Neighbors mourn for 'everybody's baby'

People in the mobile home park looked out for the curious 7-year-old.

By Emily Nipps, Times Staff Writer
Published February 12, 2008

LUTZ - Even the most shy and unsociable residents in the small, dusty Palms of Lutz mobile home park knew and looked out for 7-year-old Tatum Johnson.

The opinionated little girl was curious about everyone, neighbors recalled, and thought nothing of walking up to strangers and demanding to know more. "Hello. How're you doing? What's your name? Do you live here? Do you have kids? Can they come out and play? Can I touch your dog?"

"People kept an exceptionally close eye on Tatum, to make sure nothing happened to her," said next-door neighbor Diana Flowers. "She was everybody's baby."

Yet in the split-second that the Mort Elementary first-grader darted into harm's way Friday night, no one could stop the worst thing imaginable. Some stood feet away as they saw neighbor Roland Rodriguez, 26, drive through the neighborhood's narrow dirt road and run over Tatum, who was playing with an 11-year-old boy.

The boy immediately told Tatum's father, Michael Johnson, who was outside lifting weights nearby, according to witnesses. Johnson ran to find his daughter in a pool of blood. He scooped her up and jumped in Rodriguez's SUV.

Tatum died at University Community Hospital. After mourning and holding vigils all weekend, neighbors continued to gather at Johnson's home to console her father and Tatum's mother, Tamara Bixler.

Some expressed anger that no charges have been filed against Rodriguez.

Rodriguez, who lives a few homes away at 1510 E 148th Ave., did not produce a driver's license fordeputies after the accident, said sheriff's spokeswoman Vida Morgan.

Florida records show that his license is suspended.

Over the last decade, Rodriguez has been arrested several times in Broward and Hillsborough counties on driving without a license, marijuana possession, aggravated assault, and other charges.

An investigation is ongoing, Morgan said.

Johnson said he and Bixler were afraid some would blame them for not watching their daughter closely. But he always felt safe letting Tatum play outside, where the park's circular road is more like a driveway and people typically drive slowly to avoid hitting the landlord's many cats, if not children. Tatum handed him a rhinestone cross necklace to hold a few minutes before she was hit, he said. He still wore the necklace Monday, along with a pink Dora the Explorer hat.

"She was our only child, and I was very proud to be her dad," Johnson said. "I used to get up in the morning and kiss her eyes and her cheeks and all over her face and she'd just put up a little hand and go back to sleep. I'm going to miss that the most."

A memorial service for Tatum will be held at Van Dyke United Methodist Church, 17030 Lakeshore Road, at 1 p.m. on Thursday. People wishing to send condolences may e-mail the family at tatum.loves@yahoo.com

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Emily Nipps can be reached at nipps@sptimes.com or 813 226-3431.