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Police: Celebratory gunfire wounds Busch Gardens guest, damages car and apartment

Published Jul. 5, 2018

TAMPA — Vonshay Cunningham was about to get in her car for a trip to the grocery store on Wednesday evening when she saw the hole and spiderweb cracks in the windshield of her Kia Soul.

"I opened the door and there was glass all in the car and the bullet was laying there on the floor," Cunningham recalled Thursday. "I was shocked and scared. I didn't know if someone did it on purpose."

Instead, Tampa police say the bullet that pierced Cunningham's windshield was probably fired by someone shooting a gun into the air. It was one of three suspected cases of celebratory gunfire in the city on Independence Day, but not the closest call.

In the most serious case, a man celebrating the holiday at nearby Busch Gardens was wounded in the shoulder. Police believe Scott Deel, 36, was struck by a celebratory bullet that was fired outside the park's property.

And in the third case, a woman came home to her apartment to find a hole in her ceiling and a projectile on her bedroom floor, according to police.

RELATED:St. Petersburg teenager injured by celebratory gunfire

Cunningham, a 39-year-old nursing tech at James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa, noticed the damage to her 2016 Kia about 7:45 p.m. and called police. The car was parked in the driveway of her home on North 27th Street, just a few blocks west of the Busch Gardens property line. Cunningham immediately called police.

Then, about 11 p.m., Elaine Hunter called police after she came home to her apartment in the Knollwood Manor complex and found the projectile in her bedroom, police said. Police say there is no reason to believe Hunter, 61, was the intended victim of a crime.

Hunter's apartment complex, near the corner of North 30th Street and Sligh Avenue, is less than two miles south of Cunningham's home.

Deel, of Florahome in Putnam County, was walking near the Cheetah Hunt roller coaster in the southeast corner of Busch Gardens about 11:30 p.m. when he felt a sudden pain in his left shoulder, police said. When his wife noticed he was bleeding, Deel sought treatment at the park's first aid center. A police officer arrived and saw what appeared to be a bullet wound just above the shoulder blade.

Deel was taken to a local hospital for treatment. According to police, a preliminary report from the hospital indicated that there appeared to be nothing lodged in his shoulder. No projectile was recovered at the park, said Tampa police spokesman Steve Hegarty.

Police say the bullet appeared to come from behind Deel at a downward trajectory and it's unlikely the shot came from within the park.

Deel was treated at Tampa General Hospital and was later released, a hospital spokeswoman said.

Busch Gardens released a brief statement.

"We are working closely with the Tampa Police Department on this incident as the safety of Busch Gardens Tampa Bay's guests, team members and animals in our care is always our top priority," the statement read.

Celebratory gunfire is a problem that has periodically plagued the Tampa Bay area over the years on Independence Day and New Year's Eve, prompting law enforcement agencies to send out reminders ahead of those holidays about the dangers of firing into the air.

Wednesday's incident is similar to ones in 2015, when a woman was shot in the leg by a stray celebratory bullet at Busch Gardens during a New Year's celebration, and 2012, when a woman was wounded during a Fourth of July celebration in Temple Terrace.

No arrests have been made in any of Wednesday night's incidents. Police were also investigating Thursday to determine if the three cases may be linked given their proximity to one another, Hegarty said.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office had no confirmed cases of celebratory gunfire, but deputies did investigate a call about a bullet piercing the roof of an occupied dwelling in Riverview, said spokesman Danny Alvarez. No other details were available.

The St. Petersburg Police Department and Pinellas County Sheriff's Office had no reports of damage or injuries from celebratory gunfire, officials at those agencies said.

It is a first degree misdemeanor in Florida, punishable by up to a year in jail, to fire a gun in a reckless or negligent manner in a public place.

Celebratory gunfire cases are difficult to investigate, though chances of making an arrest improve if police recover a bullet, Hegarty said.

"It's still a long shot, but it's more likely than with other cases because at least we have a bullet to try to match up with something," Hegarty said.

Tips from the public can also break a case, he said. The Busch Gardens incident is getting a lot of attention from local news media, he said, "so it's possible someone could come forward and say someone was shooting into the air down the block from me."

Sandy Duran saw the news of the Busch Gardens incident and felt a pang of anxiety, then frustration.

"Anytime we hear an incident like that, the day Diego was struck all comes back," Duran said. "It effects us mentally and emotionally."

Duran's son Diego was watching fireworks in the back yard of the family's Ruskin home in 2012 when she saw him collapse with blood gushing from his nose and mouth. She rushed him to the hospital where it was discovered that a .45-caliber bullet had penetrated Diego's head and brain. The bullet came from a pistol randomly shot into the air probably 2 miles away.

Diego survived after a lengthy recovery, but the incident spurred the family to launch Bullet Free Sky, a campaign to educate the public on the dangers of shooting into the air. They also reached out to state lawmakers to make firing into the air a felony but none responded.

Interest in the campaign ramps up after someone is hit by celebratory gunfire, Duran said.

"It seems to die down until someone is affected again, which is very frustrating," she said.

Diego, now 19, is now taking automotive technology courses at Hillsborough Community College. He still has short term memory loss, his mother said.

Cunningham, the owner of the Kia, offered the same message stressed in the Duran family's campaign.

"Don't do it," she said. "Bullets go up but they must come down and you don't know who it's going to hit."

Times staff writers Devin Rodriguez and Josh Fiallo contributed to this report.Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

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