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Teacher, teenager killed in shootout

SEFFNER — Sean Ellenberger of St. Petersburg was a 39-year-old teacher, a techie and a science and politics buff who dreamed of having a wife and family.

He had little in common with Titus Hill, 19, of Seffner, an aspiring college student who dreamed of becoming a rap star.

Late Friday night, they shot each other to death in a midnight gun battle in a working-class suburban neighborhood.

The shooting erupted as Hill and an accomplice tried to rob Ellenberger outside the home of Bob Mess, 48, a longtime friend who had just installed a new stereo in Ellenberger's Jeep Cherokee, Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies said.

Hill carried a handgun, but so did Ellenberger, a gun enthusiast with a concealed weapons permit.

Mess said the two engaged in a running shootout. As it ended, Hill limped feebly to a getaway car, Mess said. Ellenberger lay in the middle of Orange Avenue, screaming, "I've been hit. Call 911."

Within hours, each was dead.

Late Saturday afternoon, deputies arrested Michael Balkaran, 17, of Tampa, saying he was one of Hill's two accomplices. Balkaran faces a murder charge in both deaths because he allegedly participated in a robbery that led to the killings. He also faces charges of robbing Ellenberger of a wallet, cell phone and radar detector.

Hill, whose mom works for Hillsborough County Administrator Pat Bean, had no criminal record.

"He didn't break into homes and steal cars," said Hill's grieving mother, Yorlanda Green. "He was a son everybody would want to have."

She said Hill, who lived with his mom in Seffner, was two tests away from graduating from South County Career Center in Ruskin, and was poised to receive a college scholarship. He made a rap CD at a local studio, Green said.

"He said, 'Momma, I'm going to be a star,' " she said.

Green welcomes most visitors to Bean's office, and Bean knew Titus Hill. "You'd walk over and kind of hug him, and he'd smile," Bean said. "He was a nice young man."

Bean said Green did her best to instill values in her five children. But Bean also listened at Green's home Saturday as a deputy explained the events of Saturday night.

"Titus killed somebody?" Green asked.

"Yes," the deputy replied.

"Did he have a family?" Green asked.

"Yes," the deputy said.

Later, Green told the St. Petersburg Times, "It's just hard to believe what they're saying."

Ellenberger lived on Michigan Avenue in St. Petersburg and was single. "He always wanted to marry and have kids," said Mess.

Ellenberger's family gathered from across St. Petersburg Saturday, and said they were too grief-stricken for interviews.

"It was a tragic act of violence that didn't need to happen," said Ellenberger's younger brother, Chris.

Sean Ellenberger and Bob Mess were pals since 1989, when they were volunteer bus drivers for St. Petersburg's Northside Church of Christ. Each Sunday, they rounded up churchgoers who were too old, or too young, to drive.

"We went into a lot of neighborhoods and picked up a lot of poor kids," Mess said.

Over the years, Ellenberger managed a sports bar, was a computer trouble-shooter and catalogued car parts at an auto dealership.

Eventually, he focused on teaching, most recently at the Broach School, a small private school that focuses on individual attention and overcoming learning disabilities.

When Ellenberger earned his master's degree this spring, Mess accompanied him to Boise State University in Idaho to accept it. When Mess moved to Tampa 15 years ago for a computer job at University Community Hospital, the two pals vowed to get together every Friday night.

Ellenberger had an intense intellect and myriad interests, Mess said.

He was a space buff, and owned Star Trek costumes. He loved computers. He researched the law. He was a staunch Republican and gun-rights advocate.

"He religiously watched the Weather Channel, and he loved the news," Mess said.

After the two installed the stereo Friday night, Ellenberger meticulously tested each feature, Mess said.

"He was programming all the talk-radio channels," Mess said. That's when two robbers arrived.

First, they confronted Mess, demanding the stereo, he said. Hill held a "huge" handgun a foot from his head, Mess said.

Mess said he tried to reason that removing the stereo would take time. But the unarmed robber leaped into the passenger seat, feverishly ripping at the device. Hill circled to the driver's side of the car and did the same.

Mess couldn't see Ellenberger, but heard him say, "okay, okay, okay."

In moments, Mess heard a thunderous volley of gunfire, and felt shock waves reverberating under the vehicle against his ankles.

Hill and his companion fled to a car waiting on Orange Avenue, Mess said. Ellenberger followed Hill to the street, then fell there. Ellenberger was shot in the abdomen and died at Tampa General Hospital. Hill was struck multiple times in the torso; a friend took him to St. Joseph's Hospital, where he was pronounced dead, deputies said.

Saturday afternoon, Mess considered himself still in denial that his friend was dead.

"It was a senseless armed robbery over a $129 car stereo," Mess said.

Times Staff Writers Aaron Sharockman and Jessica Vander Velde contributed to this article. Bill Coats can be reached at (813) 269-5309 or [email protected]

Teacher, teenager killed in shootout 08/02/08 [Last modified: Sunday, August 10, 2008 10:11am]
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