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‘Can you get my son back to me?’ Tampa parents grieve after Ybor shooting.

Harrison Boonstoppel had survived a series of medical conditions from birth. He was killed at age 20 in a senseless act of gun violence.
 
Brucie and Karel Boonstoppel, at their Tampa home on Monday, talk about their son, Harrison, 20, who was shot and killed in Ybor City on Oct. 29.
Brucie and Karel Boonstoppel, at their Tampa home on Monday, talk about their son, Harrison, 20, who was shot and killed in Ybor City on Oct. 29. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Nov. 11, 2023

Fragments of Harrison Boonstoppel’s life were scattered across the wooden floor of the Tampa home where he grew up.

His school projects covered in crayon scribbles and glitter. Achievement ribbons of purple, blue and red. His old license plate, now plastered to a poster board, that reads “H Boon.”

Accumulated over two decades, the items are memories that were tucked away earlier, meant to inspire nostalgia.

Now, on Monday afternoon, his family picked through the puzzle pieces of his life, days ahead of his funeral.

The house was full of family — his parents, aunts, uncles, his twin sister — all set on their tasks planning the memorial service.

Members of the Boonstoppel family and a friend look through Harrison’s old drawings while they create a display in his memory at the Boonstoppels' Tampa home on Monday.
Members of the Boonstoppel family and a friend look through Harrison’s old drawings while they create a display in his memory at the Boonstoppels' Tampa home on Monday. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Boonstoppel, 20, was fatally shot Oct. 29 after a fight broke out in Ybor City during the weekend before Halloween. A 14-year-old boy was also shot and killed and 16 other people were injured in a shooting that is one of the worst in Tampa history.

By all early accounts, Boonstoppel was an innocent bystander who arrived in Ybor City with friends just minutes before shots rang out and was not involved with the fight.

That Boonstoppel lived to 20 was in many ways remarkable. He was born premature and doctors weren’t sure he’d leave the maternity ward alive. He endured a litany of medical conditions, including a hearing disorder. He needed a feeding tube through his early years. He received extra attention at school for learning difficulties.

He overcame those challenges and was becoming an impressive young man, his parents said. He was taking college classes and talking of a career.

That he was starting to thrive as a young adult, then died in a flash, is an added layer of tragedy for his parents.

“It really is just, you can’t even think about it too long,” said his mother, Brucie Boonstoppel. “You’ve got to cry and scream and wail and then, to the point where you just have to shut your mind off.”

A challenging childhood

Harrison Boonstoppel and his twin sister, Ava, were born five weeks early. Harrison came out first. He weighed about 5 pounds.

“He was as big as my hand,” said his father, Karel Boonstoppel, 57.

A staph infection kept him in the hospital for 40 days. When released, he struggled to eat and was placed on a feeding tube. He would need the device, which was decorated with a Mickey Mouse pad, until he was 3.

His mother waited until the twins’ first birthday to poke a stork sign in the front yard announcing their births because she was so uncertain that Harrison would survive.

Karel Boonstoppel shows a photograph of his son Harrison Boonstoppel at their Tampa home on Monday.
Karel Boonstoppel shows a photograph of his son Harrison Boonstoppel at their Tampa home on Monday. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Despite it all, Harrison was a playful toddler. A family photo shows a grinning, blue-eyed boy with brownish hair tinged with red, holding a lizard. It also shows the feeding tube attached to his stomach and him supported by leg braces.

The family noticed that the boy had trouble talking and doctors discovered he had a hearing disorder. He wore hearing aids for several years, then got a cochlear implant at 5.

“They were a lot of years of sadness because we didn’t know exactly what was going on,” said Brucie Boonstoppel, 65. “If we knew what we knew now, then of course it would have been a lot better, but they’re not bad memories.”

Harrison spent hours every week in various kinds of therapy — speech, physical, occupational.

He attended Roosevelt Elementary, where he received extra help from teachers, then went to junior high at Pepin Academies, which focuses on special education. He weighed just 60 pounds when he started middle school.

The medical problems didn’t dampen an adventurous spirit.

“He was a daredevil when he could do his walking, and when he finished his therapies, he was just crazy,” his mother said.

The neighbors knew him as “that boy.” That boy dashing by on a scooter. That boy steering a go-kart. That boy doing wheelies on his skateboard.

He went through some growth spurts during his high school years, when he finally got taller than his sister. He graduated in 2022, and began taking classes at Hillsborough Community College.

He’d grown out of go-karts by then and had graduated to his prized car, a blue Subaru WRX.

It was a connection between Harrison and his father.

“Harrison and I, we’re just as crazy about cars, each of us,” Karel Boonstoppel said.

In recent weeks, father and son had talked about what Harrison may want to do careerwise. His mother owned a dance studio and his father is an information technology consultant.

Harrison said he wanted to be a mechanic, maybe a photographer, possibly a house flipper. There was still time to figure it out.

He had just gotten a haircut, moving on from the floppy, side-swept style he sported during his teens for a cropped cut, the hair pushed away from his forehead.

Though there were periods when he fell out of touch with his siblings, who had spent years away from home at college, he had recently reached out to them to say how much he missed them while they were away.

