‘Hugged my other firefighter and cried’: Rescuers recall Riverview murder scene

The first-responders were among dozens who testified Tuesday in the trial of Ronnie Oneal III.
Ronnie Oneal III questions a witness during his murder trial at the George Edgecomb Courthouse Monday, June 14, 2021 in Tampa.
Ronnie Oneal III questions a witness during his murder trial at the George Edgecomb Courthouse Monday, June 14, 2021 in Tampa. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]
Published June 15, 2021|Updated June 17, 2021

TAMPA — As smoke billowed from the eaves of the small house on Pike Lake Drive late the night of March 18, 2018, Hillsborough County firefighter Donald Foster put on a helmet, fire jacket, boots, air tank and dragged a hose through the front door.

On hands and knees, he felt along a wall as he made his way through the blinding haze. He aimed the hose toward an orange glow and released a few short water bursts.

Then, Foster began to slip. He noticed he was crawling through blood.

Foster was one of several first-responders who testified Tuesday in the murder trial of Ronnie Oneal III.

The firefighters, paramedics and sheriff’s deputies offered their respective accounts of the night they were called to a report of a shooting and found a woman and her daughter murdered and a young boy badly injured as the family’s Riverview home burned.

Oneal, who is representing himself in the trial and could face the death penalty if convicted, cross examined each witness, often scrutinizing the actions of law enforcement officers who were present that night.

But most questions came from prosecutors, who augmented the memory of witnesses with a video that a neighbor took of the emergency response.

Foster’s account of efforts to fight the blaze punctuated the morning’s testimony and gave jurors their first glimpse into the place where the horror of that night began.

Related: Drama, horror in Tampa courtroom as murder trial opens

Moving further into the house, he saw the floor littered with knives, as though someone had dumped a kitchen drawer. He noticed lawn equipment and a gasoline can.

He called for a ventilation fan to ease the smoke, which still hung heavy. He sensed a second blaze in another room and worked his way toward it. He moved down a hallway until he hit a wall and felt heat through a door. He opened it and found a room engulfed in flames.

Another firefighter tapped him on his helmet, took the hose, and held it on the flames as Foster went inside. Feeling around, he touched what felt like a human being.

It was 9-year-old Ron’Niveya Oneal. The girl lay beneath a pile of debris.

Assistant State Attorney Ronald Gale asked what he did with “the body,” but Foster said he didn’t know if the girl was dead.

“I thought I had found a patient,” he said. “The room was hot enough that it probably wouldn’t have supported life. But it wasn’t my goal to assess whether the person was alive or not.”

Foster and the other firefighter lifted the girl and crawled outside. They put her on the front lawn.

“What did you do then?” Gale asked. Foster let out a small laugh.

“Hugged my other firefighter and cried,” he said.

Related: ‘Thank you for all you’ve done’: Deputy who adopted child victim testifies in murder trial

Earlier that night, when a fire truck and an ambulance pulled onto the scene, emergency personnel found the battered body of Kenyatta Barron, who had been shot in her arm and severely beaten. They found her not breathing and with no pulse.

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As sheriff’s deputies began to descend on the Oneal home, the medical personnel decided to leave the area until it was deemed safe.

Hillsborough Sheriff’s Sgt. Frank Tagliarini recalled that the home’s garage door opened. Out walked 8-year-old Ronnie Oneal IV. Smoke drifted off the boy’s clothes. He had burns on his skin and blood coming from his mouth. He had an open wound in his abdomen.

“He appeared to have been disemboweled,” Tagliarini said.

The sergeant laid the boy in the grass. He hollered that there was a “pediatric trauma.” When the ambulance and fire truck returned, he tried to signal them with a flashlight.

About the same time, the elder Oneal emerged from the garage. Told to get on the ground, he first complied, but then rose and began to walk toward the end of a driveway.

Hillsborough Sheriff’s Lt. Howard Wooden was asked if Oneal said anything as he stood up.

“He said, ‘shoot me,’” Wooden said.

But the deputies didn’t shoot. Instead, as Oneal turned toward where his son lay, deputies fired Tasers. He fell to his back. Wooden pushed him with his feet to roll him over. Oneal was placed in handcuffs.

Hillsborough Fire Capt. Christopher Sanders and and Lt. Veronica Vitte tended to the boy’s injuries. With the housefire still raging and the scene unsafe, Vitte carried him.

“When I picked him up, he felt kind of limp to me,” Vitte testified. She brought him to the ambulance. She noticed froth in his mouth, a sign of smoke inhalation, and administered drugs to put him to sleep, so she could put in a breathing tube.

Before he he lost consciousness, the boy spoke to her.

“I believe he said either ‘my dad killed my mom’ or ‘my dad shot my mom,’” Vitte testified. “These are the two statements that have remained with me through the years.”