One Man Killed, Four People Wounded As Neighbors Brawl In Palm River
Tampa Bay Times ^ | June 14, 2017 | Anastasia Dawson
Posted on 6/15/2017, 2:57:08 PM by Vlad The Inhaler
TAMPA — Early Wednesday, during a brawl among neighbors wielding knives and machetes, Belinda Heard watched her oldest son die in the gutter outside her home.
A large fight with her next-door neighbors, brewing since the day she and her sons moved into their Palm River home nine months ago, had finally erupted. They started fighting with fists, Heard said, but when someone cried out “they stabbed him,” Heard turned to see Johnny Bernard Morris Jr., 23, reach for his neck as blood gushed from a large cut to his jugular.
“I started running but fell down and skinned up my knee trying to get to my baby,” Heard said. “I saw him holding his neck and then he tried to grab my other son but fell in the water and started kicking like a fish, and that’s how I knew he was going.
“I watched them kill my baby.”
Investigators with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office said the brawl involved at least 10 other people, four of whom received minor stab wounds: Heard’s 17-year-old sons Marvin and Jarvin Morris and their next-door neighbors Steven Tolbert, 20, and Ronnie Ponder, 23.
“It was a very large physical altercation with a lot of people involved,” said Col. Donna Lusczynski of the Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office. “It’s going to be a lengthy investigation.”
Neither Tolbert nor Marvin or Jarvin Morris have criminal records, and state records show that Johnny Morris Jr. had one prior arrest for failing to appear in court in September 2016.
Ponder has been arrested in Florida 45 times on charges that include burglary, battery and domestic violence, state records show.
By Wednesday evening, all four stabbing victims had been released from hospitals to return to their neighboring homes, Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Cristal Nunez said.
Sheila Brewton, Morris’ aunt, said the neighbors at 1322 Windsor Way used to rent her sister-in-law’s home, which apparently fueled tensions. Brewton estimated 20 people live inside the home and said they have routinely accused her nephews and sister-in-law of “stealing their house.”
Since 2010, deputies have responded to 141 calls for service from the two homes, records show. This year alone they’ve responded to 16 calls about fights and multiple civil and domestic disputes. Eight came from 1322 Windsor Way, and eight came from 1324 Windsor Way.
Heard pays her rent on time, but can’t afford to move, Brewton said. Morris’ father died of an aneurism nearly six years ago, she said. After that, Johnny Morris Jr. took on the role of breadwinner for the family, trading dreams of playing football for working long shifts in nearby warehouses.
“They have to stay here, they don’t have nowhere else to go,” Brewton said. “My sister-in-law is too sick to work so now the only thing they have to live off are my brother’s Social Security checks, and Lord knows that’s not much.”
Brewton joined Heard and a steady stream of friends and family who sat in her yard at 1324 Windsor Way as deputies watched from squad cars stationed throughout the low-income neighborhood.
None of their neighbors at 1322 Windsor Way appeared to be home.
Johnny Morris Jr. turned 23 last week and had a 3-year-old son who “was his whole world,” Brewton said. He loved R&B music and football, turning heads as a wide receiver at Blake High School. He dreamed of playing beyond high school, Brewton said, but instead found steady work in nearby warehouses to provide for his son and mother, she said.
“I just don’t understand this. I was there when he was born and he was smiling just like his daddy, so sweet and innocent,” Brewton said. “Now we’re just waiting because we know it’s not over; it’s just getting started.”