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Deputy who shot Tampa teenager thought cell phone was a gun, attorney says

A Hillsborough County sheriff’s deputy responding to a domestic violence call on March 26 at the Jasmine Terrace apartments shot a 17-year-old suspect. The shooting took place because the deputy thought the teen’s cell phone was a gun, the deputy’s attorney said Friday. [TONY MARRERO | Times]
Published Apr. 19

TAMPA — A Hillsborough sheriff's deputy who shot and critically injured an unarmed teen last month fired because he thought the teen was about to draw a gun from his waistband, the deputy's attorney said Friday.

The object in the 17-year-old boy's waistband turned out to be a cell phone, attorney Steve Romine told the Tampa Bay Times in his first interview since taking the case. But Deputy Daniel Estanislau didn't know that at the time, Romine said.

"This case is not about whether the object turned out to be a gun or not," Romine said. "The deputy made it clear that he believed the suspect was holding a gun. Had the suspect complied with the deputy's order to drop the object or move his hands away from the object, none of this would have happened."

Romine's account of what happened the night of March 26 expands on information the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office has previously released about the shooting. And his comments came after attorneys for the teen and his family released a statement Wednesday calling the shooting unjustified. The teen is in the hospital, paralyzed from the neck down.

The Sheriff's Office is still investigating the shooting. When the investigation is complete, the Hillsborough State Attorneys' Office will determine if the use of deadly force was justified.

Citing exemptions to public records laws pertaining to juvenile suspects, the Sheriff's Office has declined to release the teen's name. One of the family's attorneys told the Tampa Bay Times this week the family wasn't ready to release the name, either.

According to the Sheriff's Office, the teen was involved in a family argument that night in the parking lot of the Jasmine Terrace Apartments on Skipper Road. A short time later, the suspect threw his mother to the ground, injuring her head. Dispatched to the call about 7:45 p.m., Estanislau encountered the teen along Skipper Road. Estanislau ordered the teen to "drop the gun, drop the gun," then fired twice, according to the Sheriff's Office.

Romine said the teen appeared agitated when Estanislau approached him, and the deputy started talking to him to try to calm him down. By then it was dusk and visibility was limited, but Estanislau saw that the teen's hand was on a dark-colored object tucked into his waistband, according to Romine.

It was then that Estanislau drew his service weapon and repeatedly ordered the teen to "drop the gun" and show his hands. Then, with his body at an angle to the deputy, the teen suddenly made a movement the deputy perceived as a threat, Romine said.

"Only when the suspect made a movement consistent with drawing a gun in a manner in which the deputy could have been shot did he fire," Romine said.

In the statement Wednesday, the teen's attorneys described him as "an unarmed young black man" and claimed Estanislau had not agreed to speak to Sheriff's Office investigators to explain why he opened fire, opting instead to provide a statement through his attorney. That, the attorneys claim, is evidence that the shooting "is not and cannot be justified."

Romine disagreed, saying Estanislau gave a statement the night of the shooting and since then has freely provided more detailed written and oral statements within a reasonable amount of time.

"Any suggestion that this has to do with race is completely inappropriate and untrue," Romine said. "There's nothing about him, his background or his career that would even support such a ridiculous assertion."

He described Estanislau, a native of Brazil who later became a U.S. citizen, as a even-tempered person who has gone out of his way on previous calls involving armed suspects to avoid using lethal force even though he likely would have been justified in doing so.

"You're not dealing with an individual who is trigger happy or overly aggressive," Romine said.

In a statement to the Times on Friday, the teen's attorneys — Michael T. Davis, Benedict P. Kuehne and Manuel J. Alvarez — said Estanislau's version of what happened is inconsistent with the account of a witness who said the teenager was backing away with nothing in his hands and "merely turning to retreat when the deputy shot him."

"Law enforcement claims of being in fear of a gun when no gun is present have become all too frequent and expected," the statement said.

Romine said he believes evidence collected in the case will contradict the witness's account.

It's still unclear if the teen has given his account to investigators. Neither his attorneys nor the Sheriff's Office would answer that question Friday.

In a statement Friday, Sheriff Chad Chronister said, "The Sheriff's Office remains focused on conducting a thorough investigation based on factual information."

Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

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