TAMPA — Mary Bell recalls Jeffrey Walker's plea. It came one day after his 3-year-old nephew accidentally shot himself with Walker's handgun.
"I wish it had been me," Bell remembers Walker saying.
On Tuesday, Jadarrius Speights discovered a gun that his uncle had left in a backpack near the boy, deputies say. They live together at an apartment near the University of South Florida.
Jadarrius died at the hospital, and authorities charged Walker, 29, with culpable negligence. He bailed out of jail Wednesday, and family members have been keeping an eye on him since then.
Bell, who is Jadarrius' great-aunt, does not think Walker should be criminally charged. He has isolated himself and is obviously suffering, she said.
"Should he be punished? A little bit, perhaps," Bell, 41, told the Tampa Bay Times on Thursday. "But at the same time, this could have happened to anyone. You never keep a loaded gun in the area of a child's space."
She wants Walker to attend a gun safety class, and she wants others to avoid similar accidents. Tragedies like this happen too often, she says.
"And unfortunately," Bell added, "it happened to my family."
When Walker told Bell that he wished it had been him, Bell remembers telling him: "Accidents happen. We know accidents happen. They just shouldn't happen from carelessness."
Jadarrius had a large family who loved him. He recently celebrated his third birthday with about 50 guests at Rowlett Park in Tampa.
His parents rented a bounce house, and Bell took him inside.
"He loved it," said Bell, who now cherishes photos of that day.
She calls him her "heart." She took him for his first haircut.
She remembers the first time she saw him. He was an active baby, scooting around the floor so enthusiastically she nicknamed him "Scudda."
During recent visits, he would bombard his great-aunt with questions and pull on her puppy's tail.
"He was very, very energetic and always happy," Bell said. "He was always asking me questions or playing games. He worked my iPhone better than I did."
Bell is not sure why Walker had a 9mm handgun or a concealed weapon permit, as the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office says he did. But she is certain of one thing:
"I hope he gets rid of his gun."
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3433.