LITHIA — The deputy who showed up at the door could only tell Brad Hulett that his son had been in an accident.
Without more details, Hulett assumed 15-year-old Bradley Jr. had been injured in a car crash that day, Friday, Dec. 13. No need to panic, he thought.
The deputy insisted Hulett ride to Brandon Regional Hospital in his patrol car. When the father arrived in the trauma unit, the doctors and nurses saw him and looked away.
Please, God, don’t let him be paralyzed, he thought.
A surgeon came into the waiting room, pointed at his own head and said Bradley had been shot. The boy was gone. Hulett crumpled to the floor, his mind grasping for an explanation.
The detective who helped him up said Bradley had been shot at a friend’s house in FishHawk Ranch a few miles from the Hulett home. A Tampa police officer owns the home and gun.
"It looks like a terrible accident, but we’re not sure,” Hulett recalled the detective saying.
Along with grief and shock, the Hulett family is grappling with anger and frustration as the investigation continues and unanswered questions shroud the shooting.
Bradley and three other boys — all sophomores at Newsome High School — were at the FishHawk Ranch home of a Tampa police officer, the father of one of the teens. Only one of the boys gave a statement to investigators shortly after the shooting. The police officer’s son talked to investigators Wednesday, nearly six weeks later, after receiving a subpoena, according to his attorney. The boy who was holding the gun when it discharged has remained silent.
The Huletts don’t think the shooting was intentional, but they refuse to call it an accident. They want charges filed if a crime occurred.
“I feel like we can’t get any closure, and I can’t begin the healing process or learn how to live with this new normal without closure,” said Meagan Hulett, Bradley’s mother. “I just want to put Bradley to rest without any of this, and I don’t think it’s fair we don’t get to do that."
The oldest of the Huletts’ five children, Bradley was a toddler when his parents moved from Maryland to the FishHawk Ranch area.
Brad Hulett worked for an information technology company at the time and Meagan, a former middle school teacher, decided to stay home with their growing family. Shortly after Bradley came Ava, 14, then Alaina, 13, Sloane, 7, and Biagio, 6. Brad Hulett, 55, now has his own business and works from home.
Bright and popular, Bradley’s friendships transcended cliques at Newsome High, where he was taking honors and advanced placement courses, his parents said. In one of the last text messages to his mother, he included a screenshot of his PSAT results. His score cracked the 95th percentile, but he wasn’t satisfied, Meagan said.
“He wanted to be at the very top,” Meagan, 44, said in an interview at the family’s home.
A guard for the Valrico Venom, an Amateur Athletic Union team, Bradley had a skill for sinking three-point shots and led the team in scoring last fall, said his father, the team’s head coach.
On many Friday nights, Bradley and his friends met at the Huletts spacious two-story home in FishHawk Trails. The family had an open-door policy.
“I would yell upstairs for Bradley and they’d be like, "He’s not home yet,' and there’d be 10 kids up there,” Meagan Hulett said.
The son of the Tampa police officer was one of Bradley’s closest friends and a regular visitor.
The day before his death, Meagan and Alaina left for Las Vegas, where Alaina was scheduled to compete with her cheerleading team, the Brandon Senior Black. That day, when a repairman arrived at the house, Bradley called his mother on FaceTime to ask where the air handlers were. The brief call was the last time she saw her son alive.
That night, Bradley came downstairs, cracked a joke or two and chatted with his dad about an upcoming college football game. Bradley slapped his father on the back and went upstairs.
Later, Brad Hulett would decide not to look at his son’s body in the hospital, in the open casket during the service or before the cremation. He didn’t want to spoil that last memory.
The next day, Bradley and three friends arrived at the officer’s home on Bridgewalk Drive after school. The officer was on duty. No one else was home.
The Sheriff’s Office released few details about what happened next.
One of the teens called 911 shortly after 4 p.m. to report that a teen had been shot. Deputies arrived about five minutes later. Bradley was pronounced dead at Brandon Regional.
