004, Juan Cruz pointed out. Most of Jimmy Lee Cruz's arrests never led to convictions. All but one of his five convictions were misdemeanors.
Cruz's family said he has been a devoted father of four boys, ages 8 to 17, who are honor roll students. He watched over them after school at practice and gave back to the community through coaching.
They said they believe Cruz shot Revear in self-defense and think witnesses can step forward to free him.
Tampa police said a bar dispute at the Interstate Lounge on Nebraska Avenue spilled into the parking lot where Cruz and Revear came in contact.
Arrested multiple times as a child, Revear became the subject of public debate in the 1990s on how to deal with juvenile crime.
Police said Revear, 28, was trying to break up an argument when Cruz walked to his car, grabbed a gun and fatally shot him. Cruz is facing a second-degree murder charge. He remains in a Hillsborough County jail without bail.
"He would never harm anyone unless he felt like his life was being threatened," Juan Cruz, 39, said. "We just want people to know Jimmy's a good guy."
It was the second time Tampa police investigated a shooting involving Cruz. In March 1996, three men suspected Cruz of stealing a relative's car and found him near 17th and Juneau streets, police reported. When they approached, Cruz jumped into a car, came out with a gun and shot one of the men, Ricardo A. Warren, the report states.
During an investigation, Cruz told police the men had previously beaten him, and he was just defending himself. Prosecutors dropped a charge of attempted homicide, and Cruz pleaded no contest to police obstruction.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or email@example.com.