TAMPA — Darla Saunders left for work Halloween morning with plans to help a young couple start the next chapter of their lives.
Stanley Peck and Tia Pittman moved to Tampa this year to be with Peck’s father as he fought cancer. After the father died, the couple decided to stay. Pittman gave birth to a girl, the couple’s second child. They found help at the Just Full Service Center, where Saunders worked as program manager.
“We just loved their personalities and their enthusiasm about wanting to make something out of their lives here,” Saunders said.
Saunders had an appointment with the couple to talk about a new job for Peck and a new place for the family to live. But as Saunders drove toward the center, her phone rang. It was one of Peck’s sister’s, and she was crying.
Somebody just murdered my brother. Please come now.
More than a week would pass before Saunders and the families learned that police had made an arrest in the case. Tyrail Raheem Kendrick, 26, was arrested Friday and charged with two counts of first degree murder.
But when she hung up the phone that morning, Saunders began to pray and headed that way.
Sterline Peck didn’t think her brother would be the type to settle down.
Born in Haiti, the third of seven siblings, Peck moved to Tampa when he was about 12 and graduated from Jefferson High School. An outgoing and generous jokester, Peck loved the bachelor life, his sister said.
“That boy went to every club in Tampa," Sterline said. “We didn’t think he was going to be a family man. He would say, ‘I’m not having kids.'”
Meeting Pittman about five years ago changed that.
Born and raised in Saginaw, Mich., Pittman served as her high school class president and graduated as valedictorian, said her aunt, Nyesha Clark-Young. She moved to New York with plans to enroll in fashion school but got into modelling instead, then worked as a professional wardrobe assistant and stylist. The job had her working in the entertainment industry with the likes of Mariah Carey, Queen Latifah and Mary J. Blige, Clark-Young said.
“She was goofy, bubbly, always laughing,” Clark-Young said. “You know how some people just have that light?”
Peck, who moved to New York a few years after graduating high school, was drawn to that personality, his sister said. Pittman had joint custody of a son, now 11, from a previous relationship.
When Pittman and Peck moved back to Saginaw in 2017, Pittman was pregnant with their first child. She wanted to be close to family and help make her hometown a better place, her family said.
“She got here and said, ‘What can I do? I’ve seen all this violence on TV and I want to help,'" Clark-Young recalled.
While in Saginaw, Pittman helped co-found the I Am Community Foundation, a non-profit that aims to improve education and spark civic engagement. She volunteered for Mothering Justice, a group of engaged mothers who advocate for family-friendly policies, and for the CAN Council, a nonprofit for neglected and abused children.
“She thought she could save the world,” Clark-Young said. “When you think of Tia, you think of a cape.”
Meantime, Peck worked construction and other jobs to provide for the family.
Pittman was pregnant when the couple moved to Tampa in May to be closer to Peck’s father Willien, who was in the late stages of his cancer fight. They were staying with Peck’s sister Germina and her boyfriend in a bright yellow duplex on Walnut Street, a few blocks from Just Elementary School in West Tampa.
Saunders first met the couple when they came to the Just Service Center. Operated by the Hillsborough School District on the Just Elementary campus, the center on Spruce provides resources and referrals to students and families.
Pittman joined Advocates for Safer Communities, a group Saunders created in her personal time not long after her son Isaiah Brooks was shot and killed in Tampa in 2005. He’d just turned 18, and the case remains unsolved.
Saunders and her husband Elliot are also co-coordinators for the Tampa chapter of Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice, and Pittman joined that group, too.
The groups’ missions hit home for Pittman. She was in elementary school when she lost her oldest brother to gun violence, her family members said. Other relatives were also killed by guns in the years that followed — an uncle, a first cousin and then, earlier this year, a niece.
“She wanted to be involved in organizations that supported victims and their families,” Saunders said.
Pittman and Peck were determined to raise their children with an appreciation for their roots and other cultures, their families said. They were teaching their son sign language, Creole and Spanish. She put headphones on her belly to expose her unborn children to jazz and classical music.
In Tampa, Peck was working as a carpenter on temporary construction jobs but craved something more stable, Saunders said.
“In the last conversation I had with him, he said he wanted something more permanent so he could take care of his family 100 percent,” Saunders said.
the couple planned to come to the Just Center on Halloween to talk with Saunders about a new place to live that Pittman had in mind and a lead Saunders had on a construction job with good benefits for Peck.
The couple never got the chance to leave the house.
Saunders was already in a pensive mood when her phone rang as she drove to work that morning. The previous day would have been her son Isaiah’s 33rd birthday, so this time of year is always difficult.
When Saunders picked up her ringing phone, Peck’s sister Germina screamed that her brother had been murdered. The family had gathered at Sterline Peck’s house in West Tampa.
Saunders’ heart pounded as she drove there.
“I asked God to help me think, to help me remove my son from my mind so I could focus to help these families, to give me the strength and guidance I need,” she said.
Saunders learned that shots rang out at Walnut Street duplex shortly after 7 a.m. Responding officers found Peck and Pittman outside the duplex, both with gunshot wounds.
Peck died at the scene, Pittman at the hospital soon after. Both were 38. Their 2-year-old son and 3-week-old daughter were in the duplex at the time of the shooting.
The Tampa Police Department released few details about the case. Then, on Friday, detectives quietly arrested Tyrail Kendrick and charged him with two counts of murder, one count of robbery and a count of a felon in possession of a firearm. Police announced the arrest on Monday.
According to an arrest report, a witness who was in the duplex at the time told detectives she was awakened by a loud noise, opened the front door to investigate and saw Peck and Pittman trying to run into the house. Peck or Pittman reached the threshold — the victims’ names are redacted from the report — and screamed that they were being robbed. The witness saw a man later identified as Kendrick point a gun toward them and fire a number of times, the report says.
Another witness told detectives he was in contact with Kendrick and another person in the Robles Park area about two hours before the shooting. During that meeting, Kendrick produced a firearm from his waistband and said they were looking to “do a lick," the report says.
Detectives were still working to identify and locate a second suspect beleived to be involved, police spokesman Eddy Durkin said.
Kendrick was being held Monday without bail in the Hillsborough County jail. At the time of his arrest, he was out on bail and awaiting trial on a charge of being a felon in possession of a firearm.
Kendrick was released from state prison in October 2018 after serving 2½ years for burglary, grand theft, carrying a concealed weapon and possession of marijuana with intent to sell, records show.
The couple’s children are staying with one of Peck’s sisters while the families figure out where they’ll live in the longer term.
Saunders has been helping the family make arrangements. On Tuesday, she went with Pittman’s mother to the Medical Examiner’s Office to identify her daughter’s body. Saunders looked at a photo of the body to spare the mother the pain.
Saunders said she hoped the arrest will bring the families closure to the closure she is still waiting for in her son’s case.
“I am also hopeful that this tragedy will wake up and shake up this community realize we have a lot of work to do” to address gun violence, she said. “We must come together, work together and act as one.”