NEW PORT RICHEY — Friends of Tony Rangel recall the former Gulf High standout basketball player and team captain as polite, courteous and never causing trouble in school.
So when news spread that Rangel had been killed and his body left on the side of Moon Lake Road, the singular reaction was one of shock.
More shocking to former high school friends was the manner of death for the 20-year-old: killed during a drug deal, according to authorities.
“It’s a shame to hear what happened,” said Paul Schulman, Rangel’s former basketball coach at Gulf High, “because so many lives are affected by it.”
Friends say Rangel had gotten involved with drugs, not specifically using them, but dealing them because it was quick money for a young man whose family grew up poor.
On Jan. 15, Rangel’s battered and lacerated body was found by a passerby along Moon Lake Road. During the previous night, he had sent several text messages to a man named “Tom.” The text about a drug transaction included information about where “Tom” and Rangel would meet.
Authorities say they traced the number on the text to Thomas J. Lesher, 31, of 11731 Imperial Oaks Blvd. Pasco County investigators tracked Lesher to his residence, about 2,000 feet from the location of Rangel’s body.
Upon questioning, Lesher admitted to stabbing Rangel and taking his 2001 silver Hyundai, which was found with the console and wheel covered in blood, authorities said. Lesher tried to cover his tracks by discarding evidence, but investigators found his clothes in a wooded area, deputies said. Lesher is charged with second-degree murder.
“Tony made one bad choice really late in life,” said Byron Atkinson, who coached Rangel at Salvation Army basketball leagues and as a volunteer coach at Gulf High. Atkinson said he saw Rangel grow up.
“When a kid makes easy money, it’s hard to give it up when he doesn’t have to work for minimum wage,” he said. “Tony was the kid who never swore, he always said thank you and you’re welcome, and I can’t say anything bad except he made a few bad decisions.”
Atkinson said he spoke to Rangel not long ago about quitting drug dealing, giving up such a dangerous life. Atkinson’s words fell on deaf ears.
“I was totally shocked, and I still am as a matter of fact,” Atkinson added. “I can’t … I can’t even feel anger towards Tony. How can I? I love him too much to be angry at him.”
In 2012, while playing guard on Gulf’s basketball team, Rangel, in his senior season, was honorable mention on The Pasco Tribune’s all-county team and a third-team selection on the All-Sunshine Athletic Conference team.
Rangel was Gulf’s star player who, most people thought, would play college ball, perhaps at a smaller program.
“He was a good athlete, and I tried really hard to talk him out of leaving football to focus just on basketball,” former Gulf football coach and current Ridgewood coach Jay Fulmer said. “My son (Will) and he played together in middle school and youth league, and I didn’t know him as well because Will is closer to his brother, Danny, but this is not something anyone wants to see happen. Tony was a good kid who didn’t say much, was very reserved. He always had a smile on his face.”
“It’s sickening that (his death) had anything to do (with drugs),” said Joe Wolf, a Gulf High parent who watched Tony grow up. “You know, he never cussed. Not at refs or players. No one. I heard that he had possibly been dealing and had to ask again if they were talking about Tony Rangel. He’s the last person I ever thought would be involved in something like that.”
Rangel’s younger brother Danny also was a well-known basketball player at Gulf High. Danny Rangel and other members of the Rangel family declined to be interviewed, but many of Danny’s friends say he’s struggling with the loss of his brother.
“He was my brother — you might as well call Tony and Danny my brothers,” former Gulf football and basketball player Chris Gregory said. “When I first came to Gulf, (Tony) was the first person I talked to. Him and his brother and Bruce Hector were my crew, my posse, and it sucked that this was how we all came together again.
“It’s shocking and terrible and hard, but you can’t judge him or people based on what happened. We don’t know what happened, and he was a good kid regardless of what happened.”
Sadness, anger and disbelief have swept across New Port Richey’s Gulf High community since Rangel’s death, but those emotions also have brought the community together. Gulf High held a benefit on Jan. 25 at the school’s gym, an event that raised $1,700.
“You just hear his name, and it’s a mixture of a lot things people remember about him,” Gregory said. “This is heartbreaking to everyone.”
Rangel’s friends hope some life lessons can be learned from the tragedy.
Schulman said: “The other kids, you hope they realize that this can happen to them, that it hits home with them, and there will be lessons learned.”
“I don’t know if its going to change any kids, and I don’t know what we can do about it,” Atkinson added. “The only thing I can think of is move away. This has to stop happening, but why did it have to take the loss of Tony for anyone to maybe, finally, learn it has to stop?”
Correspondent Mike Camunas can be reached at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @MikeCamunas.