PLANT CITY — When Mariana Pardo answered the phone that morning, her father spoke in a tone she hadn’t heard before.
Call 911, 70-year-old Agustin Pardo told her. A man just shot me.
She wanted to believe her father was kidding, but he didn’t joke like that, and he sounded distressed.
“I think he knew that it was serious because he said that he was dying and he didn’t want to die,” she recalled.
Pardo had been driving his old Ford SUV on a Plant City road when an armed man stopped the retired farmworker just a few miles from his home and fired a shot through the driver side window, police say.
Records offer more details about what happened that day, Jan. 14, but the family still doesn’t have an answer to a key question: Why would the suspect, 27-year-old Jeffery Darnell Thomas, shoot a gentle old man?
Mariana Pardo rushed to the scene that day. Just before paramedics lifted her dad into a medical helicopter, she spoke what would be her last words to him.
“l promised to him that he was going to be fine, that he was going to make it,” she said in a recent interview, tears spilling down her cheeks, “but it wasn’t that way.”
Agustin Pardo was working the fields in his native Mexico when he decided to come to Florida for his family’s sake, his wife and children said.
It was the late 1990s, and Pardo and wife Cirila Diaz were struggling to feed their six children on wages earned picking tomatoes in Mexico. So Agustin and two of his six children, Juan and Maria Rutilia, moved to Wauchula and picked cucumbers. Soon after, they came to Plant City to work in the strawberry fields.
Agustin Pardo planned to make some money and return to Mexico. Instead, about a year later, his wife and the other four children — Jose, Mariana, Maria Martina and Rosa — moved from Mexico to Plant City to join them. A seventh child, Jazmin, was born here.
“We thought it would be a better life here, and it is a better life here,” Cirila Diaz, 60, said in Spanish in a recent interview, weeping as she spoke.
By the early 2000s, Agustin Pardo was working at Mathis Farms, south of downtown Plant City, where he would stay until retiring a few years ago. Called “Grandpa” by his co-workers, Pardo picked fruit at first, then did other labor, keeping the fields tidy during picking season and mowing grass, said farm manager Chris Falter.
Standing barely five feet tall, Pardo was a quiet man who liked to work alone, but “if he didn’t like something, he was going to let you know about it,” Falter said.
“If I had 10 Grandpas I could get rid of half my employees,” he said. “He was the hardest worker I ever had."
Meanwhile, the Pardo family established roots in Plant City. His children grew up and had kids of their own. There are now 23 grandchildren and two more on the way.
“He would always get excited when one of us got pregnant,” said Maria Rutilia, 40. “He would always say he can’t wait for the baby to be born.”
Agustin Pardo and Cirila lived in son Juan’s farmhouse off Trapnell Road, south of Plant City. There, after retiring, Pardo grew his own crops: sugar cane, bananas, cilantro and a Mexican herb called papalo, among others. He sold some, kept some for the family and gave some away.
“He always said he would keep growing because that’s what he loved doing,” said Mariana Pardo, 27.
He also planted the crops with his grandchildren in mind.
"He would say, 'Whenever they eat sugarcane, they will remember me. Whenever they eat bananas, they will remember me,” Mariana said.
No one thought he would become a memory so soon.
Jefferey Thomas has roots in Plant City and a record of losing his temper, but nothing in his short arrest history compares to the violence police say he inflicted last month.
Born in Florida, Thomas attended Durant High School, court records show. His father, Osbourne Thomas, has owned property on Sam Hicks Road since 1989. His mother, Doretha Curry, lives nearby on State Road 60.
Thomas listed another Plant City address in 2015 when he was arrested in Tampa and charged with possession of cocaine and Xanax and driving under the influence.
In 2018, Thomas was arrested on a domestic battery charge after punching his live-in girlfriend during an argument at the Plant City apartment they shared, according to an arrest report. The girlfriend lost consciousness and when she came to, the argument resumed and Thomas hit her again, the report states. Thomas was placed in a pre-trial diversion program.
In early 2019, Thomas was again charged with battery after he punched his father in the face during an argument at the father’s home, an arrest report states.
