TAMPA — Early one morning three years ago, two men argued outside a South Tampa bar. One of them threw a punch. The other fell and hit his head on a curb.
Matthew Callahan, a muralist whose art adorns walls throughout Tampa Bay and elsewhere, suffered a brain injury and later died in a hospital. On Monday, the man who hit him admitted to manslaughter and accepted a seven-year prison sentence.
Keith Mauga, an amateur boxer, told a judge his guilty plea was in his best interest. It came on the morning his lawyer was set to argue that the fatal punch was delivered in self-defense. Mauga had invoked Florida’s stand your ground law.
Amid last-minute negotiations, the state and defense agreed to a plea deal that would avoid a trial and put to rest a case that had long lingered in the court system, partly due to delays from the COVID-19 pandemic.
There were sobs after the sentencing from a crowd that packed a set of courtroom benches, quiet words and an embrace between the victim’s father and the defendant’s mother.
“This is just as tragic for Mrs. Mauga as it is for this family,” Michael Callahan, the father, said afterward. “I just offered to help her in the future if I could.”
It was an observation echoed by Mauga’s attorney, Grady Irvin.
“It’s not a day for anybody to celebrate at all,” Irvin said.
Mauga, 37, has served three years of a five-year sentence for an unrelated, but similar aggravated battery case in Pinellas County. His plea agreement in the manslaughter case in Tampa will extend his sentence by two years.
Although his client pleaded guilty, Irvin said afterward he believed there was a strong self-defense case to be made. But he noted that his client’s past troubles would have posed a challenge. He also noted that alcohol may have influenced the actions of both men.
The confrontation happened after 3 a.m. at the Warehouse Bar on South Gandy Boulevard. Mauga, who lived nearby, often played pool there. Callahan was a frequent visitor.
Witnesses reported there had been an argument between the pair weeks earlier and that both had been told to stay away for a month.
Both were back the night of April 11, 2018. In a court document, the defense attorney described Callahan as having pestered Mauga throughout the night and into the early morning. He asserted that Callahan pursued his client as he began to walk home.
Those who knew Callahan said he was only trying to apologize. The defense said Callahan was acting “odd” and “unpredictable,” and that he ignored requests to leave Mauga alone.
Witnesses recalled the men yelling at each other outside the bar. They made their way to the median on Gandy Boulevard, where Mauga struck Callahan. Callahan hit his head and suffered a brain hemorrhage. He died a few days later.
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As he stood handcuffed in orange jail scrubs Monday, Mauga briefly met the gaze of the dead man’s father.
Michael Callahan, a St. Petersburg lawyer, gestured to the crowded benches behind him. He told Mauga to look at the people who sat there.
“Those are all Matt’s friends and family,” he said. “Those are the people you hurt by doing this. And you hurt your family. And you have a long history of this.”
Callahan spoke of his son’s work as an artist. His works donned the walls of the Florida Aquarium, the locker rooms of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Tampa Bay Lightning, the Lure restaurants in Tampa and St. Petersburg, and Disney parks in Orlando and California, among others.
“He applied his talents to help the community,” the father said. “And he did it for 20 years. He made something of himself. But what have you done? Look at your record. Look at your history. You have a history of punching people out and getting in trouble.”
Mauga looked away. But the father kept talking.
“What I want to say to you is I hope for your benefit, for your family and for yourself, you change,” he said. “Make something of yourself.”
Mauga said nothing.
Michael Callahan said afterward it was hard to tell if his words made a difference.
He spoke of the man he raised. Matt Callahan was from Tallahassee and attended art school in Atlanta. He had one older brother and one younger. When they became adults, their father took them backpacking around the world. They visited more than 70 countries. Matt came to Tampa because he liked to fish.
When he died, Matt’s heart was transplanted into a man from Apollo Beach. The man later brought the Callahan family flowers and a stethoscope and allowed them to listen to his heartbeat.
Matt was married to Erika Callahan and had son Logan, now 8.
Sometimes, when the family is together, they pass by one of Matt’s murals. The boy proudly points out what his dad created.