TAMPA — In early September, members of the U.S. Marshal’s Task Force converged on an apartment near the University of South Florida.
There, they arrested 28-year-old Quandarious Hammond, wanted in an assault at a Tampa gas station. At the time, records show, Hammond was also a person of interest in a homicide in the city of Tampa a week after the assault — on Aug. 22.
That’s the day 4-year-old Suni Bell was fatally shot while riding in the back of a car on East Hillsborough Avenue, making her one of the youngest victims in a surge of gun violence that has gripped parts of the city.
This week, six weeks later, a grand jury indicted Hammond and four other men in Suni’s killing. Hammond was already in jail and being held without bail at the time of the indictment.
On Friday, a judge appointed the Hillsborough Public Defender’s Office to represent four of the suspects. Their arraignment was set for Thursday. They are Jaylin Bedward, 22; James Denson, 24; Zvante Sampson, 30; and Andrew Thompson, 22. Their attorney waived their right to a first appearance, so they did not appear in court.
Hammond’s arraignment has also been set for Thursday. He also is being represented by the public defender. All five suspects were being held in the Hillsborough County jail Friday.
Tampa City Councilman Orlando Gudes, who represents the area where the shooting happened, applauded police Friday for making the five arrests. Still, he said, more work needs to be done in East Tampa to make this process a swifter one.
”It’s concerning that people had knowledge and didn’t say anything for so long,” Gudes said. “We need to end this no snitchin’ attitude and bring information forward. You never know when the tides will shift and it will be your family in need.”
The indictment, announced by Tampa police and Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office on Thursday, accuses all five men of first-degree murder in the slaying of Suni, attempted first-degree murder of a different victim in the case, conspiracy to commit murder, and shooting into a vehicle.
In addition, Hammond and Sampson are charged with attempted murder on a third victim in the case, and Hammond, Thompson, and Denson are charged with discharging a firearm from a vehicle in public.
Key questions remained unanswered on Friday: What led investigators to the men and what do they suspect as a motive in the attack on the Infiniti g35 that Suni (pronounced Sunny) was riding in that day?
The indictment, obtained by the Tampa Bay Times on Friday, does not include details of the investigation. A Tampa police spokesperson said officials could not comment on the investigation because it is still active. In a news release Thursday, Tampa police and the Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office said detectives believe others may have been involved in the shooting.
Also unanswered by authorities: Katryna Owens, a friend of Suni’s mother, previously told the Tampa Bay Times that the girl was killed in a case of mistaken identity, shot by suspects who thought the car was someone else’s.
The girl’s mother, Mary Harrison, was at the wheel and her uncle was a passenger; dozens of shots were fired at the car, Owens said. Nobody had any reason to target Suni or her family, Owens said.
Authorities continue to ask for the public’s help in the investigation. Tips can be called in at 800-873-TIPS (8477) and anonymous tips can be provided at www.crimestopperstb.com or through the P3 Tips Mobile app.
Suni’s grandmother Drial Bell said she got a call about the arrests from Tampa police Thursday.
”I knew this day was going to come, but I didn’t know how soon, because I’m a praying grandmother and I never lost faith,” Drial Bell told WTVT, Ch. 13. “I just dropped down to my knees, praying.”
She added, “We miss everything about her. Her name speaks for itself.”
Harrison, Suni’s mother, welcomed the news of the arrests but said the case isn’t over yet.
”They have to pay for what they did, they have to pay for what they did,” Harrison told WTVT.
Court and jail booking records provide some detail about the circumstances of the five men’s arrests.
Hammond was identified on surveillance video as a suspect in an assault at a Chevron gas station at 4511 E Hillsborough Ave. on Aug. 15, a week before Suni was shot.
That afternoon, a man called police to report that another man had pointed a rifle at his car at the Chevron. The caller told police he feared for his life and drove away. Police reviewed surveillance video that showed a suspect, later identified as Hammond, brandishing “a small rifle or carbine firearm with an extended magazine” and running after a Honda sedan as it sped away from the station.
A judge signed a warrant for Hammond’s arrest on a charge of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
On Sep. 2, Hammond was arrested on the warrant at the Caribbean Breeze Apartments, off North Bruce B. Downs Boulevard. He was standing next to a gun at the time of the arrest, according to a search warrant affidavit, and investigators seized the gun, a cell phone and clothing that Hammond was seen wearing the day of Suni’s slaying. He was already a person of interest in the slaying, an arrest affidavit said.
Hammond was released on bail the next day, then arrested again Sept. 14 for failing to appear in court on unrelated charges in Broward County, records show. He has remained in jail since then.
Sampson was arrested Thursday, the day of the indictment, at the Tampa 8 Inn on East Columbus Drive just north of Interstate 4, records show. Booking records list his address as the 5100 block of 44th St. in Tampa.
Sampson had been released from jail just three days before Suni was shot, records show. Tampa police had arrested him Aug. 18 on a domestic battery charge at an address listed as his residence, in the 7000 block of Nebraska Ave N. He was released from jail on his own recognizance the next day, a Thursday. The fatal shooting occurred the following Sunday.
Sampson has an arrest record in Hillsborough County that stretches back to 2007. He was sentenced to nearly two years in prison in 2011 on charges related to cocaine possession and delivery. Since his release from prison in September 2012, he has been arrested several times on charges such as aggravated battery with a weapon, fleeing police, being a felon in possession of a gun, cocaine possession and battery.
Thompson was arrested Thursday at his home in the Lucerne Apartments on Lake Lucerne Way in Brandon, booking records show. He pleaded guilty in 2019 in Hillsborough to carrying a concealed firearm, a first-degree misdemeanor.
Denson, who lists an address in the River Pointe Apartments in Northeast Tampa, was arrested Thursday at the intersection of North Florida and East Hanna avenues. He has several prior arrests in Hillsborough but no felony convictions.
Bedward was arrested Thursday at the Alvista Sterling Palms apartment complex in Brandon, where he lives, records show. He has no prior felony arrests in the county.
Staff writers Chris Tisch and Dennis Joyce contributed to this report.