Osbourne Thomas sought a restraining order after the incident. In the petition, the father wrote that his son had given him $500 to stay at the house, then asked for half of the money back and got angry when the father gave him $220.
“Jeffery wanted me to sign a paper giving him half of my property and my home I am building,” Osbourne Thomas wrote.
Thomas did not answer yes to questions on the form about whether his son had a drug or alcohol problem or a history of mental health issues.
Osbourne Thomas and Doretha Curry did not respond to messages left at their homes and at phone numbers listed for them. Messages left at numbers listed for other family members were not returned.
Jail records show Jeffery Thomas has worked as a laborer and on a road maintenance crew. At the time of his battery arrest last year, he said he worked as a dental technician.
That case was still pending when shots rang out on Colson Road on Jan. 14.
Shortly before 10 that morning, Falter, the Mathis Farms manager, spotted a man he would later realize was Thomas walking along Colson Road. The man was looking up at trees, “like he was bird watching,” Falter recalled.
Arrest reports and other court documents chronicle what happened later.
About 12:30 p.m., motorists began calling 911 to report that a man was pointing a gun at cars in the area near James Redman Parkway and Colson Road.
One of the callers, Robert Moore, told the operator that a man wearing a T-shirt and jeans shot at his car. Moore would later tell investigators he was driving east on Colson in his Chevy Malibu when a man stepped into the roadway in an apparent effort to stop him. Moore drove around him.
When Moore looked in his rear view mirror, he saw the man raise his arm and point a handgun toward the back of his car. Moore then heard two apparent gunshots. He pulled over and called 911.
While on the phone, Moore watched in his rear-view mirror as Thomas stopped an SUV — Pardo’s Expedition — and walked toward the driver side. Moore heard a gunshot. Investigators later found shattered glass from Pardo’s driver side window littering the pavement.
After the shooting, Pardo drove about a quarter mile and stopped. Thomas fled to the north.
Hillsborough deputies and Plant City police converged on the area. A sheriff’s helicopter pilot spotted a man running through several properties north of Colson. The man tried to hide as he waved a gun around and pointed it at the helicopter.
Plant City police officers Joshua Snyder and Jeffrey Hilsman caught up to Thomas on Kilgore Road as he tried to hide behind a home. As they stood by their patrol cars, Thomas pointed a gun at the officers and pulled the trigger several times, an arrest report states. The gun only made a clicking sound.
Officer Gaylyn Russell and Deputy Travis Wright arrived and chased Thomas as he ran south. Thomas sat in a field, continuing to point the gun at officers. As Russell and Wright approached, Thomas pulled the trigger multiple times, the report says. The gun did not discharge. Russell shot Thomas with a rifle and the officers took him into custody.
Meanwhile, responding officers and deputies found Pardo in his SUV. He was still in the driver’s seat when daughter Mariana arrived. He looked calm.
“Even if he was in pain, he wasn’t going to show it,” she said.
Officers told her the bullet went through his arm and into his torso but they thought he would be okay.
By the time his family got to Tampa General Hospital, he was already gone.
Thomas was first taken to Lakeland Regional Hospital to be treated for the gunshot wound. On Jan. 28, he was moved to Tampa General Hospital for rehabilitation. He remained there last week.
A Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman said the case remained open and investigators cannot provide information on Thomas’ motive or state of mind that day.
Thomas has been indicted on charges of first-degree murder, carjacking and multiple counts of aggravated assault and aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer. A judge granted prosecutors’ request to hold him without bail. Records show he is being represented by the Hillsborough Public Defender’s Office.
One recent day, a strong south wind blew across Agustin Pardo’s fields, rattling the banana tree leaves and shaking the sugar cane. A fresh crop of cilantro Pardo planted a few days before he died peeked out from the soil. His kids said they’re going to chip in to tend the crops.
Pardo’s family said their father would be angry at Thomas but would forgive him. They want him to stay behind bars for the rest of his life.
“This time it’s my dad,” Jose Pardo said. “Next time, it might be somebody else’s family.”
Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.