TAMPA — The word spread on social media: Party at Curtis Hixon Park.
For weeks, the city’s signature downtown park had been closed to limit the spread of the coronavirus. On the third Saturday in May, scores of young people converged on the space on the bank of the Hillsborough River.
Shortly after Saturday night became Sunday morning, the last in a series of fights erupted near the park’s dormant water fountains. Amid the chaos, a gunshot rang out and a muzzle flashed in the darkness.
As the shooter and others scattered, 18-year-old Antonio “Jay Jay” McGuire, Jr. fell to the ground.
The three-month investigation that followed, detailed in an 111-page report released by Tampa police to the Tampa Bay Times, found the shooter was standing his ground to protect himself and a friend when he drew his gun. Prosecutors have decided to charge the man, who didn’t know McGuire, with carrying a concealed weapon.
That’s not justice for the man who killed her only child, said Ashley Lynn, McGuire’s mother.
“I understand murder is hard to prove, but this young man had a gun and wasn’t supposed to,” Lynn said. “He used it. He took a life.”
• • •
By mid-May, the coronavirus pandemic had been dragging on for a couple of months. Tampa officials announced that Curtis Hixon and other parks would open on May 16.
One of several friends who was with McGuire that night told a detective they went to Curtis Hixon park after seeing an Instagram post about a large party there. McGuire’s girlfriend and stepsister were among them.
By 9:30 p.m., about 100 people had gathered, according to police. Officers responded to the park multiple times to break up fights.
McGuire’s friend told detectives her group was walking through the park near Ashley Drive when another fight broke out near the fountains. During this fight, the friend said, a man she didn’t know drew a gun and shot McGuire.
“I got hit,” McGuire yelled, according to another friend.
Tampa police received a shots fired call at 12:14 a.m. An officer arrived to find a woman pumping McGuire’s chest while a man held his hand. The officer continued chest compressions until paramedics arrived.
Investigators at the scene found a spent .22 caliber casing and a live round of the same caliber.
Shortly after the shooting, Lynn’s cellphone rang. It was McGuire’s girlfriend, screaming that Jay Jay had been shot. Lynn rushed to Tampa General Hospital and knew the worst had happened as soon as the doctor came into the room.
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“His body language told me before he said anything,” recalled Lynn, 32. She collapsed to the floor in tears.
An autopsy showed that the bullet hit McGuire in his chest, perforating his lungs, heart, aorta and esophagus.
• • •
Investigators quickly identified 21-year-old Bilal Malik Ford as the suspected shooter. By then, Ford and his family had already hired a lawyer.
Three days after the shooting, Tampa attorney Joe Caimano called a detective and arranged for Ford to meet with them the next day. Ford brought his Keltec P17 pistol along with three magazines and ammunition.
Ford told detectives he was at the park with his cousin and friends when some girls got into a fight. One of the girls was a cousin of one of the people in Ford’s group, and that person got angry when another young man started pulling the girls apart and pushing them, Ford said. The cousin confronted the other young man.
During this confrontation, Ford said, he started to get “scared and nervous” because they were getting surrounded by people, so he pulled his gun from his waistband and pointed it at the ground in an attempt to get away. As Ford and his friends started to leave, the other group followed, taunting them and throwing punches.
According to Ford, three of the young men in his group then got “jumped” by the other group as they neared Ashley Drive. When he saw one of his companions was getting stomped, kicked and punched by several people, he ran up and drew his gun again, thinking that would make the group disperse.
Then, he said, a man on his right took a swing at him, hitting him on the shoulder with a closed fist. He told investigators the blow made him tense up and accidentally pull the trigger.
Ford said he thought the man who punched him was the one who got shot.
Detectives were able to collect multiple videos from the scene that night. None of the footage refuted his account of the gun discharging immediately after he was punched by McGuire, the report states.
Ford told detectives he’s an artist and bought the pistol for $300 to use in music videos. He didn’t have a concealed weapon permit.
“Bilal brought the firearm to the park for ‘cool points’ because girls like guys that live that sort of lifestyle,” a detective wrote.
In an interview with the Times, Caimano called Ford a “good kid” who doesn’t have a criminal record. He said the Plant City High School graduate fled because he was scared, and he and his family contacted Caimano the day after the shooting.
Ford told detectives that before he went out that night, the mother of the teen getting attacked looked Ford in the eye and told him to take care of her son, Caimano said.
“He said, ‘It’s my responsibility to watch out for these younger kids,’ and when he saw them stomping on them, he knew he had to act,” Caimano said. “He may have ended up saving his friend’s life, but he definitely regrets that someone died.”
Ford’s father George released a statement through Caimano.
“We as a Black family are truly sorry for the loss of a son and family member,” the statement said in part. “If we could take it back, we would. This chain of events has taken a tremendous toll on me as a dad, so I can only begin to imagine how this young man’s family is grieving. Every night we as a family pray that God blesses and guides everyone involved in this tragedy how to move forward in a loving way.”
• • •
As she waited for word on whether and how the shooter would be charged, Lynn tried to adjust to life without her son.
Born in Tampa, McGuire was a senior at Seminole Heights Charter School. He loved playing video games, fireworks and hanging out with his friends, his mother said.
“He would light up a room,” she said. “Very funny, very playful. He was just an overall sweetheart kid.”
In April, McGuire was arrested after Tampa police concluded he shot two rounds at a house, records show. Two people were on the porch at the time but no one was injured. Lynn said her son claimed his innocence, and she said there is surveillance video showing him in another part of the city at the time of the shooting. The case was still pending when he died.
Growing impatient as she waited for word on how Ford would be charged, Lynn organized a “Justice for Jay Jay Rideout,” a group ride for cars, motorcycles and bicycles, and put the flyer on social media. The procession would set out from Tampa’s Cuscaden Park this Saturday.
Then, last month, a detective told her that prosecutors would be charging Ford with carrying a concealed weapon, a third degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison.
“Even if it wasn’t my son, if it was somebody else’s and all the shooter was getting charged with was for carrying a concealed weapon, it wouldn’t sit right with me,” Lynn said.
In an Aug. 24 letter to police Chief Brian Dugan explaining the decision, Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren noted that Florida law says a person can use, or threaten to use, deadly force if the person believes that doing so “is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another.”
The letter said the evidence showed McGuire was among the group kicking and stomping on Ford’s friend, and investigators could not refute his claim he was acting in defense of another or that he fired the gun accidentally.
“We sympathize deeply with Ms. Lynn for the loss of her son — our prosecutors are driven to passionately advocate for victims and their families, guided by the law,” Warren’s office said in a statement to the Times. “In this case, the evidence clearly demonstrates Mr. Ford was standing his ground in defense of another person; under Florida law, that is a complete defense, not only to murder, but also to assault and battery.”
Lynn thought about canceling Saturday’s rideout, then decided to go through with the event. She’s going to ride her son’s baby blue BMX bike.
“I still feel I need justice for Jay Jay," she said.
Times photojournalist Ivy Ceballo contributed to this report.