TAMPA — What happened to Nilexia Alexander one early morning in May took about 15 minutes.
Police would later use her cell phone signal and a patchwork of surveillance images to retrace her movements.
At 2:51 a.m., cameras caught her strolling a lit path in a Belmont Heights housing complex. A minute later, a car appeared. She got in the back seat.
At 3:07 a.m., about two miles west, the same car turned a corner at a dead-end stretch of West Floribraska Avenue. The driver turned around, then paused for a half-minute next to a vacant lot. Audio recordings captured three to five blasts.
At 3:08 a.m., the driver pulled away, headlights off.
A neighbor would find Nilexia lying in the grass. She’d been shot in her back, her head, her face. She was 14.
This is how Nilexia Alexander became one of more than 40 homicide victims in Tampa this year. Among the people who have put a face to a rise in homicides the city has seen in recent years, she stands out as one of the youngest.
If you could take back those gunshots and wind back those videos to just before she entered the frame, you’d find a teen girl alone and wandering, searching for the things any kid wants — an identity, freedom, love. You’d also find a girl who was profoundly troubled, who struggled with mental illness and the lingering wounds of early-childhood trauma and a life disrupted.
Hers is a story told through records and the words of people who knew her. It is a story they tell so she won’t be forgotten. It is a story they tell in the hope that it might save another teenager.
Teachers described her with words like “determined” and “fierce” and “fearless.”
When she was little, she slept on a bed with a heart-shaped pillow and a bedspread with the image of a Disney princess.
Purple was her favorite color.
She was good at math.
She liked to play basketball.
She told people she might want to be a lawyer.
She read books like “Diary of a Wimpy Kid.”
She bounced on her feet and moved her hips in TikTok videos and danced to slow jams, hip-hop and country music.
She was born Alexis on Jan. 13, 2008.
She had a sister, Kayla, born a little less than two years later.
They had a baby brother, who was about seven weeks old when he died in 2010. A report from the Department of Children and Families found indications that abuse was a factor in his death. An autopsy found broken bones and bleeding on his brain. It was deemed a homicide, but no one was arrested. It remains an open investigation.
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There had been prior concerns about the children’s well-being. State authorities removed them from their parents’ home.
They shuffled between foster homes before they came to stay with Ashley Alexander.
Ashley was 27 and single when they arrived. She worked in customer service for Rooms to Go.
She saw TV news stories about people mistreating children and wanted to offer her home as a haven, so she became a foster parent.
Ashley and the sisters painted together. They colored in coloring books. They sang songs. They baked cookies and brownies in an Easy Bake Oven. They watched Sponge Bob on the sofa while eating cookies and ice cream. They spread a blanket on the grass outside her apartment and ate sandwiches, chips and juice.
“I fell in love with them,” Ashley said.
She had never thought about adoption. But a year with the girls and she couldn’t imagine someone else taking them.
They went to court in Tampa on April 30, 2013, and the mother and daughters became a family.
With their new mom came new names. Kayla became Zy’Kaila. Alexis became Nilexia.
On weekends, when Ashley worked, the girls spent time with their grandmother, Lessie Alexander.
They’d have big breakfasts of eggs and grits and fruit. They’d have picnics at the beach. They’d go shopping and work on each other’s nails and style their hair.
“Lexi was my heart,” her grandmother said. “I got so attached to her.”
There were early signs of trouble, though, indications that Nilexia had been exposed to disturbing things as a small child. Once while Ashley still was fostering other kids, including infants, she had a baby in her home who lay in a crib crying. While in another room, she heard the child suddenly stop. She found Nilexia covering the baby’s mouth with a cloth. The girl said something about having seen someone do the same to get her brother to stop crying.
The matter was investigated, Ashley said. Nilexia was placed in counseling.
She had trouble when school started. In kindergarten, her mom got called after Nilexia ran outside when she was supposed to be in class. Police found her inside an uncovered drain pipe, Ashley said. She had to persuade her to come out.
She was diagnosed with ADHD. She was given medication.
To her family, it seemed her problems stemmed from lacking a sense of identity. She wanted to know: Where did she come from? Why were her birth parents not around?
“Once she got at a certain age, she had questions about who she was, where she came from,” her grandmother said. “We didn’t have answers. That’s where she kind of started to get rebellious.”
When she reached adolescence, her troubles seemed to worsen. There were fights at home. She would have angry outbursts and break things. She was accused of stealing. Once when some friends came by, she let them take her mother’s car.
Police got to know the family. From 2019 to 2022, officers came to their home dozens of times. They were called because people were concerned for her well-being. They were called to investigate concerns that Nilexia had been victimized by other people. They were called because Nilexia ran away.
She’d be gone for a few hours at first.
Cops found her at Woodland Terrace park. They found her on city streets in Belmont Heights, where she said she’d stayed with friends.
Once they found her at a motel on Nebraska Avenue, where she’d called 911 and said a man hit her after she resisted his advances.
Sometimes they didn’t find her at all.
When she’d go missing, Ashley would ride around town looking. She’d rise sometimes at 2 or 3 a.m., scared and nervous as she scoured darkened streets, hoping she might run across her missing daughter.
Once, Nilexia returned home with a crude mark on the underside of her right arm. She called it a “garage tattoo.” In cursive, it spelled the name “Arthur.” She said it was to honor a young friend who’d been murdered.
