14-year-old killed in Ybor City shooting was ‘just a joyful kid,’ family says

Elijah Wilson, 14, was among 18 people killed or injured when an argument between two groups escalated into a gunfight.
Tama Police Chief Lee Bercaw, left, speaks with Emmitt Wilson, wearing a white shirt, near the scene where his son 14-year-old Elijah Wilson was killed along Ybor City’s Seventh Avenue early Sunday morning.
Tama Police Chief Lee Bercaw, left, speaks with Emmitt Wilson, wearing a white shirt, near the scene where his son 14-year-old Elijah Wilson was killed along Ybor City’s Seventh Avenue early Sunday morning. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Oct. 30|Updated Oct. 31

All day Sunday, in the hours after an early-morning argument in Ybor City escalated into a gunfight that killed two and injured 16, Wondra Grooms struggled with the videos and photos flooding in from the scene.

At the center of the panic was the body of her 14-year-old nephew, Elijah Wilson — the first person killed in a shootout that sent East Seventh Avenue scattering.

“We’re just getting different videos coming in where they just murdered him,” Grooms told the Tampa Bay Times on Monday. “It’s just hard for us right now, because it’s only been 24 hours, and we’re still grieving, but you’ve got people with the internet, you’ve got all kind of stuff going on that’s just not making it better.”

Tampa police said community tips — including photos and videos — were factors in the department’s arrest of Tyrell Phillips, 22, on a charge of second-degree murder with a firearm. In a motion for pretrial detention, police accuse Phillips of shooting someone who died at the scene, identified by family members as Elijah Wilson, 14. According to the court document, a gun was found in the waistband of the person who died. In all, 17 people were hit by gunfire during the shooting, including an unidentified 20-year-old who was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital.

For Elijah’s family, the images are devastating.

“They don’t give us time to grieve without having to see his little body just there,” Grooms said. “It’s just so much.”

Related: Deadly Ybor City shooting leaves eyewitnesses, workers shocked

Elijah, Grooms said, was a “baby” — a “very great kid” who was raised by his father, Emmitt Wilson, and the teen’s paternal grandmother. He loved football, basketball and video games and was “just a joyful kid. He was the life of the party.”

Elijah attended Liberty Middle School in Tampa before Grooms said he was “kicked out” for fighting.

“Everybody goes through rebellious stages and wants to be growner than you are, but he was not a bad kid,” she said.

On Saturday night and Sunday morning, Grooms said Elijah was with a group of older friends she called a “gang. It’s just a group thing that they have, the different sides they’re repping and beefing with each other.” According to a statement Phillips gave police, his group had a confrontation with another group, during which someone from the other group spit at him.

Phillips identified the spitter to police as the person he shot. Grooms said that based on videos she’d seen, she believed it was a different member of Elijah’s group, and that the shooter “couldn’t get to” the actual spitter. Either way, Phillips told police he felt threatened and drew a gun, firing at least twice and striking the person in the leg and neck, court documents said.

A friend’s daughter, who was out celebrating Halloween, saw Elijah on the ground and contacted Grooms, who said she could tell from photos and videos that he was seriously wounded, if not dead already.

“No one that was with him reached out to us or anything,” she said. “That’s another thing that hurts — because all of the friends that took him out there was like 18 to 20 years old, and they know he’s only 14, and nobody contacted us to tell us he was actually deceased.”

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Police said the person who died at the scene was found with a concealed, loaded handgun, but that in no footage from the incident did he appear to draw it. Phillips told police “the victim never reached for his waistband and/or for a weapon,” according to the motion for detention.

Grooms said police never told Elijah’s family that he was found with a gun.

“That’s just crazy,” she said. “They should have at least mentioned that. I’m not aware of hearing any of that, or them telling us that.”

During a Sunday news conference, Tampa Police Chief Lee Bercaw, who had met with Elijah’s family earlier in the day, expressed frustration that a 14-year-old could find himself in that situation at that time and place.

Related: After shooting, Tampa’s historic Ybor City wrestles with its future

“Clearly, there is no place a 14-year-old should be at 3 o’clock in the morning,” he said. “And that doesn’t matter if it’s Ybor or it’s some other place. I can’t find anywhere that I would want a 14-year-old at 3 o’clock in the morning.”

Elijah’s friends and family stayed in Ybor City for hours on Sunday, talking to police around the crime scene, his body still covered on the ground.

“There’s nothing I can do but stand behind the yellow tape and just watch them take his body away,” Wilson told Tampa Bay Times news partner Bay News 9 on Sunday. “I can’t go see him. It’s my last time seeing him. It’s hard.”

Grooms said she, Wilson and their mother tried to impress on Elijah the importance of staying out of dangerous situations, but that “the world is totally different from me growing up.

“Nowadays, these kids feel like, ‘Hey, I feel like I can hold my own,’” she said. “We preached to him and told him constantly, ‘The streets and your friends is not everything.’ And I know he probably died trying to figure out, ‘Who helped me? Who’s trying to help me?’ You literally see the boys he was with running, scattering everywhere, while he’s bleeding to death. It’s just so much right now.”