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Tampa woman just driving in wrong place, family says, when she was shot dead

Savannah Mathis, 21, was attending HCC to become a nurse. Her younger sister also was injured when shots rang out Dec. 1 in Tampa’s West Riverfront neighborhood.
A table has been turned into a memorial for 21-year-old Savannah Mathis at BJs Alabama BBQ on South Dale Mabry Highway, owned and operated by her family. Mathis was shot to death and her sister injured while they were driving the night of Dec. 1 in West Tampa.
A table has been turned into a memorial for 21-year-old Savannah Mathis at BJs Alabama BBQ on South Dale Mabry Highway, owned and operated by her family. Mathis was shot to death and her sister injured while they were driving the night of Dec. 1 in West Tampa. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Dec. 8, 2021|Updated Dec. 8, 2021

TAMPA — Savannah Mathis and her younger sister were raised to be responsible, not only by their parents but by aunts, uncles, grandparents and loyal customers at family owned and operated BJ’s Alabama BBQ.

April Moreno put her two granddaughters to work behind the counter at the 52-year-old restaurant on South Dale Mabry Highway as soon as they could read the register. Revenue from the restaurant helped pay for their Catholic education at Academy of the Holy Names and St. Peter Claver, then public schools in high school — Plant for Mathis and Spoto for her sister.

Mathis graduated with a 5.0 grade point average and a goal of becoming a doctor or nurse. She thought debate club was fun, loved Justin Bieber, always wore her seatbelt and posted Bible verses to her social media pages “just in case somebody needed to see it that day,” her aunt Brandy Williams said.

Aunt Brandy, who worked in law enforcement in Alabama and with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, made sure her nieces always carried a pepper spray bottle on their keychains and wrote down the license plate number when boys took them out.

April Moreno opens the door Wednesday to her family's restaurant, BJ's Alabama BBQ on South Dale Mabry Highway. BJ's reopened Wednesday, a week after family member and employee Savannah Mathis was shot dead while driving.
April Moreno opens the door Wednesday to her family's restaurant, BJ's Alabama BBQ on South Dale Mabry Highway. BJ's reopened Wednesday, a week after family member and employee Savannah Mathis was shot dead while driving. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

“But this was a lesson I just, I forgot to mention,” Williams said. “I never would have thought to even say it, because they weren’t the kind of girls who hung out in bad neighborhoods, you know? There are so many kids her age going down the wrong path, but she was always one of those girls where the sky was truly the limit. And she just didn’t deserve this.”

Williams gave the girls a hug, reminded them to buckle their seatbelts and watched them drive away from the restaurant after closing Dec. 1. On the way, the family believes, one of the girls got a notice on social media that a man they knew was hanging out in West Tampa’s West Riverfront neighborhood.

The two girls from South Tampa decided to drive around the neighborhood, part of a troubled area where the city of Tampa is investing millions in revitalization, and look for his car.

“She didn’t know that, when you’re in the hood, you can’t just ride around like that because somebody’s going to think you’re fixing to shoot them up,” Williams said.

That’s just what happened, her family believes. Tampa police found the girls’ bullet-ridden car near the corner of Grace Street and Delaware Avenue just after 8 p.m. Mathis, 21, had crashed into a wall after being shot in the head and abdomen. Her sister, 19, was hit in the leg. The Times is not identifying the sister because she is the victim of a violent crime and no one has been charged in the slaying.

We are having a candle light visual in honor of our precious baby girl Savannah. Friday the 10th @8pm. We are so broken...

Posted by Denise Nelson on Saturday, December 4, 2021

The whole family was at Tampa General Hospital three days later when Savannah was unplugged from life support. They posted the photos online. Her mother wanted everyone to see the toll of gun violence.

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“I’ve gotten used to having to deliver bad news to parents, but I never in a million years thought it would have been us,” Williams said. “And to think that we could have lost both of them. They’re supposed to bury us. We’re not supposed to bury them.”

About 20 minutes after the shooting, Tampa police arrested Alfonso Evans, 29, in a nearby alley. Evans had a gun in his waistband and said he had fired “warning shots,” according to an arrest affidavit. He was booked into Hillsborough County jail on a charge of throwing a deadly missile at a vehicle and released two days later on $7,500 bail.

Related: South Tampa's beloved BJ's Alabama BBQ reopens at new location

Witnesses told police there were two armed men at the scene. Police Maj. Michael Hutner said investigators are awaiting ballistics test results from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

“We’re hoping that we get an arrest on someone else, as well,” Hutner told the Tampa Bay Times.

”There were people around when that shooting happened, and those witnesses know what happened.”

Anyone with information about the case was asked to call the Tampa Police Department at 813-231-6130 or, to qualify for a cash reward, Crime Stoppers Tampa Bay at 800-873-8477.

BJ’s Alabama BBQ at 3423 S Dale Mabry Highway was closed for a week after the shooting and reopened Wednesday. Now, instead of finding Mathis behind the register, customers see a makeshift memorial set up on a table.

A student at Hillsborough Community College, Mathis had just returned from a visit with an academic advisor at the University of Florida, where she planned to finish her nursing degree. She volunteered in the daycare center at Tampa General and was a sought-after babysitter.

Because her classmates were such loyal customers at the restaurant, she persuaded her family to add a “Plant Special” to the menu — a pork sandwich with mac and cheese and a sweet tea. After Mathis’ death, even more friends came in, urging the family to change the name to the “Savannah Special.”

A customer looks at a memorial for 21-year-old Savannah Mathis at  BJ's Alabama BBQ, her family’s restaurant where she worked, in Tampa on Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021.
A customer looks at a memorial for 21-year-old Savannah Mathis at BJ's Alabama BBQ, her family’s restaurant where she worked, in Tampa on Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

The family is planning a candlelight vigil at 8 p.m. Friday at Beulah Baptist Institutional Church, 1006 W Cypress St. A gofundme.com page called JusticeForSavannah had raised $3,400 as of Wednesday, “for multiple purposes,” the page says, “mainly to stop gun violence in our communities.”

“We are so broken and want justice, not just for her but for all the victims who have lost their life to senseless violence,” Mathis’ mother, LaMaria Smith, wrote in a social media post. “We ask that all the parents and families and friends come out for Savannah but also for your friends and family that was taken.”

Staff writer Tony Marrero contributed to this report.

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