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What happened when a 4-year-old girl was shot to death in Tampa?

A 634-page Tampa police report details the death of Suni Bell and the investigation that led to murder charges against five men.
Suni Bell was shot and killed while riding in a car in Tampa on Aug. 22. Five people have been indicted in her death.
Suni Bell was shot and killed while riding in a car in Tampa on Aug. 22. Five people have been indicted in her death. [ Photo provided / Tampa Police Department ]
Published Feb. 3|Updated Feb. 4

TAMPA — It was about six minutes after 9 p.m. one Sunday night in August when police got word of a shooting along E Hillsborough Avenue at 43rd Street. The first officers to roll up found a silver Infiniti sedan off the roadside, its front end smashed against a telephone pole. Seventeen bullet holes ran along the driver’s side. A few rounds had crossed straight through a rear passenger door and window.

A woman paced the sidewalk, crying as bystanders tended to a young girl with a single wound to her chest.

Suni Bell, 4 years old, would die that night. Her slaying would became a flashpoint amid a particularly violent year in the city. Public officials condemned the violence and begged the community’s help.

Thirty-nine days later came an indictment against five men on charges of first-degree murder.

Last week, in response to a public records request from the Tampa Bay Times, the Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office released a 634-page Tampa police report that for the first time publicly illuminates the crime and the sprawling probe that culminated in the arrests of Jaylin Bedward, James Denson IV, Quandarious Hammond, Zvante Sampson and Andrew Thompson.

The report showcases a complicated investigation that relied heavily on surveillance videos, scientific analysis of dozens of bullet shell casings, cellphone records and search warrants.

But it also leaves questions unanswered. Among them: why did this happen?

Witnesses recall car-to-car gunshots

Six weeks after she was fatally shot while riding in a car, 4-year-old Suni Bell is remembered with a memorial at the scene of the crime, E Hillsborough Avenue near 43rd Street.
Six weeks after she was fatally shot while riding in a car, 4-year-old Suni Bell is remembered with a memorial at the scene of the crime, E Hillsborough Avenue near 43rd Street. [ JOSH FIALLO | Times ]

After the crash, officers near the scene encountered a man in a black T-shirt and shorts. He was Suni Bell’s uncle. Sweaty and breathless, he told them he had been driving the car.

His sister, Suni Bell’s mother, was in the passenger seat. The girl had been asleep in the back.

As the officers spoke with him, the uncle fell to the ground, fainting. While awaiting an ambulance, and again later at a hospital, he told officers the family had been at a remembrance party earlier that night for his father, who’d been killed a year earlier. The report does not identify the father or include any details about the circumstances of his death.

Afterward, they’d driven to the area off Hillsborough Avenue in search of another planned get-together, but he didn’t know exactly where to go.

Circling the neighborhood, he sought directions on his phone. His sister and niece were tired, he said. He decided to take them home. As he headed west on Hillsborough, near 45th Street, there came a barrage of gunshots.

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“(He) was not certain about the origin of the gunfire,” a detective wrote, “but (he) was certain that a dark-colored Infiniti similar to his car accelerated from behind and then matched his speed, driving alongside him to the left, just as the gunfire began.”

The girl’s mother would later recall that her daughter awoke at the noise.

“Mommy, mommy,” she heard her say.

At one point, she saw the girl standing on the back seat. She told her to lie down.

The car suddenly slowed, as though it had become disabled, the uncle said. He jumped out and ran. He could hear bullets whizzing past him as he sprinted north.

The car still rolling, the mother grabbed the steering wheel and slipped into the driver’s seat. She couldn’t tell where the gunfire was coming from, but remembered seeing a black car pass just before she crashed.

She turned around and saw her daughter had been shot.

Police focus on ballistics and videos

A still image from a surveillance video shows a silver car that Tampa police said was the vehicle carrying 4-year-old Suni Bell moments before she was fatally shot.
A still image from a surveillance video shows a silver car that Tampa police said was the vehicle carrying 4-year-old Suni Bell moments before she was fatally shot. [ Tampa Police Department ]
A still image from a surveillance video shows a black car that police said followed close behind a silver Infiniti that carried 4-year-old Suni Bell and her family moments before that girl was fatally shot.
A still image from a surveillance video shows a black car that police said followed close behind a silver Infiniti that carried 4-year-old Suni Bell and her family moments before that girl was fatally shot. [ Tampa Police Department ]

About 40 spent bullet shell casings lay scattered on the pavement along a 1,500-foot stretch of road between N 42nd and 45th streets. Some came from 9mm handguns. Several more came from an assault rifle.