The Sheriff’s Office said the teen was shot in the upper body. Bradley’s parents later told the Times the round struck him in the back of the head.
In a news release that day, the Sheriff’s Office said detectives were working to determine how the shooting happened and how the teens got the gun. The release also included a plea from Sheriff Chad Chronister for gun owners to make sure their firearms are secured and unloaded and to “teach young people that guns are not toys.”
The Sheriff’s Office has not released names of the teens or the officer. The Tampa Police Department also declined to release the officer’s name. A police spokeswoman said there will be an internal investigation when the Sheriff’s Office investigation is done. When the investigation concludes, Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office will decide whether anyone will be criminally charged.
One of the teens talked to investigators the next day. The other two remained silent.
Then, on Monday, the officer’s son received a subpoena from the State Attorney’s Office, said Tampa attorney Rick Escobar, who is representing the boy and his father. The boy spoke to investigators on Wednesday.
According to the teen’s account, two of the boys had to use the bathroom, so they managed to get into the locked master bedroom to use its bathroom. When the boy using the main bathroom stopped up the toilet, three of the teens went looking for a plunger. At that point, the three teens went back into the master bedroom and found the gun.
The boy said that there was no clip in the gun, which was not a service weapon, Escobar said.
Escobar said he connected investigators with three witnesses who could corroborate that the officer kept the gun in the locked master bedroom when he left the house and routinely removed the clip and took it with him.
State law says loaded guns kept in locations where a minor could access them must be secured with a trigger lock or kept in a locked container or location "which a reasonable person would believe to be secure.” A person who leaves a loaded gun within easy access to a minor can be charged with felony culpable negligence if someone is injured or killed.
“He did everything and more than what is required” by the law, Escobar said of the officer.
As for the bullet that killed Bradley, Escobar said the officer probably inadvertently left the round in the chamber, but the gun would still be considered secure under the law.
Anthony Rickman, the Huletts’ attorney, said Bradley was not among the teens who found the gun and was playing a video game and wearing headphones when he was shot.
It’s still unclear how the gun wound up pointed in his direction.
“Based upon what I’ve heard and from talking with people, it was a complete accident and it had nothing to do with aiming the weapon or anything like that,” said Tampa attorney Thomas Dickerhoof, who is advising the family of the teen who was holding the gun.
Rickman said it’s too soon to conclude that the firearm was secure by the law’s standards or that the teen didn’t act with criminal recklessness.
“If you’re handling a firearm, you have to assume that it’s loaded and that whatever you do with that firearm could take the life of a person very easily," Rickman said. "We’re talking about 15-year-old boys here, not 5-year-old boys.”
Asked about why the teens did not give voluntary statements to investigators, Dickerhoof and Escobar said they advised the boys to exercise their right to remain silent until the lawyers could find out more about the investigation.
Escobar and Dickerhoof said they have not been able to review what the one teen told investigators the day after the shooting or get details about what physical evidence was recovered.
“Statements can be taken out of context and if you say something that does not agree with what someone else is saying, it could make it seem like you’re lying or trying to hide something,” Dickerhoof said. “That’s why as attorneys we’re so hesitant about them saying anything at all.”
Both attorneys said they have tried without success to meet or speak with Scott Robbins, an attorney representing the teen who spoke to investigators the day after the shooting.
“My client has given a full and timely statement but doesn’t want to compromise the investigation by making further public statements,” Robbins said.
Now that the police officer’s son has talked to investigators under subpoena, he’s immune from prosecution related to the incident. However, if investigators find he was untruthful in his testimony, he could be prosecuted for perjury, Escobar said.
“In the United States of America, individuals have constitutional rights and these laws are in place to protect those rights,” Escobar said. “We certainly understand that delays in investigations can be difficult for victims and their families but these delays are essential in conducting a thorough and proper investigation.”
The Huletts say they’re grateful to the boy who didn’t wait to talk to investigators. The couple say that’s how they would have handled the situation if the roles were reversed.