At the end of 2019, Ashley said she sent her to Palm Shores, a facility in Bradenton for adolescents with behavioral health needs. She stayed six months.
She came home to a new wardrobe. To demonstrate trust, her mom gave her a little more freedom. She let her go to movies or to Busch Gardens. She let her stay out later but wanted her home before street lights came on.
Things were all right for a while.
But she wanted to be with friends that her mother felt were a bad influence. She wanted to go to parties in faraway places and stay out as long as she wanted.
“She always told me, ‘I hate your rules. I can’t wait to get out.’”
In 2021, Nilexia ended up at Brandon Epic 3 Center, an alternative school. There were days when she would walk the halls with Assistant Principal Miranda Martin.
Martin remembers her as a girl who was outgoing and fearless, a teen who liked fashion and hairstyling, a storyteller who told of adventures she had outside school. Martin wondered if some of the tales were not completely true. Once when Martin noticed scratches on her face, she said a dog had lunged at her while she’d been taunting it.
Unlike some of her peers, Nilexia had a parent who worked hard to right her daughter’s path, Martin and other teachers believed. Like many a seventh-grader, Nilexia thought she had the world figured out.
“She would have been wonderful being a teacher, working with young people coming from similar situations,” Martin said.
Toward the end of that school year, she’d improved enough that she got a letter from the school district approving her transfer to Greco Middle School.
But that April, she vanished again. This time, she stayed gone longer than she ever had.
Her mother recalls rising in the early morning hours, spurred by fear of what she might be doing. She’d drive to East Tampa, gazing over darkened streets, hoping she might catch her walking.
She got tips about where she might be. One acquaintance told her to look in a trailer park off North Nebraska and East Seneca avenues. It was after midnight when Ashley got there. Inside, she encountered dozens of people, homeless, asleep. But not her daughter.
Officers finally found her that July.
Shortly after, Nilexia got a space at Sandy Pines, a residential behavioral health facility for youth in Jupiter, on Florida’s east coast. Doctors made several diagnoses. Conduct disorder. ADHD. Cannabis use disorder. Disruptive mood dysregulation disorder. Intellectual disability, mild to moderate.
She was given medication. She was taught coping skills, how to regulate her mood, and techniques to control her impulses. She was introduced to “grounding techniques” to help with reminders of trauma.
“Resident does not recall her trauma,” a report read.
She and Ashley met for family therapy. They talked about rules and expectations. A therapist noted they showed positive communication skills and seemed determined to repair their relationship.
By February, Nilexia’s mood was deemed stable. She returned home.
She started back at Greco Middle School and got three A’s, three B’s and one C.
On April 11, police were called after she said something about wanting to take her life. They took her to Gracepoint, a mental health treatment center, where she was held for three days under the state’s Baker Act.
She talked with other patients and with a therapist about the importance of coping with life’s stressors. She said doing hair and playing basketball helped her. She said she talked to relatives when she needed support. She said she felt safe at home.
She went home April 14 with medication and a follow-up therapy appointment.
A few days later, she ran away again.
On April 23, she called 911 from a cell phone she’d kept hidden. She complained to a call-taker that people were trying to start a fight with her.
Officers brought her home.
It was April 23. A Saturday.
That evening, she sat outside her mother’s apartment. Ashley told her she could try to fix things at home, but she would be a parent to her, and not her friend.
Nilexia started to shake and cry.
“I’m not scared to die,” she uttered. “I hate being here. Why did God make me this way?”
As Ashley tried to calm her, Nilexia began to talk about her birth parents. She wanted to know more about them.
“Mom,” she said. “I just want to know who I am.”
Ashley scrolled through her phone, pulled up Facebook and found the mother’s profile. She tried to make a call. No answer.
“I love you,” Ashley said. “You’re still my daughter.”
They came inside. Nilexia took a shower, ate dinner, went to bed. She stayed home three days.
She got up April 26 and got ready for school. She told her sister she was going to a friend’s house instead. She left. She didn’t come back.
It was 10 days later, in the early morning of May 6, that surveillance recordings captured her last moments.
Tampa police were called to a report of a person shot in the 100 block of West Floribraska Avenue.
She carried no I.D. Police put out a news release with a description — a young African American or Hispanic female — and a rendering of a tattoo they found on her arm — the name “Arthur” — and asked for help.
Ashley saw the image on the news that night and she knew.
She was there when police held a news conference asking the public for help finding the person responsible. She was there again, two months later, when they announced an arrest.
Police say Ronny Tremel Walker was the man driving the car that picked up Nilexia that early morning. They said they found her blood inside it. He faces a first-degree murder charge.
Another man, Robert Creed, was with Walker when the killing occurred, a prosecutor said in court. They say he communicated with Nilexia in the days before she died. It is not clear how they knew each other. He has been charged with being an accessory.
In the small Temple Terrace apartment where Ashley Alexander tried to make for Nilexia a better life, there are reminders — a purse she carried, shoes she wore, perfume she liked.
Ashley sold her bed. She emptied her dresser and donated a cart full of clothing to charity.
A gold urn holds her remains. It sits in a cabinet near her front door. It’s marked with a glass design in the shape of butterfly wings and a small label bearing her name.
On Jan. 13, she plans to scatter Nilexia’s ashes in the ocean. It would have been her 15th birthday.