1. News

Hillsborough sheriff's official says Clair-Mel man reached toward waistband before deputy fired

About 200 people gathered Friday at S 78th Street and Rideout Road in Clair-Mel to protest the death of Levonia Riggins.
About 200 people gathered Friday at S 78th Street and Rideout Road in Clair-Mel to protest the death of Levonia Riggins.
Published Sep. 3, 2016

CLAIR-MEL — Levonia Riggins wouldn't show his hands.

As a sheriff's SWAT deputy smashed through his bedroom window and yelled for him to show his hands, the 22-year-old stayed in bed, wriggling under the covers. The deputy repeated his commands. Riggins slipped between the bed and the wall.

"The deputy could not see what Mr. Riggins was doing," Hillsborough sheriff's Cpl. Donna Lusczynski said Friday. "But (he) saw him moving around and was fearful he may be getting a weapon."

Riggins jumped up but reached toward his waistband, she said.

That's when Deputy Caleb Johnson fired the fatal shot.

The account, which Lusczynski read in a late afternoon news conference, was the first detailed retelling of the events that led to Riggins' death Tuesday in his Clair-Mel home. Only after he was killed did deputies learn he was unarmed.

The shooting has enflamed tensions in the sprawling community southeast of the Tampa city limits. In the three days since, deputies have grappled with unrest as protesters have taken to blocking traffic on S 78th Street, throwing trash in the road and lighting fires.

Lusczynski, flanked by black community leaders, called for calm as the Sheriff's Office continues its investigation of the shooting.

"We know people are in pain, hurt," Lusczynski said. "We have no issue with peaceful protests but when (people) damage property, we'll step in with great care."

Sheriff David Gee has made no public statement about the case.

The Hillsborough State Attorney's Office is expected to investigate Riggins' death.

"It's a pending investigation and it'll be handled with the established protocol," State Attorney Mark Ober said Friday.

In explaining the shooting, Lusczynski also spoke about prior contact Riggins had with sheriff's deputies.

On July 13, undercover detectives met with Riggins outside the Get-N-Go convenience store, at 78th Street and Rideout Road and spoke with him about purchasing marijuana.

On July 25, they bought from him, Lusczynski said. On Aug. 8, they bought again.

Before drafting an application for a search warrant, the detectives noted a prior call to Riggins' home on Aug. 12, 2015. It had led them to believe he had access to guns.

That's why the SWAT deputies were deployed, she said.

When they arrived at 8 a.m. Tuesday, they called over loudspeaker for everyone to come outside. Three adults and a child did come out.

When Riggins did not, the SWAT officers broke his bedroom window.

In the wake of the shooting, rumors had spread that Riggins was shot multiple times in the back.

"There was only one shot fired to his upper body," Lusczynski said, "and not in the back."

Earlier Friday, she said, the sheriff met with black community leaders and informed them of the shooting investigation's initial findings. Later, standing with Lusczynski at the news conference, were the Rev. Tom Scott and James Cole, a member of the Sheriff's Black Advisory Council. Both reiterated the call for calm.

"It does no one any good when you go out and destroy property," Scott said. "Especially in your own neighborhood."

Cole, who is also a member of the NAACP's youth council, praised the Sheriff's Office for its transparency in the investigation, something he said other police agencies have failed to heed in the aftermath of controversy.

"Even though it may pain the community to hear, at least it has come out in a short amount of time," said. "As I stand with you, embrace truth and facts."

Hours earlier, on Thursday night, at least four men were charged with inciting a riot as groups of people damaged cars, threw trash and lit fires in reaction to the shooting.

Deputies saw the men haul wood, tires, a grill and a gas can to the site of a protest on 78th Street, after following them home from there earlier in the evening, according to arrest reports.

David Joel Ramos, 19, Enrique Raymond Marquez, Jr., 21, Eduardo Feliciano Melo, Jr., 21, and Luis Domingo Pichardo-Marmolejos, 24, were arrested and booked in the Orient Road Jail.

For much of three days, deputies watched from afar, intervening only when mischief turned to danger as protesters put obstacles in the path of oncoming cars near the intersection of 78th Street and Rideout Road.

There, a group that grew to more than 60 people dislodged trash cans, newspaper boxes, signs, concrete, a large tent and a large commercial garbage bin Thursday night.

As cars traveled along the road, at speeds of up to 40 mph, some were damaged when they struck objects including a torn-down road sign. A pickup truck struck the garbage bin head-on.

Eventually, deputies blocked intersections to the north and south to prevent further damage. At that point, the crowd dragged items into the road and set them on fire.

Early Friday evening, tensions remained high. Deputies lingered as people, again, gathered outside the Get-N-Go, chanting "don't shoot!" and "f--- the police!"

Later, protesters blocked traffic. A car accident occurred when a driver, who swerved to avoid someone who had run into the street, struck another vehicle. It was unclear if anyone was injured.

But some lit candles. Some marched from the store to Riggins' house, holding signs that said "Justice 4 Levonia Riggins" and "Stop Police Terror."

They chanted, "Don't let DaddyMan die in vain" and "Hold tight to your kids."

And they let a moment of silence pass for a fallen son.

"They didn't even give his mom a chance to talk to him," said Clair-Mel resident George Archie, 38, back at the Get-N-Go. "He listened to his mom. He would have come out if she had told him to come out."

Civic activist Michelle Williams shouted to those assembled that they had a right to protest and demand justice but she wanted them to do so safely.

"Promise me you will not give them what they want," she said.

One man shouted back.

"We ain't Ferguson," he said. "We're Tampa."

Times staff writers Steve Contorno and Luis Santana contributed to this report. Contact Dan Sullivan at or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.