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St. Pete man accused of killing family spent much of adult life in prison

Cornelius Whitfield, 31, has spent much of the past 14 years in state and federal prison on drug convictions. On Tuesday, police said, he fatally shot his grandmother, great-grandmother and uncle.
The scene of a deadly shooting in St. Petersburg. Three people were found dead inside a home Tuesday after a shooting that led to a SWAT team response. Cornelius “Cornbread” Whitfield, 31, was taken into custody by St. Petersburg police, Chief Anthony Holloway said during a news conference, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021 in St. Petersburg.
The scene of a deadly shooting in St. Petersburg. Three people were found dead inside a home Tuesday after a shooting that led to a SWAT team response. Cornelius “Cornbread” Whitfield, 31, was taken into custody by St. Petersburg police, Chief Anthony Holloway said during a news conference, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021 in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Feb. 17
Updated Feb. 18

ST. PETERSBURG — Police had been looking for Cornelius “Cornbread” Whitfield for two weeks when the 911 call came in just before 4 p.m. Tuesday. A woman had been shot in a home on Emerson Avenue South then ran to a neighbor’s house.

When police arrived, the woman described a terrible scene. She had returned to the house on the corner of Emerson and 30th Street to find three people dead inside. Whitfield was there, too, she told police, and he turned the gun on her, according to an arrest report.

Whitfield knew all the victims — his grandmother, his great-grandmother and uncle. The woman who survived was not identified. Police tore down a wall to get inside the home and arrest him.

Cornelius Whitfield, 31, is the suspect in a pair of St. Petersburg shootings: One in early February that killed one man and injured another, and one Tuesday that injured one person and killed Whitfield's grandmother, great-grandmother and uncle.
Cornelius Whitfield, 31, is the suspect in a pair of St. Petersburg shootings: One in early February that killed one man and injured another, and one Tuesday that injured one person and killed Whitfield's grandmother, great-grandmother and uncle. [ St. Petersburg Police Department ]

Whitfield was living at the home, too, said police Chief Anthony Holloway. The path that led him there wound repeatedly through the Pinellas County jail and state and federal prisons. According to public records, Whitfield, 31, has spent most of his life since the age of 17 incarcerated.

The crimes that landed him behind bars before were not violent ones, pointing rather to a life centered on drugs. Now, he faces four charges of murder in the shootings Tuesday and in the crime that had put him on the radar of police — a Feb. 1 shooting that left one man dead and another injured. He knew them, too, police said.

The victims in the Tuesday attack were his grandmother Patricia Ann Whitfield Sharpe, 66; his great-grandmother Sallie Hobbs Whitfield, 83; and an uncle, Antonio Maurice Graham, 45. A 2-year-old in the house was not hurt.

St. Petersburg police evacuated nearby homes and sent in the SWAT team after reports of a shooting at a St. Petersburg home. They knocked down the front of the house in order to get the victims to rescue crews who were standing by. They took Cornelius "Cornbread" Whitfield into custody.
St. Petersburg police evacuated nearby homes and sent in the SWAT team after reports of a shooting at a St. Petersburg home. They knocked down the front of the house in order to get the victims to rescue crews who were standing by. They took Cornelius "Cornbread" Whitfield into custody. [ St. Petersburg Police Department ]

Whitfield was 16 when he was arrested for cocaine possession and charged for the first time as an adult, court records show. He later pleaded guilty, and a judge withheld adjudication, referring the case back to the Department of Juvenile Justice.

But Whitfield violated his probation when he failed to show up for a supervised-release program, landing him back in court. In early 2007, when he was 17, a judge sentenced him to 28 months in prison.

He served about 22 months, state records show, and was released at the end of 2008. Less than three months later, according to federal court records, a tipster alerted St. Petersburg police to drug sales in a house on 12th Avenue S. That April, an undercover officer and a confidential informant bought crack multiple times from Whitfield and another man; they also saw both men carrying guns.

Police eventually seized guns and drugs from the house, and both men were indicted on federal drug trafficking charges. Whitfield pleaded guilty to two charges in exchange for several others being dropped, and in early 2010 he was sentenced to more than a decade in prison. In 2015, he successfully petitioned for a reduced sentence and was released that year.

In November 2017, police noticed a silver Kia parked illegally, and when they ran its plates, they found no registration. When they tried to conduct a traffic stop, Whitfield, who was at the wheel, sped away, officers wrote in an arrest report. A chase ensued, and Whitfield eventually crashed into an interstate barrier. He tried unsuccessfully to flee on foot. Police said they found marijuana, MDMA and the opioid hydromorphone in the car.

Once again facing a slew of charges, Whitfield pleaded guilty to five counts, among them drug trafficking, court records show. He was sentenced to more than three years in state prison in 2018. On Nov. 16, 2020, he got out.

On Feb. 1, according to court records, three of Whitfield’s childhood friends — they had met in elementary school — were hanging out at an apartment on 73rd Avenue N known as a spot for drug sales. That evening, Whitfield called one of them: He said he was in a bad spot and needed money. The friend invited him to come by.

Whitfield showed up a few hours later, according to an arrest affidavit. The friend who’d invited him left soon after. Around midnight, that friend got a call from one of the others. Whitfield shot him, he said. He’d begged for his life and survived. But their other friend, Darren Lorenzo Barnes Jr., was dead.

Police arrived at the scene minutes later. Officers discovered a bloody tooth from the man who’d survived; medical examination soon suggested he’d been shot in the cheek at close range, police said. And they came upon Barnes’ body, with a gunshot wound to the back of the head. But Whitfield was nowhere to be found.

A fundraiser for surviving members of the Whitfield family has been organized on GoFundMe.