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Friends, family say unarmed man shot by Hillsborough sheriff's deputy was more than just his rap sheet

Riggins, 22, seen with his girlfriend, Briana Copeland, was known as “Daddyman,” a nickname he earned with the caring way he interacted with his friends, family and the community.
Published Sep. 8, 2016

CLAIR-MEL

Levonia Riggins spins in circles with a little girl on his shoulders. Two other young girls bounce around his feet, giggling, clapping and chanting while begging for a ride of their own.

Riggins sighs in exhaustion but smiles broadly as he turns, finally tumbling the girl gingerly onto a couch.

"Do it again!" she begs.

It's anyone's guess if he got the chance.

Riggins, a 22-year-old African-American, was shot and killed last week by a white Hillsborough County sheriff's deputy who was helping to serve a search warrant for drugs on Riggins' home. Sheriff's officials acknowledge Riggins was unarmed when he was shot in his bedroom. They also acknowledge they found no weapons and only a small amount of marijuana.

Messages posted to the Facebook video by friends, family and strangers throughout the country convey the anger and confusion provoked by the shooting, which has sparked almost nightly protests in Riggins' Clair-Mel neighborhood.

"Words can't express but u was loved," Riggins' brother, Carniellius Branton, posted on the video. "RIP to my brother … the cops took another life."

The messages, however, say nothing about Riggins' troubled past.

His first arrest came when he was just 13 — a felony charge of burglary of an occupied structure and possession of burglary tools in which adjudication was withheld. By the time he was 21, he had been arrested more than 20 times, serving time in juvenile facilities like the San Antonio Boys Village in Pasco County and at least nine months in adult jail.

Three of those charges were dropped or dismissed. None involved violence or guns.

Friends say Riggins was more than just his rap sheet.

He liked cartoons and ribs cooked in a smoker down the street from his house. He liked to sing and rap and, from all accounts, was pretty good at both. He was "Daddyman," a nickname he earned by acting like a daddy to his friends, their children, his siblings, and the woman closest to his heart — his adoptive mother.

"They don't know who they killed," said his friend Antiel Casseus, 38, as he stood by a makeshift memorial to Riggins last week at the Get N Go Food Mart where Riggins worked and protesters still keep watch.

"They didn't know the life they took."

• • •

On the morning of Aug. 30, while Riggins was still asleep in his bed, a SWAT team descended on his home in search of illegal drugs. A month earlier, according to sheriff's officials, undercover detectives had purchased marijuana from Riggins.

Riggins ignored the SWAT team's orders to come out of his bedroom, officials said. Instead, they said, he wriggled under his covers as officers yelled through his broken bedroom window. Then he moved between his bed and the wall, prompting Deputy Caleb Johnson, 32, a seven-year veteran of the Sheriff's Office, to believe he was reaching for a weapon.

When Riggins moved his hands to his waistband, officials said, Johnson shot him once, killing him.

Johnson is now on paid administrative leave, standard after police-involved shootings. He is the nephew of former state representative and Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson.

Riggins was one of eight children. All ended up in foster care.

His biological mother, Lashawn Riggins, tried to raise the six boys and two girls on her own, and continued to sees them once a month, said Branton, 28.

"She's devastated," Branton said. "On top of the pain and hurt she already feels for not being able to be there for him … now all she can focus on is burying him."

Levonia Riggins was 6 when he and his twin brothers were adopted by Jessie Williams and her husband and moved into the Clair-Mel neighborhood with another adopted daughter. The family struggled to make ends meet and Riggins faltered while adjusting to his new life, Branton said. He missed his mom and brothers and sisters. He felt like they didn't want him anymore.

Soon, he was running into trouble with the law.

It was during a jail stay when he was 18, the result of a probation violation, that Riggins reconnected with Branton, he said. The two were booked into the same dormitory. Riggins' said he would do whatever he could, from stealing to selling weed, to get money for his adoptive family. But the two talked about turning their lives around, and both were on their way, Branton said.

"He always said he wanted to make sure Ms. Jessie had no worries," Branton said. "He loved the ground she walked on."

Later, Branton would take Riggins on one of his only trips out of the city of Tampa — one night in Miami when he helped Branton pick up a new car. Two weeks before he died Riggins also traveled to Bradenton to spend a day at the beach with his sister, Delores Williams, 25, and her three kids.

"Levonia was a really goofy, playful child and he always wanted to be helpful," Williams said. "He was always outside in the dirt, playing with the boys."

