ST. PETERSBURG — As the gray sky melts to black, the street lights at the intersection of 18th Avenue S and 16th Street S switch on, and the protest chants settle. The clouds hover, but there’s no breeze, so the 80-degree weather feels like 90.
It’s Sunday, Oct. 24.
Deanne Lewis grabs the bullhorn.
She’s speaking from a podium behind a banner that reads, 25 years after police murder: TyRon Lewis lives! Members and supporters of the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement stand by her side.
It’s the anniversary of her brother’s death, and her words ring out.
She wants people to know that all these years have been filled with pain, anger, sorrow and frustration. Her 2-minute speech comes and goes faster than the speakers before and after.
Honks blare in support from those cruising through the intersection where TyRon Lewis died.
As the rally wraps up, she dodges reporters as most of the family has since his death. She’s tired of answering the same questions, so she gathers her family, all wearing this year’s memorial T-shirt.
TyRon Lewis ‘Burg legend, it reads. Golden, the family’s American Bully, wears one, too.
At her St. Petersburg apartment, the cake is waiting to be cut.
• • •
A “Know your rights” card sticks to the corner of Deanne’s fridge.
Cops have to read you your rights before they interrogate you.
You should ask to speak to a lawyer — it will never help you to talk to cops.
Never consent to a search of your car — even if you have nothing illegal.
The card is more symbolic than anything. “Even when you know your rights,” she thinks, “they still violate you.”
Every car she has ever owned bears her baby brother’s name. TYRON96, her Florida license plate reads. In early October, she pulled out the photos of him that typically sit in her bedroom drawer and placed them on the TV stand.
Each year on his birthday, Aug. 2, she gets a cake. For years, she ordered one with his photo on top, until Publix stopped doing those. Last year, she picked up white cupcakes lined up to form the initials T.L. Every October, she organizes a celebration of his life, pulling together her kids, grandkids, siblings and mom, Pamela, as best she can.
The only daughter among her mom’s four kids, she sends texts to cousins to make sure they know when to request time off work. Some drive in from out of state. Others order the T-shirts.
In 1996, police officers pulled over the car he was driving at the intersection of 18th Avenue S and 16th Street S. It had sped past them a few blocks away. The official investigation found that TyRon Lewis — or Ron as the family calls him — refused to get out. A St. Petersburg officer drew his weapon and stood in front of the car.
When it rolled forward, the white officer said he was knocked onto the hood. He shot through the windshield three times, killing Ron.
The confrontation lasted 55 seconds.
If Ron could see her now — 48 years old with five kids, four sons and one daughter, and working as an assisted living medical technician. He’d see the nieces and nephews he used to babysit all grown up, some with kids of their own.
As the Lewis family prepared to mark the 25th anniversary of his death, they agreed to speak to the Tampa Bay Times for the first time in years — for some, in decades.
She still replays the evening of Oct. 24 in her mind. His hands must’ve been up when he was shot, she thinks. Why did the officer shoot more than once? Why not shoot out a tire instead?
She can’t make herself believe that her baby brother was trying to run over that police officer.
Deanne thinks, if Ron had truly wanted to do that, he would’ve done it. Her brother didn’t mess around when he was upset. Ron was a person of his word.
“The boy wasn’t going fast enough to run them over,” a bystander told the St. Petersburg Times in the aftermath. “He wasn’t even going 2 mph.”
The only version of that night that makes sense to Deanne is that it was a misunderstanding. A second cop was trying to bust open the window with her baton. Maybe, Deanne thinks, that cop got frustrated and yelled, “Shoot!” Maybe the first cop thought it was a command.
If Deanne had been there, they would’ve had to kill her, too. She’s always said that.
She lived in Daytona Beach then, and made her way to St. Petersburg as protests ignited following her brother’s killing. Police officers and sheriff’s deputies patrolled, equipped with tear gas and riot gear. Early the next morning, 200 Florida National Guardsmen lined up near Tropicana Field. There was more unrest three weeks later, after a grand jury ruled the shooting was justified.
