A shooter's lament: He's free but not proud of it

Published Feb. 17, 2013

Two guys argue about a barbecue grill. One starts swinging his fists. The other pulls out a gun and shoots. The unarmed man dies. The shooter goes home, no charges filed.

Outrageous or justified?

More than two years after the incident in which he killed Jose "Tito" Ramirez, Owen Eugene Whitlock is still trying to sort his own feelings out. "I really kind of liked the guy," he said.

Whitlock, 62 at the time of the incident, had lots of reasons to dislike Ramirez, 30. The younger man had spent time in prison for cocaine trafficking. He had been dating Whitlock's 25-year-old daughter for about a year. The unmarried couple were expecting a baby.

But Whitlock, an insurance adjuster who lives north of Orlando, said he was friendly with Ramirez and even found an occasional job for him. The night before the confrontation in 2009, the two had talked about where they'd have Christmas dinner. "We'd had a great conversation," Whitlock recalled.

When Whitlock asked Ramirez the next day to haul his grill to his daughter's house for the holiday meal, the younger man snapped. Ramirez told his girlfriend he was going to "handle" her father because he had disrespected him.

A little after 3 p.m. on Christmas Eve, Whitlock pulled into his driveway. Ramirez came up the street followed by his pregnant girlfriend, who was yelling, "No, Tito. Don't, Tito."

Witnesses saw a shirtless Ramirez raise his fists "wanting to fight." One said he advanced in slow, measured steps.

Whitlock said Ramirez threatened "to show me what they do to people like me in prison," then hit him in the chest with his forearms twice and shoved him in the back when the older man turned.

"I wasn't going to stand there and let someone beat me to a pulp," said Whitlock, who has a concealed weapon permit.

He pulled his Glock from his front pocket, warned Ramirez to back off, then shot him when he kept on coming. Ramirez stumbled back. Whitlock told onlookers to call the sheriff.

Ramirez was dead on arrival at Orlando Regional Medical Center. Whitlock's daughter, who was found to have empty pill bottles in her name for oxycodone and alprazolam in her truck, gave birth to a drug-dependent baby a few months later.

Whitlock, who was in the Army, believes people should be able to defend themselves, but he worries about hot-heads getting guns. He'd never seen Ramirez in a rage, and to this day can't imagine what set him off. But he also can't imagine what he would have done differently. That doesn't mean he's proud of his status as a "stand your ground" survivor.

"Other people thought it was okay, but I never did," Whitlock said. "I think about him every day."