Riggins loved kids and they loved him back, Branton said. He used to talk about buying a vacant lot and filling it with bouncy houses for the neighborhood kids to play in for as long as they wanted. But first he wanted to save up money to buy his own lawn mower so he could make more money cutting yards.

He met his girlfriend, Briana Copeland, by babysitting her kids and was never embarrassed to show how much he loved her, Branton said. Early Tuesday morning, the day he died, Riggins made her laugh by dancing in her car's headlights as she pulled out of his driveway.

In his neighborhood, he was the respectful young man at the Get N Go who ordered Cuban sandwiches with extra mayo, extra mustard, "extra everything," said Charlie Moore, who worked the store's deli counter.

Most days he would stand and drink his coffee in his spot outside by the ice chest, making conversation with anyone who passed by — gay, straight, black or white, friends said.

Jimmy Carson met Riggins at a time when he needed him most, he said. Carson, 56, moved into the neighborhood last year after his 32-year marriage deteriorated and he "just went crazy."

"I was in the middle of a nervous breakdown and then this kid came into my life and he wanted to talk to me and I respected him," Carson said. "Then I wake up one morning and someone said he got killed and it's been a real problem."

Carson knew Riggins was a "lost kid" but had no idea he was adopted until after he died. Riggins was the kind of kid that would go to the store for you and bring back everything you asked for, as well as your change, Carson said. He didn't like trouble and his end of their conversations always veered toward taking care of his sick foster mother, whose husband died in the same house in November. He was talkative and outgoing, and had a "great laugh," Carson said.

"He was the type of person that's was always ready with a joke," Carson said. "When he would see me he would say, 'What up broke man?' and he would always smile at that."

Riggins fired off jokes "like he was Dave Chappelle" and preferred watching comedy shows like Family Guy and The Cleveland Show to sports, said Teraill Cox. Cox, 23, and Riggins had been friends for 12 years and worked together at the Get N Go.

"You'd get tired of laughing,'' Cox said.

But Riggins didn't view his life as a joke, Cox said. Riggins worked at the store, cut yards, worked construction and did car detailing to make money for his mom. Several months ago he asked Fred Hutto, an HVAC technician in Clair-Mel, if he had any work he could do for extra cash. Riggins learned the trade in just a matter of days, Hutto said.

"He was all 'yes sir' and 'no sir', '' Hutto said. "He really worked hard for me."

He never carried a gun and was never violent, friends said. He had a strong belief in God. Even though he worked hard for his money, he used to give Brandi Jeffrey's kids extra cash for snacks on their way to school, she said.

One night Cox needed a place to stay and Riggins gave up his own bed, instead sleeping on the floor, Cox said. The afternoon before he died, Riggins spent the afternoon replacing a patio screen for an elderly neighbor.

He wanted to have his own welding company and move his adoptive mom out of Clair-Mel, Cox said. Darrell Judkins, 29, was helping him hone his rapping skills and he was working on completing his GED. His Facebook page said he went to Bloomingdale High School.

"He had dreams, he had inspiration, he was just never able to get to them," Cox said. "Twenty-two years isn't very long."

• • •

The day after Riggins was shot, protesters gathered outside the Get N Go. The ice chest where he used to rest his morning coffee was covered in candles, balloons and alcoholic offerings. Signs saying "RIP Daddyman" were graffitied with remembrances from the community.

Then, the next day, the crowd got angry. It blocked 78th Street at Rideout Road, dragging cement parking barriers, signs and newspaper boxes into the road and setting trash on fire. They hurled expletives at approaching patrol cars and chanted "F--- the police!" Deputies stood by, but didn't approach the crowd. At least four people were arrested.

They blocked the street again on Friday, which led to a car accident, and stood outside the store throughout the weekend. Their numbers waxed and waned throughout the days but the storefront was never left empty. On Monday, they marched in the street about a mile from the intersection of Causeway Boulevard and S 78th Street to the Get N Go. They again blocked the road, at one point holding hands and bowing their heads in remembrance of Riggins.

They held signs that called for Johnson to be jailed. The State Attorney's Office is currently investigating the case.

But the protests, the investigations and the anger surrounding his death are not what Branton wants to remember about his brother.

"I just want to remember his smile," Branton said. "He had a beautiful smile with all straight, perfect white teeth. He was always smiling."

Times staff writers Christopher O'Donnell and Dan Sullivan and Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Anastasia Dawson at adawson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.

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