TAMPA — When Samantha Johnson saw sheriff’s deputies swarm her apartment complex Thursday morning, she had a feeling the commotion involved her neighbor with the troubled son.
“I walked outside and saw all this and that’s the first thing I thought of,” said Johnson, 46, as she stood a few steps away from yellow crime scene tape fluttering just outside her own unit at the River Pointe Apartments. “I’m like, that lady up in that apartment, she and her son got into it again.”
Johnson was right.
Three Hillsborough sheriff’s deputies shot and killed the son, 22-year-old Romello Barnes, inside a unit at the northeast Tampa complex after he stabbed his mother and then refused commands to drop a knife, according to the Sheriff’s Office.
Barnes was pronounced dead at the scene.
Deputies were summoned to the apartment complex on Hidden River Drive about 9:40 a.m. after Barnes’ mother called 911 to report that her son had stabbed her, Sheriff Chad Chronister said at a news conference a few hours later. Deputies responded within nine minutes and found the mother in the apartment complex office with a laceration on her hand.
Deputies went to the apartment and saw Barnes on the stairwell leading to the second floor unit. Barnes saw the deputies, went into the apartment. At least three deputies followed him inside.
Soon after, Barnes displayed a knife and ignored commands to drop it, Chronister said.
K-9 Deputy Matthew Moyer released his dog, Tonto, to let him go after Barnes. After that, Moyer and two other deputies in the apartment, Michael Guerra and Jomar Morales Colon, still felt in fear for their lives and Tonto’s life and opened fire, Chronister said.
Chronister said he didn’t know if Barnes was advancing toward the deputies when they shot him. The sheriff said they didn’t have time to use non-lethal force.
“I don’t think any of them had time to even think about deploying a Taser," Chronister said. “Science tells us that within a close proximity and time, it’s just not going to be effective.”
The mother was taken to the hospital to be treated. Deputies informed her there that her son had been fatally shot, Chronister said. The Sheriff’s Office did not release her name.
Moyer joined the Sheriff’s Office in 2004, Guerra in 1999 and Morales Colon in January of this year. Chronister said none of the deputies has used deadly force before in their careers. All three have been placed on routine administrative leave while the shooting is investigated.
Chronister said the family has lived in Florida only about a year. Barnes’ criminal history is two misdemeanors out of the state and no arrests in Florida. Deputies have been called to the home for mental health, domestic battery and sexual offense investigations, though no arrests were reported, the sheriff said.
The last call was on Dec. 2 when the mother called 911 to report her son having mental health issues. A responding deputy determined the son did not meet the criteria to be taken into protective custody under the state’s Baker Act.
Johnson, the neighbor, and her boyfriend Gary Armstrong, said the mother had asked to use their phone to call 911 on her son multiple times in the last couple of months. The mother told them her son used drugs. He didn’t live with her but was at the apartment often, the couple said.
During the most recent incident, according to the couple, the mother came outside and said her son had threatened her with a knife. The mother said she took refuge in the bathroom for a long time, then fled the apartment and used Johnson's phone to call for help.
“She said, ‘I don’t know what he was on but he was wide-eyed and acting crazy,’ and all she could do was lock herself in the bathroom,” Johnson said.
On that day, as on previous occasions, Barnes left before deputies got there, Johnson said.
“I’m glad she’s okay, because she’s a sweetheart,” Johnson said. “She was always stressed out when he was around, she would always be nervous. But when he wasn’t around she was the calmest, sweetest person you could meet.”