A firearms analyst determined the 9mm casings were fired from at least four handguns, the report indicates.

An autopsy could not determine what caliber of bullet struck the girl. A medical examiner determined she had died within seconds.

As police saturated the area, their focus turned to the Chevron station at Hillsborough and 47th. A crowd of 10 men, described in the report as “loitering” and “gambling,” had been hanging out there for hours before the shooting.

One officer saw images of a man in a white tank top and bleached jeans and immediately knew him as Quandarious Hammond, with whom he’d had more than 50 interactions. A police sergeant recognized another man as Zvante Sampson, whom he knew from prior investigations. Ultimately, police would identify James Denson, Jaylin Bedward and Andrew Thompson among others in the crowd.

Just before 9 p.m., videos captured the men looking at their cellphones. Moments later, the car carrying Suni Bell and her family appeared on Giddens Avenue, heading east, then turned south on 47th Street. As it passed, video showed three men reacting by running across Giddens Avenue, according to the report. Police identified them as Jaylin Bedward, his brother, Kimanie Bedward, and James Denson.

Jaylin Bedward walked to a Chrysler 300, pulled out a bag, and removed an assault rifle. With the gun in his right hand, he positioned himself behind a dumpster. Moments later, he ran back and got into the Chrysler with Andrew Thompson, who was seen wrapping a shirt around his face, according to the report.

At about the same time, Sampson and Hammond got into a dark gray Infiniti. A man police identified as Sampson’s brother got into a third car. The cars all left the parking lot, heading east on Hillsborough Avenue. Seconds later, they were seen heading west again.

Videos from another nearby business captured the gray Infiniti slowing as it approached the family’s car from behind. Its red brake lights were visible for about nine seconds before it disappeared from view. Then came 10 gunshots. The Chrysler followed, moving rapidly west before slowing. There were muzzle flashes from its passenger window.

Searches, arrests and lingering questions

Five men have been arrested in the shooting death Aug. 22 of 4-year-old Suni Bell in Tampa. They are, clockwise from top left, Zvante Sampson, 30; Quandarious Hammond, 28; Jaylin Bedward, 22; Andrew Thompson, 22; and James Denson, 24.
Five men have been arrested in the shooting death Aug. 22 of 4-year-old Suni Bell in Tampa. They are, clockwise from top left, Zvante Sampson, 30; Quandarious Hammond, 28; Jaylin Bedward, 22; Andrew Thompson, 22; and James Denson, 24. [ Tampa Police Department ]

Police obtained search warrants for the phones of all five men. The records showed the Sampson brothers, Hammond, and Bedward all communicating with each other in the hours and days after the shooting.

When questioned, Bedward identified himself in images that showed him with the rifle. He admitted he drove the Chrysler east out of the parking lot, but denied that he turned around and went west. He told the cops his assault rifle was in his mother’s Brandon apartment, which they searched. They found two assault rifles, but a ballistic examination determined neither was used in the shooting.

Hammond admitted he’d gotten into a car with Sampson, whom he knew as “Dread,” but claimed he’d gotten out a few blocks east and walked back to the store. He said he’d called his girlfriend and she picked him up. But surveillance videos did not show any of the cars stopping to let anyone out.

Denson admitted he was in the back seat of the Chrysler, according to the report. He claimed he didn’t know the driver’s name. He recalled hearing gunshots, and said they sounded like they came from an assault rifle, but he didn’t know for sure because he was looking at his phone.

He admitted he pawned a Taurus 9mm handgun in the days after the shooting, the report states. Police retrieved the gun from a pawn shop. Analysts determined that two of the 9mm casings collected from the street were a match to the weapon.

After his arrest, Denson claimed that Bedward fired the 9mm from the car.

It is unclear from the report whether investigators linked any other weapons to the crime.

As much as the report offers new details, it leaves an open question about what more evidence investigators used to indict the five. Also uncertain is whether anyone else will be charged.

Answers may come as the case moves through court.

All five men remain jailed. All have pleaded not guilty.

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