“We would have been scared for Bradley, and I know he would have been scared," Brad Hulett said. “But we would have talked with an attorney the next day and given a statement to the police and dealt with the fallout. That’s just who we are.”
The couple say they’re happy with how the Sheriff’s Office has handled the investigation and have faith it will be thorough. Meagan said she believed the lead detective when he said the fact that a police officer owned the home didn’t matter.
The parents said there must be consequences for their son’s death.
“The first thing I was taught is a weapon’s always loaded, that’s the assumption you make,” said Brad Hulett, a longtime gun owner. “If he just had enough sense to not pick up the gun, this doesn’t happen. If he’d cleared the chamber, this doesn’t happen. There’s 15 different ways this could have been avoided, and it wasn’t.”
The situation at Newsome, where daughter Ava is a freshman, compounded the family’s anger and misery. After the shooting, Ava saw all three teens at school each day and had lunch period with the teen who was holding the gun. Often, Ava called or texted her mother asking to be picked up early.
Finally, late last month, the Huletts pulled Ava out of Newsome and enrolled her in Florida Virtual School. She wonders why she was the one who had to leave the school and her friends.
“That, to me, is where the decency of a human being comes in,” Brad Hulett said. “If you know your son shot and killed someone, whether he meant to do it or not, what person gets up in the morning and says, ‘I think I’m going to send my boy back to school so he can see Bradley’s sister?’”
One recent day at the Hulett home, sunlight streamed through large windows into a living room piled with toys. Sloane and Biagio bounded around the house, then took a break from playing by curling up on the floor with one of the family’s two dogs, a tawny mixed-breed named Rocco.
The moment had an air of normalcy, but the Huletts say they’re struggling to adjust to life without Bradley.
Christmas was excruciating. Bradley’s stocking was already hung when he was killed. Meagan had already bought the five kids T-shirts with the word “SQUAD” on them, but it didn’t feel right to give them out on Christmas. She gave Bradley’s shirt to Fire Station 2 in Lithia, the base for the paramedic team that treated him.
Bradley and Alaina shared a bedroom, and after his death, she couldn’t sleep there. For her sake, the Huletts removed his belongings and repainted the room, but it felt like a betrayal, as if they were trying to remove painful reminders.
Meagan has taken a break from her job with Girls With Confidence Tampa Bay, a group that holds workshops in local schools to help boost self-esteem. She and the two oldest daughters have gone to counseling.
“This house used to be vibrant and alive,” Brad Hulett said. "It’s not right now, and I don’t know when it’s going to be again, or if it ever will be, and that’s scary.”
For all the unanswered questions, the Huletts have learned how resilient their kids are. After Meagan and Alaina got the news of Bradley’s death, Alaina decided to stay in Las Vegas for the cheerleading competition. One of five “flyers” who get tossed into the air during the routine, she didn’t want to leave a hole in the team. They won the grand champion title.
They’ve learned how many people loved their son. Hundreds showed up to a candlelight vigil after his death, then more than 3,000 came to the service. Many of the kids wrote sympathy cards calling Bradley their “best friend.”
Bradley’s friends signed one of his favorite basketballs the Venom team used during practice. It sits in a clear case on the mantle in their den. Next to the case are two small urns containing some of their son’s ashes. The parents intend to be buried with them. They also plan to get tattoos in their son’s honor, mixing some of his ashes with the ink.
The team will return to the court, likely in March, but will now be called BH3, Bradley’s initials and jersey number. The Huletts have created the Bradley Hulett Foundation to help kids cover the cost of playing team sports and traveling to tournaments.
“He was one of kindest, sweetest, most decent people you’d ever meet and doing things for others was what he did anyway, so it’s just kind of a natural progression,” his father said. “I think he would appreciate what we’re doing.”
For now, though, they feel trapped in a tortuous cycle that starts anew each day, Brad Hulett said.
“We grieve, we cry, we mourn and then we get angry."