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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Teen shot in store robbery
Witness says he was shot during a struggle with the manager.
By Rebecca Catalanello
Published July 14, 2007
TAMPA - Across the street from Yasmin Food Mart, just steps from the police cruisers and the yellow crime scene tape, three young men watched on from the shade, each with a tear streaking down his cheek.
"He's like my little brother," 18-year-old Edward Ferguson said, trying to figure out what the truth was about his cousin -- the boy people were saying had been shot while trying to rob the neighborhood convenience store.
Tampa police said 17-year-old Xavier Pierre Whitehead walked into Yasmin Food Mart at 2409 E Lake Ave. just before 3:20 p.m. Friday wearing a Spiderman mask, pointing a gun and demanding money from the retailer behind the counter.
Jonathan Ellmaker, 38, was in the store at the time, changing out Florida Lottery equipment for the retailer, who police have not named and who declined an interview with the St. Petersburg Times.
Ellmaker froze when he walked toward the front of the store and saw the gun.
Whitehead pointed the pistol at the Zephyrhills father of two and demanded his money, too, he said.
"Okay," Ellmaker said and held out his empty palms.
"Get all of it!" Whitehead then directed the man behind the counter as they stood near the cash register, Ellmaker remembered. "I want all of it!"
He said another person was in the back office area behind the counter, on the phone, and when Whitehead noticed the man, he demanded he get off the phone.
And all of a sudden Whitehead and the two retailers were in a struggle behind the counter.
As Ellmaker recalls it, the store manager jumped the gun-wielding teen. After about 10 seconds of struggle, the gun went off.
Ellmaker dialed 911.
Whitehead had been shot in his upper body with his own weapon, police said. It wasn't immediately clear who pulled the trigger. The teenager started pleading for his life and tried to leave the store, Ellmaker remembers.
But by the time the police arrived one of the retailers had the gun and the other was holding a baseball bat, Ellmaker said. Both were trying to keep Whitehead from bolting.
Tampa Fire Rescue took Whitehead to Tampa General Hospital. Hospital officials could not confirm his condition, but police spokeswoman Andrea Davis said he was undergoing surgery late Friday.
As the details of the holdup came to light under the hot afternoon sun, Whitehead's role in the shooting seemed to baffle those who knew him as they gathered outside the prim Belmont Heights Estates public housing complex.
Whitehead, who many called "L.T.," may have gotten into a regular teenage fight here and there, cousin Edward Ferguson said. But, he said solemnly, "Not like this. Nothing like this."
After the Spiderman hockey mask was removed, even the store manager said he knew Whitehead. He'd been a regular customer, police spokeswoman Andrea Davis said.
A man others identified as one of the retailers stood shaking his head as he talked to two other men from behind police tape.
"I know him very, very well," he said to his companions. "I know exactly who he is. He is a good kid."
Whitehead, who police said lives at 2619 E. 26th Ave. Tampa, attends Gary Adult High School, Ferguson said. He'd been living with his grandmother for the last couple of years after moving from out of state.
Ferguson and his brother hung out with Whitehead just Thursday night. He seemed fine, Ferguson said. He'd been spending a lot of time lately with his girlfriend, playing on the computer and rapping.
"This ain't like him," Ferguson said quietly.
Onlookers from the housing complex gathered and chatted. Next door to the cordoned off convenience store, Pastor Edwin Woodard, 45, owner of the One Stop Beauty Supply in the same building, described his neighboring retailer as "a hard-working young man trying to feed his family."
"You got to protect the business," Woodard said. "He's got his wife in there, his family in there. ... I'm a business owner, too. You got to do what you got to do."
Louis Lee, 43, shook his head in amazement that anyone -- especially a regular customer who knew the store owner - would try to do anything to harm him.
He's friendly, kind, interested in the neighborhood, he said. When people can't pay, the store owner will extend his customers credit to pay later. "He's laid back," Lee said. "He cuts people breaks."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 813 226-3383.