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Tampa Dunkin’ case: A racial slur, a fatal punch and 2 years of house arrest

Corey Pujols pleaded guilty to felony battery for throwing a punch that killed a man who had called him a racial slur.
Corey Pujols (right) stands beside his attorneys, Darrin Johnson (center) and Jamila Little (left) during a plea hearing that was visible through Zoom videoconference Monday in Tampa. Pujols pleaded guilty to felony battery for throwing a punch that killed a man who called him a racial slur.
Corey Pujols (right) stands beside his attorneys, Darrin Johnson (center) and Jamila Little (left) during a plea hearing that was visible through Zoom videoconference Monday in Tampa. Pujols pleaded guilty to felony battery for throwing a punch that killed a man who called him a racial slur. [ Dan Sullivan ]
Published Mar. 7|Updated Mar. 7

TAMPA — One afternoon last May, an irate customer walked into a Tampa Dunkin’ shop and began to scream complaints of poor service.

A Dunkin’ employee, Corey Pujols, asked Vonelle Cook to leave.

Cook continued his tirade. He called Pujols the n-word.

Pujols, who is Black, stepped from behind a counter and warned him not to say it again.

Cook, who was white, said it again.

Pujols punched him. The blow knocked Cook to the floor, where he hit his head. He died three days later.

Corey Ellis Pujols was working at a Dunkin' store in a Tampa gas station when he punched Vonelle Cook, who had called him a racial slur. Cook died in the hospital three days later.
Corey Ellis Pujols was working at a Dunkin' store in a Tampa gas station when he punched Vonelle Cook, who had called him a racial slur. Cook died in the hospital three days later. [ Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office ]
Vonelle Cook is seen during a 2006 arrest. Cook, 77, died after he uttered a racial slur at a Dunkin' employee, who then punched him, authorities said.
Vonelle Cook is seen during a 2006 arrest. Cook, 77, died after he uttered a racial slur at a Dunkin' employee, who then punched him, authorities said. [ CRYSTAL L. LAUDERDALE | Tampa Bay Times ]

Pujols, 27, was charged with manslaughter. But on Monday, 10 months after the fatal punch, the case against him ended with a guilty plea to a reduced charge of felony battery.

In an agreement with prosecutors, Pujols received a sentence of two years of house arrest to be followed by three years of probation. He was also ordered to complete 200 hours of community service and attend an anger management course.

Grayson Kamm, a spokesman for Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren, said prosecutors considered the “totality of the circumstances,” including Pujols’ youth, his lack of criminal history and the fact that he did not intend to cause Cook’s death. They also considered Cook’s behavior and what he said.

“Two of the primary factors were the aggressive approach the victim took toward the defendant and everyone working with the defendant,” Kamm said, “and that the victim repeatedly used possibly the most aggressive and offensive term in the English language.”

Pujols stood quietly beside his attorneys during a brief court hearing Monday wearing a dark suit and a medical mask. He spoke only to answer a few routine questions from Judge Christine Marlewski, meant to ensure he understood his guilty plea. His attorney, Darrin Johnson, declined to comment afterward.

Cook, 77, was a regular customer at the Dunkin’, which shared business space with a Circle K convenience store, at 410 S 50th St. in the Palm River area.

It was just before 1:30 p.m. May 4 that he showed up at the drive-thru line and tried to order coffee. The Dunkin’ employees had trouble hearing him. He then began to berate them about poor service.

The employees told Cook to leave. Instead, he parked his car and walked inside the store.

Pujols told a coworker to call police. Cook approached the counter and continued to argue with Pujols, who stood about 6 feet away from him, separated by a waist-high swinging door.

When Cook uttered the n-word, Pujols walked through the door, his hands at his sides. He warned him not to repeat it. When Cook did, Pujols slugged him in the jaw. He then moved away from him.

No one from Cook’s family spoke at the hearing Monday.

A registered sex offender, Cook made headlines in 2006 after police raided his home and found surveillance cameras mounted around a bed, homemade videos and DVDs, and boxes of photographs of nude men and boys, according to news reports.

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He was accused of using comic books, candy and video games to lure teenage boys into his home. He used the boys to create pornographic videos, including one in which he recorded himself performing sex acts on a 16-year-old boy.

Cook served prison time and was released in 2011.

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