Monday, January 15, 2018
Public safety

Tampa student describes horror of gunman's rampage

TAMPA — At the stroke of midnight, Claudia Seijo heard a knock at the door.

Outside, more than two dozen of her friends stood waiting. It was her 20th birthday and her fiance had arranged a surprise party.

Once back inside, Seijo left the door open, like she always did during parties, so friends could come and go.

It had never been a problem before, she said. Living at the Oaks Condominiums, a complex off 42nd Street that is home to many of her friends at the University of South Florida, she had always felt safe.

But in the early hours of Friday morning, someone uninvited walked in.

"This guy shows up and he kind of just stands at the door," said Seijo, a student at Hillsborough Community College. Before anyone could question him, he pulled a gun.

At first, Seijo and her friends thought it was a prank. His silver 9mm gun resembled a spray-painted water pistol, they joked.

Then he began to yell.

"He starts telling us to move, to drop everything, to not call 911, to drop our phones," Seijo said.

The man was Charlie "Chris" Bates, 24. And what the partygoers didn't know was that they weren't his first victims of the night.

His rampage began about 11 p.m. Thursday at the nearby Cambridge Woods Apartments where he attacked a group of USF students, binding the four men and raping the four women, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.

Then, across the street at Eagles Point Apartments, Bates forced a woman inside her apartment and made her undress and kiss him. His demeanor changed when the woman began praying. He apologized and left.

That's when he headed to the Oaks Condominiums.

Inside Seijo's apartment, Bates ordered the group of mostly international students, many of them of Indian descent, into a small bedroom.

"He tells us to not call 911 saying, 'Whoever does, I'll kill them,' " Seijo said.

Still, when Bates became distracted by the knocks of some late arriving friends at the now closed front door, one of the students attempted to dial 911. But Bates returned too quickly and saw the lit-up phone on the floor.

"Demanding to know who it was, he pointed the gun at my roommate, but she told him it wasn't her," Seijo said. "Then he pointed the gun at another friend and said, 'I'm going to shoot you, you're going to die.' "

When no one confessed, Bates shot the gun toward the ground, Seijo said. The bullet struck the carpet about a foot from one student's leg.

As the knocks at the front door grew louder, Bates became frustrated, Seijo said. He went back and forth, taking hostages and letting them go, in one case because a boyfriend pleaded for his girlfriend's safety.

Bates then pointed the gun at several people's heads, Seijo said, including her fiance, and demanded money. The group forked over about $80, Seijo said, and Bates finally left.

On Saturday, Seijo, a pre-med student, was still trying to process the night's events.

"At a moment like that so many things are going through your head," she said. "You're thinking you're going to die, you're thinking you want to protect your friends."

When Seijo learned what happened at nearby apartments, she had a mix of emotions.

"I started feeling anger and sadness," she said, "and relief that none of us got hurt."

But, now, she mostly feels neglected.

"In most of these apartments, we're students," she said. "We may not be on campus but we are part of USF. I feel like there should have been more security for us, especially knowing the neighborhood around us is a horrible zone."

On Friday, USF president Judy Genshaft invited students living in the affected communities to stay on campus free of charge for the weekend. "I wanted everybody to know there is nothing more important than the safety of our students, faculty and staff and visitors to the campus. …" Genshaft said. "This is a situation which is not uncommon across universities in the United States, but we certainly don't ever want it to happen near or around our campus. We care about everything that impacts our students."

After hours of searching, law enforcement spotted Bates on Friday afternoon driving a stolen car south along U.S. 301 toward Interstate 4. A car chase ensued. It ended when Bates lost control after an officer rammed the back of his car.

Authorities shot Bates "several times," deputies say. He was pronounced dead a while later.

Times researcher John Martin and staff writer Stephanie Hayes contributed to this report. Shelley Rossetter can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3401.

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