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Teen's shooting death by Tampa police sparks tension

TAMPA - Javon Neal, the 16-year-old boy fatally shot by Tampa police Sunday, didn't have a criminal record. But police said they have known about the teenager for years, even before he was accused of pointing a loaded shotgun at police. "We've had multiple contacts with him in the past," police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said. "He's never been arrested, but there are reports of fights he's been in and him being armed." Cousin Janekia Hardwick said although Neal had a tendency to get into trouble, he was not a hardened criminal. "He was a great kid," Hardwick said. "Sometimes he got into trouble in school, but his mama would always talk to him and he would straighten right up."
Neal got into a scrap last year with a boy in Robles Park after one of the boys threatened to shoot the other, according to a police report. It is unclear if it was Neal or the other boy who threatened to use a weapon. No gun was used in the fistfight, and the boys were released to their parents, the report said. Hillsborough County school district spokeswoman Linda Cobbe confirmed that Neal was enrolled in classes last year, but she could not confirm what school, citing a district privacy policy. She also couldn't discuss any disciplinary issues that may have arisen during the year. Neal was enrolled in Stewart Middle School in the first half of 2011, a police report states. He started attending classes at the North Tampa Alternative School last year, Hardwick said. Hardwick said she knows her cousin has never been arrested, and she corroborated McElroy's account that police knew who he was. "He looked older than he was. He had dreads and all," Hardwick said. "He didn't do drugs, not that I recall. He was just a good kid. And he didn't have a gun." Police have a different account of what happened about 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Central Court Apartments, 2510 Central Ave., where Neal and his family lived. Officers Gregory Pryor and Shannon Murphy went to the apartment complex after residents heard gunshots. The officers spotted someone who matched the description given in the 911 call and followed him to the south side of the complex, yelling for him to stop, McElroy said. But Neal kept going and ran up three flights on an outside staircase, stopped on the third-floor landing and began pulling something out of his pant leg, she said. The teen whirled around brandishing a pistol grip, pump-action shotgun and pointed it at the officers, McElroy said. "It was loaded," she said. "At that point, if the officers didn't fire, they wouldn't be here today." The gunman didn't fire, but police did. Neal was hit at least once, but McElroy didn't know how many shots the officers fired. Neal was taken to St. Joseph's Hospital, where he was pronounced dead. The officers have been placed on administrative leave with pay until the investigation is completed. Records show one of the officers has been involved in a fatal shooting before. Pryor, 36, a five-year veteran, fatally shot Carlos Roberto Laboy in August. Laboy was a suspect in the attempted robbery of a convenience store. When officers approached Laboy, he refused to comply with orders and suddenly crouched, his hands moving toward his waistband, investigators said. Laboy was shot in the hip and later died at a local hospital. Laboy didn't have any weapon in his waistband, police said. The State Attorney's Office ruled that Pryor's use of force was justified, and he returned to work after being placed on administrative leave. He has earned good marks in his evaluations, personnel records show. Murphy, 35, a nine-year veteran, has received solid reviews, including excellent marks for "performance under stressful conditions," according to his personnel file. Members of the St. Petersburg/Tampa New Black Panther Party are disputing the police's account of the shooting. Member Michelle Williams said Neal put his hands in the air when officers told him to and that he wasn't reaching for a weapon. Williams said she doesn't think Neal was carrying a shotgun and that to her, it seems the weapon appeared on the ground floor of the apartment building. "Something in the milk is not clean," said Williams, who organized a rally Monday morning outside the police District 3 substation on North 22nd Avenue. About a half-dozen people spoke through megaphones and held up signs demanding justice for Neal. "I want the answers," Williams said, "I'm demanding the answers." McElroy said Neal never stopped running away from officers and never put his hands in the air. The conflicting account stems from a witness on the second floor landing of the staircase, a man who Neal, and the officers, ran past during the chase up the stairwell, she said. It was that witness who put his hands up because he thought the officers were shouting at him, McElroy said. The shotgun was on the ground level because it fell from Neal's hands when he was shot, she said. "The facts are he was armed with that weapon," McElroy said. "It was his actions that decided the course. The sad fact is he pulled out the gun." McElroy said the shooting was not racially motivated. Neal is black, and McElroy said one of the officers is black. "Race did not play into the equation," she said. There were three other incidents Sunday at the complex that police investigated before Neal was fatally shot. The first two were fights. The third happened about 4 p.m., when a man was shot in the shoulder and taken to a hospital, police said. Investigators are trying to determine if Neal had any connection to that shooting, McElroy said. Tensions ran high Sunday night at Central Court Apartments as detectives investigated the crime. Angry residents were catcalling police and nearly disrupted a news conference. On Monday, the mood had become somber as those who knew Neal gathered to sign posters on a makeshift memorial and to remember the boy they knew as "Jay Jay." One memorial was on the ground near the stairwell where police said Neal ran from them. On the third floor, where the teen was shot, was another, with candles and posters duct-taped to the wall. Neal's family was in mourning Mondayin their apartment. Central Court resident Rodney Jones said Neal was a close friend. "He was working, taking care of his mom with bills, as much as he could," he said. "Ask anyone. He may have gotten into a fight or two in school, but as far as run-ins with the law and getting in trouble, no."

rreyes@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7920
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