Overnight search ends in tragedy as missing Tampa toddler's body found in Hillsborough River

TAMPA — They gathered at the water's edge, not long after the sun broke through darkness that had lasted too long. Many had been up all night — hoping, praying, combing the grassy slope along the riverbank.

Two-year-old Armani Pierce vanished Tuesday night after a youth football practice in Temple Crest Park, along the shore of the Hillsborough River. Four different law enforcement agencies and a legion of volunteers, many of whom didn't know the boy, joined the search.

"It's extremely personal," said Jay Tillman, coach of the Tampa Bay Ravens youth football team. "It's personal because it's a child."

In the early morning Wednesday, police bloodhounds detected Armani's scent along the shore, 200 yards north of where he was last seen. At sunrise, a police dive team took to an algae-choked inlet, where a shelf of shallow water quickly gives way to a murky 6-foot depth.

There, they found the toddler's body.

A mother's wails and the sobs of strangers pierced the early morning stillness as word spread.

"Oh, my baby!" screamed Alicia Sanders, 24, as friends lifted her on their shoulders. "I need my baby! I need Armani!"

• • •

It began nearly 12 hours earlier, in a fleeting moment after the Tampa Bay Ravens had finished practice in the park at 8116 N 37th St.

About 8:30 p.m., Sanders gathered her 6-year-old son, who plays on the team, and her 4-year-old daughter, a cheerleader, and prepared to head home.

She saw Armani playing with a small dog near the park's basketball courts, family members said. She turned away for a moment. When she turned back, the boy was gone.

Parents and friends began to search. After 15 minutes, someone called 911.

Tampa police, firefighters, Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies and officers of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission coordinated the effort. Police went door-to-door and checked in with registered sex offenders in the area.

A helicopter scoured the neighborhood. Boats crept along the river. Flashlight beams illuminated the Spanish moss that hung from trees at the water's edge.

Carlos Pierce Sr., 42, Armani's grandfather, was dozing off Tuesday night in his Riverview home when the picture of his grandson on the 11 p.m. news jolted him awake. He arrived at the scene just after midnight.

His son, Carlos Pierce Jr. — Armani's father — started shouting angrily about Alicia Sanders, his former girlfriend, in the search's early hours.

"She's trying to snap at me, telling me to go help find him," said Pierce Jr., 23. "She needs to tell me how she lost my son. How do you lose a 2-year-old?"

Jackie Sanders, the boy's grandmother, came over and tried to calm the boy's father.

"You both have lost him," she told Pierce Jr. "Both of you have lost a child."

• • •

By 4 a.m., the search had dwindled. But some still lingered, waiting until sunrise to begin again. As the sky turned pink, police officers fanned out, once again, across the grass. They took batons to the shore grass and sifted through weeds.

About 7:30 a.m., Tampa police Chief Jane Castor arrived. After that, word spread.

Searchers, their shirts soaked in sweat, headed north and west, stopping short of yellow crime scene tape strung between the trees. Castor put her arm around Sanders, who howled with a guttural agony.

Carlos Pierce Jr. marched behind her as they walked to view their son's remains.

"It's very, very traumatic," Castor said later. "For anybody that is a parent, this is your worst nightmare."

The family was led away. An hour later, the yellow tape came down. Steps from the river, Ravens coaches and parents assembled to pray and talk.

They host these games to keep the kids out of trouble, Coach Tillman told the group. To keep them safe.

"It could have been any one of our kids," Tillman said. "Let's not just give up because of one situation. Let's make it mean something."

Tonight's practice, he said, would be dedicated to Armani.

"We've got to be here for that baby."

Times staff writer Will Hobson contributed to this report. Dan Sullivan can be reached at (813) 226-3386 or dsullivan@tampabay.com.

Overnight search ends in tragedy as missing Tampa toddler's body found in Hillsborough River 08/14/13 [Last modified: Thursday, August 15, 2013 8:13am]

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