Amidst confusion, deputies overlook shooting victim

In the commotion, they didn’t see a man shot inside his car.

By ABBIE VANSICKLE, Times Staff Writer
Published January 23, 2008

TAMPA -- As deputies searched the Groovy Mule parking lot after a shooting, Antonio Coleman sat in his car, a bullet in the back of his skull.

Deputies didn't notice him, though, and left.

By the time they returned to the scene two hours later, at 8:11 a.m. Sunday, Coleman was dead.

"He was sitting in the car the whole time," said his brother, Harold Coleman, 33, of Tampa. "The gap of time is what needs to be investigated."

Deputies believe Coleman, 36, an award-winning Atlanta elementary teacher raised in Tampa, was an innocent bystander shot by a stray bullet near a late-night club on Dale Mabry Highway near Waters Avenue.

The Hillsborough deputies followed proper procedure but missed Coleman in the congested, hectic scene, said sheriff's spokeswoman Debbie Carter.

"I think when deputies respond to shots fired and you've got a large crowd, you've got a lot of cars coming and going," Carter said. "The deputies searched, the club employees searched. There was nothing to indicate at that point that anyone had been shot."

Three calls to club

No one has been arrested in the shooting, which happened about 6 a.m. Sunday morning, when a fight spilled out into the parking lot of the club, a dimly lit building set back from the road next to an Alltel store, according to the sheriff's office.

Deputies first went to the club at 5:37 a.m. for a report of a fight. The caller told investigators that about 20 people were involved. By the time deputies arrived, those involved had scattered, and investigators left.

At 6:01 a.m., deputies returned when they received a report of shots fired. Deputies interviewed club employees and learned that just before shots were heard, another fight broke out in the club and several men were asked to leave. Those men, too, were gone from the scene.

The Groovy Mule managers found what looked to be a bullet hole in the wall of the Alltel store. Deputies searched the area but found neither suspects nor the victim.

At 8:11 a.m., deputies got a third call from the Groovy Mule. This time, the caller said there was a dead man in a car in the lot.

Deputies say it appeared Coleman tried to leave the parking lot at the time of the shooting. A bullet pierced the rear window of his vehicle, striking him in the back of the head.

A silver or light-colored Dodge or Chrysler passenger van may hold the key to the case. At the time of the shooting, the van drove slowly past the club, and someone fired out of the passenger window, investigators say.

A club employee listed on sheriff's reports did not return a call for comment. In the last six months, deputies have gone to the club 38 times, including for reports of disturbances, juveniles loitering and a Sept. 9 shooting.

Visiting friends, family

Antonio Coleman had flown to Florida for an education conference in Orlando. Three weeks before, he left his teaching job at Parkside Elementary School to work for Promethean, a company that sells technological equipment for classrooms.

His family, including his mother and seven siblings, live in Tampa, so he came to see them and planned to drive to Orlando. On Saturday night, he watched a televised boxing match at the Mirage with some fraternity brothers from his alma mater, Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, his brother said.

Coleman had promised to meet up with his brother Harold later that night, and the two traded messages about it near 2 a.m. At 3:01 a.m., Coleman called his brother and got no answer, Harold Coleman said.

The two had been close all their lives, even as they followed starkly different paths. While Antonio Coleman's teaching career soared, his brother served 14 years in prison for second-degree murder and was later arrested on a drug charge, state records show. He was released in October 2006.

Harold Coleman said he and his brother never met Sunday. He slept through the phone call. That's the last anyone heard from Antonio Coleman, his family says.

"Knowing that we were supposed to be together, it just tore me apart," Harold Coleman said.

Antonio Coleman's wife, Sesily, believes her husband left the Mirage and planned to drive to Orlando. He probably got tired and pulled over to sleep, she said.

As soon as she heard the name of the club, she knew he hadn't gone there to hang out, she said. A sports fanatic, her husband enjoyed sports bars, but he wouldn't go to someplace like the Groovy Mule, she said.

Accomplished teacher

Coleman's family gathered in his mother's apartment on Tuesday afternoon, sharing memories of the slain man.

They recalled a talented, ambitious man committed to educating urban children. A father of three, he was dedicated to his own children and to providing hope to kids in lower-income areas, places like where he grew up. His own father died when he was a boy, and he tried to provide that male mentor figure for his students, his family said. He coached flag football, organized a school talent show and loved playing video games with his children.

A video taken by his wife showed his final day with his kids, a day spent throwing snowballs in the yard of their home.

He called his family "Team Coleman."

"He was sunshine, he was sunshine," his wife said.

His mother, Ellenor  Coleman, 66, said he showed promise from the time he was a small boy. Back then, he got in trouble for reading the Sunday newspaper before she had a chance to open it. He asked for a dictionary so he could look up unfamiliar, big words.

When he got to Brandon High School, he told his mom he was going to be the first of her kids to graduate from college. She asked him to write down his plan. He drew a picture of his grownup self, she recalled. The man in the picture wore a snappy suit, carried a briefcase and had glasses.

He accomplished that dream, all the while inspiring his family and friends.

In Atlanta on Tuesday, teachers, a principal, parents and students remembered his life. Everyone interviewed told of his passion for teaching and his incredible gift for reaching children.

Tammy Garnes, who recently moved to Atlanta, said she and her husband toured Coleman's class and knew they had found the teacher for their children.

Coleman's former principal, Danielle Battle, said people were in tears on Tuesday at the school.

"I don't even know if there's a word that could truly describe him. He was absolutely fantastic," said Brenda Muhammad, an Atlanta school board member whose grandchildren were in Coleman's class. "He was an awesome teacher."

On Saturday morning at 10 a.m., his family and friends will remember him again at a funeral service at Bible-Based  Fellowship Church on Ehrlich Road.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Abbie VanSickle can be reached at vansickle@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3373.