TAMPA — For 77 days, Bradley Hulett's family waited for a decision that they hoped would lead to justice for the beloved Lithia teen.
That much-anticipated news came Friday, 11 weeks to the day that Bradley was fatally shot in the home of a Tampa police officer. The 15-year-old friend who shot Bradley in the back of the head was charged with manslaughter with a firearm.
A statement by Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren did not name the teen, but a statement by Sheriff Chad Chronister issued Friday identified him as Christopher Bevan. The Newsome High School sophomore turned himself in at the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office accompanied by his parents and attorney and was taken to the Juvenile Assessment Center, sheriff’s officials said.
Bevan mistakenly believed the handgun was not loaded and did not mean to shoot Hulett, but he still committed a crime, Warren’s statement said.
“In this matter, the shooter pointed the gun in the direction of the victim and pulled the trigger without knowing — and therefore under the law, without caring — whether it was loaded,” the statement said. “This conduct sufficiently demonstrates a reckless disregard for human life.”
Warren’s statement did not say whether Bevan will be tried as a juvenile or an adult. The charge is a first-degree felony punishable by up to 30 years in prison.
The Tampa police officer who owns the gun and the home in Lithia’s FishHawk Ranch community will not be charged because there was insufficient evidence to show he violated the state’s safe storage law, the statement said. Authorities have not released his or his son’s names.
The case has sparked criticism of the Tampa police officer and calls from the Hulett family and others for the state Legislature to clarify the state’s safe storage law. Among them: Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister, whose office investigated the shooting and handed off his findings to prosecutors.
“Responsible gun owners should secure their weapons beyond the reach of anyone, especially children and teenagers,” Chronister said in a statement. “No parent or responsible gun owner wants another life to be senselessly lost because of carelessness. If the law, as written and as reflected in the State Attorney’s decision, prevents criminal accountability, we should all advocate to change it.”
Brad Hulett, Bradley’s father, praised the decision to charge his son’s friend.
“We haven’t really been doing all that well for 77 days, so today’s not much different,” Hulett said Friday at news conference at his attorney’s Tampa office. “There’s a path now, I think, to closure for us and that helps. We hope the sun’s going to come out tomorrow and it’s a better day.”
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Warren’s statement gives this account of what happened the day of the shooting, Dec. 13:
Bradley and the three teens — all sophomores at Newsome High School — went to the home after school. The Tampa officer was on duty at the time and the gun the teens found was not a service weapon, authorities have said.
The officer’s son, who lives at the house, went into his father’s master bedroom to use the bathroom because another teen was using the only other bathroom in the house. The door to the master bedroom was locked, and the officer’s son used a paperclip to unlock it.
When the teen finished using the bathroom and left the master bedroom, he did not re-lock the door behind him. Shortly after, he went back into the master bedroom with two of the other boys in search of a plunger to fix a clog in the other bathroom. While in the bedroom, the boys noticed the father’s gun in a safety holster sitting on a small table.
There was no magazine in the gun but there was a single round in the chamber. The officer’s son mistakenly believed the gun was unloaded and engaged the safety release to remove it from the holster. He then took the gun out of his father’s room and, along with the two other boys, returned to his bedroom, where Hulett was sitting at a desk playing video games.
While all four teens were in the boy’s bedroom, Bevan took the gun from the officer’s son. Mistakenly believing the gun to be unloaded, Bevan pulled the trigger, firing the single round and striking Hulett in the back of the head.
The other three boys immediately called 911 and tried to provide medical assistance to their friend. All three of the teens retained attorneys. Only one gave a statement to investigators shortly after the shooting. The officer’s son spoke to investigators after receiving a subpoena. Bevan remained silent.
“The evidence clearly establishes that this was a tragic accident where all the boys mistakenly believed that the gun was not loaded,” the statement from Warren’s office said. “The lack of intent or malice, however, does not foreclose that a crime occurred. In Florida, an unintentional killing resulting from the reckless disregard for the safety of another person constitutes manslaughter."
Thomas Dickerhoof, an attorney advising Bevan and his family, said he couldn’t comment on the decision until he gets more information from Warren’s office.
In situations when the gun is not stored in a locked container or secured with a trigger lock, the legal analysis addresses two elements, Warren's statement said: Whether the gun owner knew or should have known that it was likely for a minor to access it and, if so, whether a reasonable person would have believed it to be secure.
“The evidence establishes the homeowner’s son was not permitted in his father’s bedroom; the father had specifically told him not to enter the master bedroom; the door was locked; and the gun was in a safety holster," the statement said.
There was no evidence to suggest that the father should have had any concerns about his son accessing the gun, such as "general disobedience or prior instances where the son obtained the gun without permission," the investigation found.
However, the gun was not locked in a safe or fitted with a trigger lock and the master bedroom door could be unlocked relatively easily, Warren’s statement said.
“Therefore, it was certainly possible and foreseeable that the son could obtain the gun, and the father’s belief that the gun was secure was arguably mistaken and ill-advised," the statement said. "Under Florida law, however, that is insufficient to establish a violation of the safe storage law.”
The fact the father is a law enforcement officer with extensive firearm training “does not — and cannot — affect the analysis under criminal law, although the law enforcement agency may separately determine compliance with its professional standards," Warren’s statement said.
“Although this incident raises legitimate questions about the effectiveness of Florida’s gun storage laws, we are left to faithfully apply the law as currently written,” the statement said.
Chronister’s statement was more blunt.
“While the statute as written and the lawyers who interpret it may not differentiate criminal responsibility based on familiarity with guns, as law enforcement officers, we must hold ourselves to a higher standard in order to prevent such tragic consequences, and ultimately, we must answer to a higher authority when asked why we didn’t do more,” the sheriff said in the statement. "Our kids deserve better.”
Tampa Police Department officials have said an internal review of the incident would begin after the criminal investigation concluded.
Richard Escobar, attorney for the Tampa police officer and his son, said they were relieved by the decision.
“We were confident this was going to be the result but we’re relieved because in this line of work, you never know,” Escobar said. “The law certainly supported our position and our factual position was always on point. For both of my clients this is a day that certainly we have been looking forward to, and hopefully a day where we can start healing.”
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Anthony Rickman, an attorney for the Huletts, said the family is pleased with the investigation by the Sheriff’s Office and Warren’s office and understand the safe storage law makes it difficult to charge gun owners.
“We understand, and the family understands, law enforcement and the State Attorney’s Office did everything they could do to seek a way, if it was possible, to charge this individual in this case,” Rickman said.
Even Escobar, the officer’s attorney, said the law that protected his client needs to be clarified. He noted a bill has been filed in the Senate that would amend the safe storage law to require firearms to be be stored with a trigger lock or in a lock box.
Introduced by Sen. Gary Farmer, Jr., a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, SB 266 has been assigned to three committees but has not moved.
“I think that will be the next big thing that we do in Bradley’s honor, is to try and get that law tightened up and made fair,” said Brad Hulett, a longtime gunowner. “This should have never happened, and if that weapon is truly secure like how I secure my weapon at home, this doesn’t happen.”
Hulett said he hasn’t had time to consider whether he can forgive Bevan and what a just punishment would be. He said his family is grateful for support of friends and strangers alike.
“We appreciate it more than you know, whether it’s the meals, the hugs, the tears, the handshakes,” he said. “It’s really opened our eyes to how fortunate we are to live where we do among the people we do.”