TAMPA — The case of the fatal shooting of a 15-year-old Lithia boy at the home of a Tampa police officer is now in the hands of prosecutors who must decide whether to charge someone with a crime.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office on Thursday presented its findings into the Dec. 13 shooting of Bradley Hulett to the State Attorney Andrew Warren’s office, Sheriff Chad Chronister said in a statement.
Though Chronister’s 425-word statement refers to finding “a path to justice" in “a fallen world,” he does not say if his detectives made a recommendation to prosecutors on whether the findings support criminal charges. But wording in the statement suggests the Sheriff’s Office concluded the gun that killed Bradley should have been better secured.
“We at the Sheriff’s Office believe that anyone handling a gun should behave with the presumption that the gun is loaded,” Chronister said. “We believe that all responsible gun owners should take steps to secure weapons beyond the reach of anyone, especially children and teenagers. Had those steps been taken that night, this tragedy would likely not have happened.”
The statement also notes a particular challenge investigators faced as they worked to gather evidence after the shooting at the home in Lithia’s FishHawk area.
“While many have called for swift justice and quick criminal action, it has taken time to uncover the facts about how this death occurred,” Chronister said.
The Sheriff’s Office has released few of those facts, citing the open investigation.
In a statement, Warren said he couldn’t predict when a charging decision might come because more investigation is needed, but would move “as quickly as possible."
“We are committed to a complete and thorough review of all the facts and issues resulting from this terrible tragedy,” Warren said.
Bradley Hulett and his three friends, all sophomores at Newsome High School, were the only ones in the home at the time. The Tampa officer, who is the father of one of the teens, was working. No names have been released.
The families of the three teens immediately hired lawyers. One of the boys gave a statement the next day. The son of the Tampa officer talked to investigators last week after receiving a subpoena, according to the family’s attorney, Rick Escobar. The third teen, who reportedly was holding the gun when it discharged, has not given a statement. The two teens’ attorneys have said they advised the teens to remain silent.
The police officer “has through his attorney provided limited information to our detectives,” Chronister said.
“All involved, of course, have the right to counsel, but this limitation has prolonged the investigation as we have tried to determine how this young man died...,” Chronister said. “Despite these many hurdles, our investigators have worked swiftly and diligently to ensure that all evidence available is considered.”
The investigation included “a complete crime scene analysis, review from the medical examiner, discussions with the victim’s family, social media analysis, and a ballistics analysis," Chronister said.
Escobar has maintained that the gun was secure according to state law. The law requires loaded firearms stored in locations where a minor could access the weapon to be secured with a trigger lock or kept in a locked container or other location "which a reasonable person would believe to be secure.”
According to Escobar, the officer kept the gun in a locked master bedroom and took the gun’s magazine with him. He followed that routine the day of the shooting, but likely inadvertently left a round in the chamber, Escobar said. He said the officer had made it clear that the boy was not allowed in the bedroom and the teen had obeyed that rule in that past.
The day of the shooting, Escobar said, two of the teens had to use the bathroom at same time, so they accessed the master bedroom to use its bathroom. When one of the teens stopped up the toilet in the main bathroom, all three went back into the master bedroom looking for a plunger and found the gun, Escobar said.
Bradley was not among those three teens and was playing video games in another room and wearing headphones when he was shot, according to Hulett family attorney Anthony Rickman. The circumstances of how the gun was pointed in Bradley’s direction and discharged have not been made clear. The Hulett family said Bradley was shot in the back of the head.
Rickman said Chronister’s choice of words are telling.
“With that statement, one would assume that he feels simply putting a firearm behind a locked door is not enough to safely secure that firearm," Rickman said. "And when you pick up a firearm, you have to assume it’s loaded and if you act recklessly and somebody dies as a result, that’s a crime.”
Escobar said he’s still confident the facts will show the officer followed the law.
“The statue doesn’t talk about the kind of lock, so for anyone to now try to disregard that because a tragedy has taken place, I don’t think that’s a responsible process,” he said.
If the gun is considered to be secure under the safe storage law, then the gun owner cannot be charged with culpable negligence, Escobar said. He said he submitted to the State Attorney’s Office a memo outlining how the facts show his clients should not be charged.
Thomas Dickerhoof, the attorney for the teen who reportedly was holding the gun, declined to comment on the statement but said he met Monday with an assistant state attorney and sheriff’s detective on the case to offer his view of the evidence and why criminal charges are not warranted. He has described the shooting as an accident.
Hulett’s parents, Meagan and Brad, have voiced frustration with the two teens who did not immediately tell investigators what they saw and did. The case has generated fierce and sometimes vitriolic debate on social media, a fact Chronister appears to reference at the end of his statement.
“Incidents like these do not lend themselves to soundbites or our social media driven culture,” he said. “These are complicated cases that require an in-depth understanding of what took place. This young victim’s family deserves our empathy and frankly a better world. In this fallen world, the best we can do is find a path to justice and hopefully within that justice some comfort of peace.”
Here is Chronister’s full statement:
The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office has completed its investigation into the tragic death of a young victim from a gunshot that took place on December 13, 2019 in the FishHawk Ranch community. Our investigation consisted of a complete crime scene analysis, review from the medical examiner, discussions with the victim’s family, social media analysis, and a ballistics analysis. We have patiently, but persistently, waited for the other teenagers involved in this incident to provide statements to our investigating detectives. All three of the teenagers who were present the night of this shooting retained lawyers immediately following the incident. Only two of the three have spoken to our investigators, and the most recent of those statements happened just days ago. The homeowner, a Tampa Police Officer, has through his attorney provided limited information to our detectives. All involved, of course, have the right to counsel, but this limitation has prolonged the investigation as we have tried to determine how this young man died on the evening of December 13th. Despite these many hurdles, our investigators have worked swiftly and diligently to ensure that all evidence available is considered.
Earlier today, our detectives presented all of the available evidence to the State Attorney’s Office. The State Attorney’s Office will ultimately determine the next steps and who will be prosecuted as a result of this tragedy. Because this remains an open investigation, we are not able to provide the facts our detectives have discovered. Our criminal justice system works best when our detectives and prosecutors are free to conduct a thorough and complete review of every fact, every witness statement, and every issue in a case. The same is true in this instance. While many have called for swift justice and quick criminal action, it has taken time to uncover the facts about how this death occurred.
We at the Sheriff's Office believe that anyone handling a gun should behave with the presumption that the gun is loaded. We believe that all responsible gun owners should take steps to secure weapons beyond the reach of anyone, especially children and teenagers. Had those steps been taken that night, this tragedy would likely not have happened.
Incidents like these do not lend themselves to soundbites or our social media driven culture. These are complicated cases that require an in-depth understanding of what took place. This young victim’s family deserves our empathy and frankly a better world. In this fallen world, the best we can do is find a path to justice and hopefully within that justice some comfort of peace.