tampabay.com

On brink of new life, man is beaten

A drifter hoping to settle into new ways is found on a porch.

By MICHAEL A. MOHAMMED
Published April 26, 2007


TAMPA -- On Monday, Jennifer Tillis made plans. When they got their paychecks in a week, she would help her friend, Aaron Dennard, find an apartment.

It would have been the first the 49-year-old Dennard ever had on his own. But when she got home Tuesday afternoon, Tillis got the wrenching news.

Someone had savagely beaten Dennard during the night. A police officer found him on the trash-strewn porch of a boarded-up house at 1910 Lamar Ave. N about 6 a.m. Tuesday.

He was in critical condition at Tampa General Hospital late Wednesday. Doctors, Tillis said, feared he would not survive the wounds to his head.

Tillis and Dennard grew up in Sulphur Springs and graduated a year apart from Tampa Bay Technical High School, but they didn't get acquainted until 1989. Tillis, 50, met Dennard through his mother, Annette Martell, who became a maternal figure to Tillis after her own mother died.

Dennard and his four younger brothers became Tillis' unofficial brothers.

By then, Dennard had his share of demons. He was working part time for Tampa Waste Management, she said, but had already acquired the crack and alcohol addictions that would plague him the rest of his life.

"When he don't have any drugs in him he just sit up here like me and you," Tillis said.

But when he was drunk or high, Dennard would sometimes talk to himself and yell at imaginary people, Tillis said. Sometimes he hit himself. "I think he needed to be on medication."

He disappeared for as long as two to three years without a word, living on the Tampa streets. Over the past 30 years he was arrested 47 times, for crimes such as trespassing, assault and drug possession.

But lately, Dennard started to turn his life around. Tillis, who works in the cafeteria at Mount Calvary Junior Academy, persuaded the principal to give Dennard a shot at a janitor job.

"I gave him a two-week probationary period and indeed, he is an awesome worker," said Edson Jarvis, the principal. He described Dennard as polite and diligent. "Why in the world would someone do this to someone so kind and gentle?" Tuesday morning, he prayed with the school's 120 students.

Dennard had a daughter and two grandchildren, and lately had been hoping to become more involved with them. But Tillis said she could tell something was wrong when she talked to Dennard on Monday. He was on edge, worried about needing $30 to pay for his room at a Salvation Army shelter.

Quiet and troubled, Dennard has never quite connected with those around him, she said.

"Just drifting. Always to himself," Tillis said. "He walked this land alone."

Michael A. Mohammed can be reached at mmohammed@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3404.