As a community reels, St. Petersburg police find no pattern in string of fatal shootings

About 150 people march down Central Avenue on Friday to protest a recent surge in fatal gun violence in St. Petersburg.
About 150 people march down Central Avenue on Friday to protest a recent surge in fatal gun violence in St. Petersburg.
Published Dec. 19, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — Six weeks. Six shootings. Six people dead.

Beginning Nov. 10, six St. Petersburg boys and men, ranging from ages 16 to 25, have died after being shot.

Police said they don't see connections among the shootings. For several of the incidents, they're still trying to pin down clues and witnesses.

No pattern has emerged. The shootings happened in the dark of night and in the bright light of morning. They happened inside apartments and outside in alleyways.

Some of the shooters have been caught. Police are still searching for the others.

"It's a string," St. Petersburg Police Department spokesman Mike Puetz said. "Not a spree — they're not interconnected."

Spree or no spree, it's a grim toll that only recently has piled up. With the year coming to a close, the last two months have accounted for more than 50 percent of the fatal shootings in St. Petersburg this year — a total of 10 through Thursday.

The sudden cluster hasn't gone unnoticed. After Thursday morning's shooting, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman felt compelled to tweet that "overall crime/homicides down."

On Friday evening, Kriseman and about 150 community members, some holding hands with young children, marched through downtown St. Petersburg to protest the shootings.

"No more guns!" they chanted on their way down Central Avenue from the St. Petersburg Police Department.

"Guns are not only in the hands of people protecting their homes and their livelihoods," said the Rev. Kenny Irby of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church during the march. "They're in the hands of people who want to do harm."

They marched to 22nd Street S, near a mural that reads "Love your neighbor."

"It's not too late to stop the young people, to stop all people, from having guns to solve their problems and using guns to solve their problems," Kriseman told the crowd. "There are other ways. There are better ways. There are more peaceful ways."

But not necessarily plausible ways. Kriseman offered the crowd a weak prescription, encouraging them to write their state and national representatives to urge them to pass more stringent gun laws — a non-starter in the Republican-dominated chambers. He also told residents to speak up if they know of someone who committed a crime or who has a gun they shouldn't have.

"Because if you don't, it's going to happen again," Kriseman said, "and then another family is going to be mourning the loss of someone. And we've mourned enough."

Standing in the crowd with tears in her eyes was Christie Potts, whose 22-year-old son Joshua David Walsh was killed Nov. 10. She wore a T-shirt with his photo and the dates of his birth and death.

"It's every mother's worst nightmare," she said.

So why the uptick in shootings?

Puetz said there's not always an answer to those questions.

"All these situations appear to be isolated to a dispute, or issues between individuals, but don't appear to be connected based on the intelligence that we have now," Puetz said.

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"It's just a fact that occasionally, you will see a series of homicides in a place in a short period of time," he said. "Then maybe, you see a gap of not that many."

This year, for instance, police went months without seeing a shooting homicide, Puetz said.

From January to early April, there were none.

From June to Aug. 1, not a one.

From Aug. 24 to Nov. 10, nada.

But on the morning of Nov. 10, Walsh was shot and killed by an 18-year-old man robbing his apartment.

His death marked the beginning of the current string.

That same night, 16-year-old Lennie Acostas was fatally shot at his home near Wildwood Park. He was transferred to All Children's Hospital Johns Hopkins Medicine, but was pronounced dead there. Police determined Acostas had been targeted.

Just 19 days later, an 18-year-old man was shot and killed near a convenience store on 16th Street S. Police found the man, Jerrod Evans, lying by a dumpster. He'd been shot once in the upper body.

On Dec. 6, Aaron Davis, 25, was shot and killed in a courtyard at the Fountain Court Apartments. Police said he'd been arguing with another resident and was shot multiple times.

On Tuesday, Gabriel Wallace, 17, was shot once in the chest outside an apartment on 13th Avenue S. He had argued with another man, 18-year-old Abrion Witcher, who police believe shot and killed him.

Police are still trying to locate Witcher.

The latest happened Thursday around 1 a.m., when police heard gunshots near 16th Avenue S and found 17-year-old Tyler Lord on the ground in alley.

"I met Tyler in the seventh grade," 16-year-old Bailey Peterson said. The two often played basketball together.

"He was smart, he knew how to talk to people," Peterson said. "He made mistakes, like everyone does. He was athletic, too. He was supposed to go to (Peterson's high school) after Christmas break and hop on the basketball team with me."

Peterson said he'd just seen Lord a few days earlier.

"This stuff happens all the time here," he said. "But this is first time it was somebody close to me like that."

Police don't know why Lord was in the alley, or who shot him.

It's frustrating to see anyone killed, Jim Previtera, St. Petersburg's assistant police chief, said Thursday from behind police tape at the scene where Lord was killed.

But even more so, he said, when it's a kid who has just turned 17 lying on the ground, and you have to tell his father.

The spate of killings have kept detectives up around the clock, Previtera said.

"This is more of a marathon than it is a sprint," he said.

Tampa saw a similar shooting streak this year in March, when three boys died in three separate shootings.

Two of them died on March 14, another happened only eight days later.

A Tampa police news release said the deaths were due to increased illegal guns on the streets, drug activity and retaliation between groups.

Of Tampa Police Department's 31 homicides for 2015, 24 involved a firearm.

Andrea Davis, spokeswoman for the department, said those numbers may change as certain investigations progress.

Times photojournalist Lara Cerri contributed to this report. Contact Hanna Marcus at or (727)-893-8603. Follow @hannaemarcus.