TAMPA — Early one recent Sunday morning, gunshots rang out from under the overpass at West Hillsborough Avenue and Dale Mabry Highway.
Police arrived to find a man who had been shot multiple times. He died on the sidewalk where he often slept.
Days after the Nov. 6 shooting, police announced they’d arrested Timothy McGovern, a 29-year-old former U.S. Marine, on a first degree murder charge. Police said McGovern admitted to walking several miles from his home with the intent to find and kill the man.
The shooting raised plenty of questions. Who was the man, and why would McGovern target him?
The picture that has emerged is of two strangers who first encountered one another months earlier on one of Tampa’s busiest thoroughfares in an area frequented by people experiencing homelessness.
Nabil Mahmoud Sarah, 37, who is identified in court records, had been living on the streets for several months. McGovern would tell police later that he’d run into Sarah at least a couple of times prior to the shooting. On one occasion, McGovern told police, he cut Sarah with a knife.
Sarah escaped that run-in with a large gash. Months later, police say, McGovern returned with a gun.
‘He was a gentle soul’
One of two siblings, Sarah was raised in Tampa and attended Universal Academy of Florida, a private K-12 school for Muslim students in Tampa, said Mouhannad Atfeh, a friend who also went to Universal.
Atfeh said Sarah was kind-hearted and a talented athlete.
“He was always very giving and always looked out for others,” he said. “He was really a gentle soul.”
The friends lived together while they were in college, Atfeh at the University of South Florida and Sarah at Hillsborough Community College. Sarah’s father, who was the only parent in his life by that point, died about that time, Atfeh said. Sarah worked a variety of jobs over the years, mainly in cellphone repair.
Sarah married in 2012. He and his wife had three children.
“You could see that the kids gave him hope and and gave him something to work for,” Atfeh said.
Court records show Sarah and his wife separated in 2019 and Sarah filed for divorce in early 2020. The mailing address Sarah listed in the filing was for a drug treatment facility in Tampa, records show. He then stopped communicating with his wife and the court. His wife filed a counterpetition and in 2021 a judge dissolved the marriage and gave her sole parental responsibility for the children.
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Sarah’s ex-wife and brother declined interview requests for this story.
According to records and interviews, Sarah had been living on the streets for at least a year.
On a recent sunny day, Ronnie Coogle, 58, stood at the end of an exit ramp leading from Dale Mabry to Hillsborough Avenue. Peering through blue mirrored sunglasses, a ball cap shading his face, Coogle held up a cardboard sign asking for help from motorists waiting at the light.
Coogle said he was sleeping in the area on Nov. 6 when the sound of gunfire awakened him. He soon learned he knew the man who had been shot.
Coogle had seen Sarah in the area on and off for roughly the last two years. He was quiet and didn’t interact much with others but often had money and was quick to share it, Coogle said.
“He was generous to people,” said Coogle, who said on one occasion Sarah gave him $20.
A confession, no clear motive
After the shooting, investigators found eight shell casings. An autopsy found Sarah had been shot five times in the head, neck and chest.
A few days later, Tampa police Chief Mary O’Connor announced McGovern’s arrest. An incident on Bayshore Boulevard about four hours before Sarah was shot helped lead investigators to him.
About 10:30 p.m. on Nov. 5, witnesses on Bayshore said a man on a bike rode up, said “there’s my target,” pulled a gun and fired several shots into the bay. Shell casings found there matched those at the overpass.
Prosecutors filed a motion seeking to keep McGovern in jail until his case is resolved. During a Nov. 15 hearing on the motion, Tampa police Detective Kenneth Nightlinger said surveillance cameras captured the Bayshore shooter riding his bike. Two days later, officers spotted a man who fit the description on Hillsborough Avenue, not far from Dale Mabry.
It was McGovern. Nightlinger, who went to interview him, testified McGovern confirmed he was the man in the surveillance video and that he had shot a man on Hillsborough Avenue.
“Our conversation didn’t go too long before he admitted to the crime,” Nightlinger said.
Nightlinger said McGovern was polite and cooperative, seemed to understand the questions but at times said things that didn’t make sense.
McGovern said he used to work at Tampa International Airport and had previously encountered Sarah on his way home. On one occasion, McGovern said he warned Sarah that people were out to kill him and told him to leave the area. McGovern also admitted to cutting Sarah on a subsequent encounter on July 4, Nightlinger said.
A police report on that incident says Sarah told investigators he was sleeping under the overpass when he was a awakened by a man cutting his neck with a folding knife. Sarah said he jumped away and the man lunged at him, “motioned for (Sarah) to attack him” and then rode away on a bike. Sarah told police he’d briefly seen the same man twice in the recent past.
During his testimony, Nightlinger said McGovern initially indicated that he cut Sarah in self defense but later contradicted that.
Nightlinger said McGovern explained that on the night of the shooting, “he left home specifically to seek out the victim and whether or not he was still there, and if he was, his intent was to kill him.” But his motive remained unclear.
According to testimony, McGovern had in recent months been taken into custody on at least two separate occasions under the state’s Marchman Act and Baker Act. The Baker Act allows authorities to take people into custody for a mental health assessment and treatment when they are considered a potential danger to themselves, others or both. The Marchman Act is similarly used for people with substance abuse disorder. Details were not provided during the hearing and records were not available.
Nightlinger testified that McGovern said he had served in the U.S. Marines and had been discharged due to a drug-related offense. McGovern also said he previously had suffered a head injury, and his mother told detectives he wears headphones to quiet or diminish the voices he hears.
Circuit Judge Catherine Catlin denied the motion to hold McGovern without bail, citing his lack of a significant criminal history and the fact that his only alleged violent act prior to the shooting involved the same victim. Catlin set bail at $200,000 and ordered McGovern to undergo a psychological evaluation and, if released, wear a GPS monitor and remain on house arrest. He was still in jail Friday.
Hillsborough Public Defender Julianne Holt declined to comment on the pending case.
A burial in a storm
Islamic custom is to bury the dead as soon as possible, but Sarah’s family and friends had to wait until his body was released by the medical examiner.
That happened as Tropical Storm Nicole was bearing down on the area, said Atfeh, the longtime friend. The day after arrangements were announced, as Nicole’s wind and rain lashed the city, a few hundred people attended prayer for Sarah at a Tampa mosque followed by his burial at a local cemetery, Atfeh said.
“It was really a testament to how good of a guy he was,” Atfeh said, “how important he was to the community and how much he was loved.”