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Tensions rise in wake of Hillsborough deputy's shooting of unarmed black man

TAMPA

Hillsborough County sheriff's officials conferred with NAACP officials and church pastors Thursday night in an effort to tamp down rising tensions over the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man earlier this week.

During the private phone conference, sheriff's officials assured community leaders they weren't taking sides and would thoroughly investigate Tuesday's shooting death of Levonia Riggins, 22.

"We have lost a son," Bennie Small, president of the Tampa chapter of the NAACP, said afterward, "and now we have to do what we can to correct that in whatever small way we can."

Two days of protests followed the incident, which occurred as investigators searched a home in Clair-Mel, a hardscrabble cluster of neighborhoods southeast of Tampa.

Thursday night, a large crowd of protesters assembled around 8 p.m. on S 78th Street, near a store where Riggins worked, and began repeatedly throwing debris in the roadway to block traffic. One young man appeared to be detained by deputies, though Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Debbie Carter said she had no information about an arrest.

Publicly, the Sheriff's Office has released little about the circumstances of Riggins' death, and Sheriff David Gee has said nothing. The Hillsborough State Attorney's Office is expected to investigate.

What Gee's office has said is this: About 8 a.m. Tuesday, a sheriff's SWAT team descended on the home where Riggins lived at 1432 Longwood Loop.

They carried a search warrant, stemming from a monthlong investigation. Deputies had purchased illegal drugs from Riggins, sheriff's officials said.

Several people exited the home, but Riggins ignored numerous commands to do so, officials said.

Deputy Caleb Johnson found him in a bedroom, "perceived Riggins as an immediate threat," and shot him, according to a statement the agency released late Tuesday.

He was put on paid administrative leave, standard after police-involved shootings.

Sheriff's officials, through Carter, declined to elaborate on why the deputy perceived a threat. It is police practice to use deadly force only when an officer believes there is an imminent risk of death or serious injury.

"The investigation needs to run its course," Carter said. "We want to make sure everything is complete before we can release any information."

Rumors spread

The few facts released so far have competed with rumors.

Some claim Riggins was shot more than once.

A sheriff's news release said the deputy fired only one shot.

Some claim deputies found only a small amount of marijuana. The Sheriff's Office didn't dispute that.

Some have said he was shot in the back.

Carter said that is not true.

This much is clear: Riggins' death has made a lot of people angry.

"They made it sound like he was a big-time drug dealer," said Briana Copeland, who dated Riggins for about a year before he was killed. "He may have smoked marijuana from time to time, but he was no drug dealer."

She had spent the night at Riggins' home, leaving early Tuesday morning, mere minutes before deputies arrived. He sent her a text message before 7 a.m. she said, saying he loved her.

"He was very lovey dovey," Copeland said. "It seemed like something wasn't okay."

Hours later, she learned what had happened through Riggins' family. His aunt, a brother and foster mother Jessie Williams were among those inside the house when deputies arrived, Copeland said. The deputies burst through the front door and ordered everyone out.

The girlfriend heard from relatives that Riggins had been shot through a bedroom window.

"There's still blood everywhere in his room," said Carniellius Branton, his older brother.

'Want to be heard'

Branton said people shouldn't judge Riggins by his criminal record, which included burglary and theft charges.

"He went through a phase," Branton said. "That wasn't who he was."

Family members who were inside the home at the time of the raid declined to speak with a reporter Thursday. They said they were in the process of getting a lawyer.

They did allow the Tampa Bay Times to see the boarded-up bedroom window. Shattered glass and crumpled blinds still lay on the grass outside.

"We're definitely planning to speak up for him," Copeland said. "I just don't see how you could just come in there and shoot him."

Lynn Henry, who lives a few blocks from Riggins, said she has known him for years and always thought of him as "a good kid."

"My daughter grew very attached to him, almost like a big brother," Henry said. "He was a lovable guy, he really was."

Henry said it would have been out of character for Riggins to have been involved in any kind of major crime.

"He was not a dealer," she said. "I think what it was — somebody called and made false accusations and they acted on it."

Friends knew Riggins as "Daddyman," a nickname he had carried since childhood. His own father had recently died, they said. He was raised by his foster mother and helped support her.

He made money cutting grass and working construction jobs. He also had a part-time job at the Get-N-Go Food Mart, a few blocks from his house. It was there, at the corner of N 78th Street and Rideout Road, that a group of vocal demonstrators formed late Wednesday and Thursday nights, drawing the attention of deputies.

A loud crowd stood under an awning. They hurled expletives at approaching patrol cars. A poster board sign with "RIP Daddyman" was affixed to an ice cooler topped with memorial candles and balloons.

Chants of "F--- the police!" rose from the Get-N-Go parking lot both nights. From the corner, men shouted and flashed signs at passing motorists.

Crowds gathered in nearby parking lots as deputies blocked the road. People snapped cellphone images.

When the deputies left on Wednesday, the crowd dispersed. But they lingered Thursday.

Thursday's protests started less rowdy earlier in the day, even as participants expressed outrage.

"That man was not a threat," said Chris Francis. "He didn't pose no threat."

They vowed to keep protesting. They demanded justice.

"We ain't trying to burn nobody's businesses down," said Teraill Cox. "We just want to be heard."

The message had already registered with NAACP president Small, who said he asked the Sheriff's Office on Thursday night to keep him informed about protests.

He had been joined on the conference call by the Rev. Thomas Scott, Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller and others, including the sheriff's representatives.

"They wanted the NAACP to know that they support the community and want to do their due diligence," Small said. "HCSO is not taking sides until they've done all their research, and neither are we."

Senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Dan Sullivan at dsullivan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.

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