Twins Ava and Harrison Boonstoppel pose for a photo in front of Harrison's Subaru WRX.
Twins Ava and Harrison Boonstoppel pose for a photo in front of Harrison's Subaru WRX. [ Brucie Boonstoppel ]

The family took steps to keep tabs on one another, particularly Harrison. They installed a tracking app called Life360 on everyone’s phone. The family often used it when Harrison went on hiking trips or other adventures with his car.

On the night of the shooting, his father checked the app around 11:30 p.m. Harrison was out with friends and the app showed his location near the Gandy Bridge.

“I didn’t check beyond 11:30,” his father said. “I decided that he is 20 years old, and at some point there’s going to be some nights when we aren’t going to know where he is.”

In the early hours of that morning, his parents were awakened by a knock on the door and Prince, their dog, barking.

It was one of Harrison’s friends.

“He said it right away,” Brucie Boonstoppel recalled of opening the door. “There was a shooting in Ybor. Harrison was hit.”

“Now he was in this room, with this curtain”

The friend said Harrison had been taken to Tampa General Hospital. The Boonstoppels dressed and ran out the door.

They looked at the tracking app on their phone, and it confirmed what Harrison’s friend told them: He was at Tampa General.

They called the hospital and were told he wasn’t there. They went anyway.

Tampa General was on lockdown when they arrived. The Ybor shooting had put the hospital on high alert, and people, many still in Halloween costumes, were trying to get in to check on friends and loved ones who had been shot.

After about an hour, they were led down long hallways, away from the emergency or surgery wings, to a room with a couch and a tissue box. They dreaded what might come next.

A doctor and other hospital staff stepped inside and told them that by the time Harrison had arrived at the hospital, there was nothing they could do.

“That was really the most difficult thing, because now, from thinking that maybe he was shot in the leg, just thinking maybe they were working on him in the emergency room, or surgery — that he’s fighting for his life, like those gradual things,” his father said. “Now he was in this room, with this curtain.”

The doctor asked the parents if they would like to see their son. They didn’t have much time. His body was evidence. An autopsy would need to be done. A killer was on the loose.

Karel Boonstoppel held his son’s hand, leaned down and kissed his forehead.

Parents piece together that night

The parents have since pieced together some of what happened that night — partially based on the tracker.

The device showed that Harrison and his friends arrived in Ybor at 2:36 a.m. They wanted to drive their cars around to show them off, but the streets were blocked. They got out instead.

The first shots rang out at 2:45 a.m.

Karel Boonstoppel, father of Ybor City shooting victim Harrison Boonstoppel, holds his daughter, Ava Boonstoppel, Harrison's twin sister, during a vigil and march in memory of the victims.
Karel Boonstoppel, father of Ybor City shooting victim Harrison Boonstoppel, holds his daughter, Ava Boonstoppel, Harrison's twin sister, during a vigil and march in memory of the victims. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Harrison and his friends dropped to the ground seeking cover. Tampa police officers arrived moments later and told them they could get up. Harrison’s friends rose. Harrison did not.

He had no pulse. Paramedics quickly got there, revived him and loaded him into an ambulance, the parents said.

He arrived at the hospital at 3:10 a.m. His parents believe he was dead before he got there.

It’s the reason they think the hospital didn’t have a record of him when they called, because he never had the chance to be a patient there.

An autopsy report says Harrison was shot three times — in the spleen, liver and heart, his mother said.

The Tampa Police Department has made one arrest in the shooting. Tyrell Phillips, 22, is charged with second-degree murder in the death of the 14-year-old boy, who has been identified by his family as Elijah Wilson.

According to court records, Phillips told police he argued with a group of people, who he said included Wilson, on Seventh Avenue that morning and opened fire because he feared for his safety.

Police said at least two more people also fired guns during the fight. It’s unclear who fired the bullets that killed Harrison.

Harrison’s family said police have not told them much about the investigation. Though they’d like to know more, it’s not their top priority.

“Everybody has been wonderful, the police, you know just heartfelt apologies, everybody,” his mother said. “But when they were saying we’re going to get the guy, at first, I’m like, ‘Can you get my son back to me?’”

A grieving family seeks hope

As the sun set on Monday, the Boonstoppel family squeezed together on their back porch. They were on a phone call with Community Foundation Tampa Bay to discuss setting up a fund in Harrison’s name.

They want it to support health and safety for children.

They hope the tragedy can produce something positive.

The family was buoyed by a photo Harrison’s friends sent them of his initials they had carved into a tree. And they found solace knowing Harrison’s cochlear implant equipment will go to use after it’s donated to someone who needs it.

The family also wants to promote gun control and safety. Brucie Boonstoppel previously marched for gun control. She recently spoke at a vigil in Ybor for the victims of the shooting.

In memory of her son, she wants to do more.

“I can’t be that person that’s given up on the world and the hope for the future,” she said. “I’ve just got to do it. Whether it affects it or not, that is going to complete my life.”

Brucie Boonstoppel, mother of Harrison Boonstoppel, talks to the media during a vigil and march in remembrance of the victims killed and injured during a shooting in Ybor City.
Brucie Boonstoppel, mother of Harrison Boonstoppel, talks to the media during a vigil and march in remembrance of the victims killed and injured during a shooting in Ybor City. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]