Witnesses recount stabbing in Hillsborough Sheriff’s son’s stand your ground hearing

Published August 9 2018
Updated August 9 2018

TAMPA — On social media, he is Zchronik, hard-partying amateur rapper who croons about drugs and sex and using a knife to slash the face of a fist-fighting foe.

In a Tampa courtroom Thursday afternoon, he was George Zachary Chronister, a suit-wearing defendant, the son of Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister, charged with slashing and stabbing a man after a 2017 brawl.

Chronister, 24, was in court for a stand your ground hearing. His attorney invoked the state’s controversial self-defense law to argue that Chronister feared death or great bodily harm when he used a knife to attack Phillip Manzi, a fellow young musician, late one night in 2017 outside a New Tampa restaurant.

If a judge accepts the self-defense claim, the aggravated battery charge Chronister faces will be dismissed.

The defendant, donning a black suit jacket and purple tie, sat quietly at a defense table beside his attorney, Ronald Darrigo, for the duration of the four-hour hearing in Hillsborough Circuit Court. His mother, who was divorced from Sheriff Chad Chronister before their son turned 2, sat behind him. The sheriff did not attend.

Those testifying included Manzi, who recalled the events that led to the bloody brawl and said he merely watched as two other men fought before Chronister attacked him.

Manzi, 23, his voice barely audible at times, appeared timid, gazing down through bold-framed glasses as he spoke.

It all started over music, he said. He and a few friends are part of a musical group, known as ATOSS DACCO. (The first part is an acronym meaning Alternative To Out of School Suspension. The latter part is the name of a local drug treatment program.)

The group recorded a number of rap songs with Chronister.

A beef arose when Chronister released some of the songs without giving his friends credit, the witnesses said. A war of words raged on Twitter.

On Feb. 26, 2017, Chronister and another man, Micah Puckett, phoned Matthew Cerro, another ATOSS DACCO member. They challenged him to a fight, first asking him to meet in a Lutz park, Cerro testified.

In the video call, Cerro said, Puckett flashed a gun.

They later showed up at Oakley’s Grille on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, where Cerro and Manzi worked in the kitchen. The business had just closed and a small crowd gathered outside as Puckett stepped out of a car, brandishing a chain. In the driver’s seat, Chronister waited.

Cerro said he wanted a fair fight, with no weapons. He and Puckett touched hands, then squared off, exchanging blows.

An experienced fighter, Cerro had trained as a wrestler and mixed martial artist. He quickly overwhelmed Puckett, he said, pinning him to the ground. Puckett bled as he struggled to break free.

Cerro told the court that he began "talking trash," as he often does in fights. He hurled obscenities at Chronister, he said, ridiculing him for not helping his friend.

As the minute-long tussle wound down, Chronister stepped out of the car. He had a knife in his hand, Manzi said.

"I said, ‘What are you doing?’ " Manzi said. " ‘This is a fair fight. Why do you have a knife out?’ "

With his phone, Manzi began to record a video. Prosecutor Travis Mellish repeatedly played that video in court.

The recording, which lasts just seconds, shows Cerro grappling with Puckett on the ground in the darkened parking lot as Chronister steps closer. A blade is visible in his left hand.

Manzi is heard shouting.

"What … are you going to do?" he says. "Nothing!"

Chronister then lunges toward the camera with his hand raised. The image goes dark.

Manzi denied voicing any threats or trying to scare Chronister. He said he wasn’t involved in the fight, and did not plan on fighting anyone. He only began recording the video when he saw the knife.

"There was no not seeing it," he testified. "It was a big knife in his hand. And he was walking toward my friend."

The blade made a bloody streak down Manzi’s right cheek. He dropped his phone and grabbed Chronister, who began trying to stab him "anywhere he could," he said.

Cuts marked Manzi’s fingers and his side. A single deep puncture wound penetrated his right shoulder blade and collapsed a lung.

Doctors have told him he will forever have a scar below his right eye.

Police later arrested Chronister at home.

At the time of the fight, his father was a colonel with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office. He was still several months from being appointed as the county’s top law enforcement officer.

The Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office, which prosecutes cases from the Sheriff’s Office, bowed out of this one, citing a conflict of interest.

Mellish, the prosecutor, works for the Office of Sarasota State Attorney Ed Brodsky.

Circuit Judge Christopher Nash scheduled a hearing Tuesday to hear closing arguments from both sides.

Contact Dan Sullivan at dsullivan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3386.