Once again, trouble finds Lionel Tate

Published May 25, 2005|Updated Aug. 25, 2005

Four years ago Lionel Tate became the youngest person in modern U.S. history to be sentenced to life in prison without parole. When he was 12, he beat and stomped to death a little girl half his age and size.

Juvenile justice experts and Broward County community leaders said prison would ruin Tate and urged that he be put into counseling instead.

Eventually, the conviction and life sentence were overturned, but more trouble followed.

On Monday, the now 18-year-old Tate was arrested on charges of pulling a gun on a pizza deliveryman.

"He'd been given a huge chance," said neighbor Michael Peters, shaking his head.

Tate's supporters say that all the chances in the world were not enough to help Tate, who left prison and returned to his drug-riddled neighborhood on the Broward and Miami-Dade county line.

On Tuesday, two people from a Broward church said they had extended several offers of help to Tate's mother over the past several months.

All of their offers, they said, were rebuffed.

"If Lionel had more support, this would not have happened," said the Rev. Dennis Grant, who lobbied the Florida Legislature on Tate's behalf several years ago. "I am not saying he should not take responsibility."

In 1999, Tate killed Tiffany Eunick, a girl his mother was baby-sitting.

Initially, Tate's defense was that the 6-year-old girl died as he was imitating professional wrestling moves he'd seen on television.

He changed his story years later and said he accidentally killed Tiffany when he jumped on her from a staircase while his mother was baby-sitting the girl.

Experts, however, testified at Tate's trial that Tiffany died of a fractured skull and lacerated liver suffered in a beating that lasted one to five minutes.

Tate served three years in juvenile detention, then his conviction and life sentence were overturned on appeal in 2003; he was allowed to go free in 2004 under a plea agreement that kept him under court supervision for 11 years.

"We had a real chance. The right thing would have been to get this young man some help," said Michael Brannon, a forensic psychologist appointed by a state judge to examine Tate after the 1999 killing.

In 1999, Brannon examined Tate for two days at the court's direction and filed an evaluation concluding that while the boy didn't suffer from mental illness or retardation, he had "a high potential for violence," along with "uncontrolled feelings of anger, resentment and poor impulse control."

Brannon, who works at the Institute for Behavioral Sciences and the Law in Fort Lauderdale, recommended that instead of being sent to prison, Tate be placed in a secure mental hospital and receive intensive monitoring once he was released.

The Rev. Grant and one of his church members, Bobbie Duncan, said they tried to maintain contact with Tate and his mother, a Florida state trooper. Duncan, who is retired and lives in a gated community in Tamarac, said she even offered to allow Tate to live with her.

Tate received some counseling, Duncan said, but stayed in the same troubled neighborhood. He didn't maintain contact with his supporters or attend the suggested church youth groups.

Last September, police picked Tate up as Hurricane Frances bore down on Florida's east coast. Tate was carrying a knife, and a judge who handled the case said he would have "zero tolerance" for probation violations if Tate was arrested again.

In March, Duncan spoke to Tate's mother, who casually mentioned that her son had been robbed of his cell phone at gunpoint.

And now, this arrest.

According to a police report, a 12-year-old neighbor said that he allowed Tate to use the telephone in his apartment to call for a pizza delivery. Tate then left, returning a short time later and forcing his way inside by shoving the boy out of the way.

The deliveryman, Walter E. Gallardo, told police that the door was open when he arrived at the apartment with four pizzas. As he entered, he saw someone with a gun that appeared to be a .38-caliber revolver, according to the police account.

Gallardo said he "threw the pizzas and fled out the door" and was chased by the person with the gun. Gallardo fell, losing his glasses and his cell phone. The deliveryman returned to the apartment complex with sheriff's deputies, saw Tate in the area and identified him as the gunman, police said. No gun was recovered.

The 12-year-old boy also identified Tate, who lives in an apartment complex across the street.

On Tuesday, no one answered the door at the townhome Tate shares with his mother.

Duncan and the Rev. Grant are hoping Tate is innocent. Tate told his lawyers Tuesday that he was innocent and that it was a case of mistaken identity.

"I think we need to wait a little while until a full investigation is done," Grant said.

"Lionel would be a fool, the dumbest man ever to have been born if he did something like this."

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Tamara Lush can be reached at (727) 893-8612 or at



AUG. 11, 1999: At age 12, Lionel Tate is indicted in the June 28 death of Tiffany Eunick, 6, on June 28.

MARCH 2000: Tate's attorney, Jim Lewis, subpoenas wrestlers Terry "Hulk Hogan" Bollea and Steve "Sting" Borden during a World Championship Wrestling show. Lewis also subpoenaed World Wrestling Federation champion Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. Lewis wants the three to show jurors how pro wrestlers choreograph their moves so they don't hurt each other during the televised action. The boy was mimicking such moves, but didn't realize the injuries they could cause when he gave Tiffany Eunick a bear hug, dropped her onto a table and then swung her into a railing, Lewis had said. A judge later rules that Tate's attorney cannot use the wrestlers as unpaid expert witnesses.

JAN. 25, 2001: Tate is convicted of first-degree murder. "This wasn't about wrestling at all," juror Stephen Dankner said. "It was about brutality."


MARCH 2001: Tate, now 14, is sentenced to life in prison on March 9. Broward Circuit Judge Joel T. Lazarus had been bombarded with public pleas to find a way around the mandatory sentence Florida law prescribed for the boy.

Having spent three days in prison, Tate is transferred to a juvenile facility in Okeechobee. Some child advocates call for a review of Florida's criminal justice system.

A dream team of national attorneys, including Johnnie Cochran, comes together to represent Tate in his efforts to get clemency from Gov. Jeb Bush.

JUNE 6, 2001: Bush rejects the clemency appeal.


DEC. 10, 2003: Florida's 4th District Court of Appeal orders a new trial, ruling that a judge should have scheduled a pretrial hearing to ensure the Broward County youth was mentally capable of understanding the case against him.

JAN. 4, 2004: Weeks before his 17th birthday, Tate agrees to plead guilty to second-degree murder. He will be sentenced to three years in prison _ most of which he has already served _ plus one year of house arrest and 10 years' probation.

JAN. 26, 2004: Tate is released from prison without bail. "I just want to give God thanks first and foremost," said his mother, Kathleen Grossett-Tate. "Continue to pray for us because we're going to need it. This is a new chapter in our lives, and we're just going to go forward."


SEPT. 7, 2004: At age 17, Tate is charged with violating probation. Deputies find him with a pocketknife blocks from his home late at night as Hurricane Frances bears down.

OCT. 29, 2004: Judge Lazarus gives Tate another chance, but warns that he will go back to prison if he again violates his probation. Lazarus adds five years of probation.

NOVEMBER 2004: Tate is living with a foster family, who ask that he live somewhere else. A judge allows Tate to return to his mother's home.

MAY 23, 2005: Tate, now 18, is accused of armed robbery and armed burglary with battery.

_ Staff and wire reports