TAMPA — Dontae Johnson, the young man a jury decided was the person who shot and killed a father in front of his teenage son during a dirt bike sale in 2017, was sentenced Friday to 40 years in prison.
Johnson was 17 when the crime occurred. Although prosecutors sought life in prison, state juvenile sentencing laws required a judge to consider his youth, along with several other factors, before imposing the sentence. The 40-year term is the mandatory minimum and comes with the promise of a review of his sentence after 25 years.
“This is an impossible situation,” Hillsborough Circuit Judge Samantha Ward said. “And (it’s) unnecessary to be in this position. Neither family is ever going to be the same. For a dirt bike, for crying out loud.”
Johnson, now 22, wept throughout the lengthy hearing Friday at which his family and friends expressed doubt about his guilt in the slaying of James Beck, 44.
He was described as an introvert, a boy who liked football but was never aggressive, who had to switch schools to protect himself from bullies. Doctors diagnosed him with an intellectual disability; he’d attended special education classes.
To Beck’s family, though, the prospect of lingering doubts was offensive. The jury had spoken; Johnson was a murderer.
“My son’s family is all destroyed because of a stupid teenager bringing a gun to a sale,” said Beck’s mother, Judy Quinones. “My son is dead. I’m going to repeat that over and over. My son is dead.”
The crime occurred Jan. 31, 2017. Beck’s then-15-year-old son, Stuart, had advertised a Kawasaki dirt bike for sale on Craigslist. He exchanged emails, text messages and phone calls with a potential buyer in Tampa, agreeing to deliver the bike for $1,200.
Late that day, the father and son made the 50-minute drive from their Holiday home to east Tampa, the bike strapped down in the bed of their pickup. Near the corner of 18th Street and E 24th Avenue, Stuart Beck said, they met a tall man and a shorter man.
The short man asked for a test ride. James Beck asked for to see the money first. The tall man pulled out a stack of cash, which included several $1 bills, according to court testimony. James Beck looked through it, handed it back and said it looked like the wrong amount.
The tall man drew a pistol and demanded the pair’s cell phones, Stuart Beck testified. His father told him to get back in the truck, then moved toward the driver’s seat. Then there was gunfire.
The shooter ran off. The other man got in the truck bed, hopped on the bike and drove away.
Stuart Beck made a frantic call to 911. His father was taken to a hospital, where he died from multiple gunshot wounds.
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Police later linked the phone number Stuart Beck had called and texted to Ramontrae Williams. The son later identified Williams as the shorter man.
When questioned, Williams at first minimized his involvement, but later admitted he stole the bike. He identified Johnson as the shooter. Stuart Beck was later shown a photo lineup and identified Johnson’s image as the taller man who shot his father.
Williams pleaded guilty to his role in the crime and received a 12-year prison sentence.
Judge Ward noted that although Johnson was convicted of being the shooter, he was not the one who planned the crime.
She also said she found Williams’ testimony at trial to be unreliable.
“I do believe the sentences in this case are disproportionate,” she said, opining that she found Williams’ 12-year term to be “offensive.”
Early in the case, defense attorneys raised concerns about Johnson’s competency to face trial due to an intellectual disability. He spent time in a state hospital. The case was further delayed when the COVID-19 pandemic put jury trials and other court matters on hold.
Johnson’s family recounted his upbringing in Tampa’s public housing communities. He was one of seven children. His father died when he was 15. He stood over 6-feet tall, but family said he was timid and unfairly judged because of his size.
“I do apologize for what happened to James Beck,” said his mother, Rahlawn Johnson. “But that was not my son.”
At Blake High School, he got picked on and threatened for being from the wrong neighborhood. His mother transferred him to Plant High School. He was a lineman on the football team.
Misty Winter, who ran the football program, took a liking to him. Coaches, she said, would get frustrated with him as he was reluctant to use his size and strength on the field. When other players fought or disagreed, she said, Johnson was the one who stepped in to make peace.
Winter and her husband, Lee Winter, had Johnson to their home for meals. He later became something of a surrogate son, staying at their home, appearing in family photos with the couple and their children.
“I know somebody needs to pay,” Winter said in court. “But I know Dontae did not pull that trigger.”
She spoke of what Johnson had told her about the crime and what she’d gathered from talking to neighbors near the crime scene. He didn’t even own a gun, she said.
Beck’s family spoke of the man they lost.
James Beck was a father of three. He met his wife, Suzanne, when they were high school. He liked fishing and being on the water and bought a home on a riverside cul-de-sac, with access to the Gulf of Mexico.
“I feel like I was Cinderella and he rescued me,” Suzanne Beck said. “He was my prince and I’m lost without him and so are a lot of other people.”
Since his death, the family has struggled to maintain a stable life, they said. Stuart Beck, now 20, spoke of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress after seeing his dad die.
“I just miss my father,” he said. “And I feel there’s really no justice to it.”