In both instances, a total of about 80 fires were set or attempted on buildings, mostly in Black neighborhoods, causing millions in property damage.
The St. Petersburg Riots of 1996.
“He put St. Pete on the map,” she said. “I will never let the city forget.”
She’s been active ever since, joining the Uhuru movement and protesting when she can. She was part of the group that, in 2016, put up a sign renaming 18 Avenue S as TyRon Lewis Avenue. The city took it down within weeks.
Standing at the intersection in early October, she thought of another Black man shot and killed by a white officer in the same spot years prior. In the moment, his name escaped her. It’s Willie James Daniels, who was 20 years old when he died in 1978. Police said he attacked an officer.
She refuses to dwell on the image of her brother depicted by local media. Reporters lingered on the drugs found in the car he was driving and stints in the juvenile detention center. There was so much more to him.
“We knew he was a loving, good person,” she said. The teenager who walked around with no shirt, just as her son does. The comedian who filled family and friends with laughter. The ladies’ man.
He turned 18 two months before his death.
She marched when George Floyd was murdered last summer, fighting to suppress her emotions. When she saw celebrities cry about Floyd, she thought about how much she’s already cried about Ron.
She cries when she learns of others shot and killed by police, a heartbreak she doesn’t think will end. She wonders how some cops can sleep at night.
She imagines what Ron would look like after all these years, whether he would have given his son siblings.
Her favorite photo of Ron is his mug shot, the last picture the family has of him alive. It’s a glimpse into how he might have looked had he aged a few more years. In it, she thinks he looks so handsome, so peaceful.
Her brother had always known where to meet her when she came back to town. Deanne would drive down 15th Avenue S, and Ron down 13th Street S. They always met at the stop sign.
When those meetings ended, reality set in that he was gone.
Neighbors ask about her license plates. She doesn’t want anyone at work to know TyRon Lewis is her brother. She doesn’t want co-workers asking questions.
But she refuses to work on the day of his death. And she lets her bosses know that around certain dates, she might walk in sad. That she might let herself cry.
• • •
When he was a teenager, his mother asked: “Don’t you think it’s time to start driving?”
“No,” he said. “I don’t want to end up like my dad.”
At 26, TyRon Lewis II still refuses to sit behind the wheel and steer.
Each fall, he digs up old videos and articles, trying to keep his memory fresh. Every October, his mom can sense a change in his demeanor. He becomes more distant.
When his father died, he was just a year old, born Aaron White on May 14, 1995.
Around the age of 8, he googled St. Pete Riots ‘96. Until then, he hadn’t understood how his dad died. On YouTube, he found a video. The car his dad was driving that night. Two doors wide open. Yellow tape around the scene. Residents scattered in the backdrop. “The suspect’s car,” he remembers the description said.
He was furious his dad had been killed by a cop. “At one point, I wanted to be a police officer,” he said. In the days that followed, his mother renamed him after his father.
Father and son look just alike, said his mom, LaToya Simmons.
In other ways, the two diverge. Son lives in Daytona Beach and loves NASCAR. If his father was alive, he’d take him to watch the races on the track near his home. When he’s not working at T-Mobile, he spends most of his time with his baby daughter, Serenity; 9-year-old stepson, Ajhi; and girlfriend. A household, he says, that’s full of smart people. “I’m never away from them, I can tell you that much,” he said.
These days, TyRon II tries to avoid the parties and clubs that his friends frequent. He fears encountering the police.
“One false move,” he said, “and I could jeopardize my freedom.”
He remembers the wrongful death trial against the city in 2004 — the hotel conference room packed with well-dressed and well-mannered lawyers, the news cameras and reporters hurling questions as the family entered and exited the courtroom.
Six jurors took an hour and 12 minutes to unanimously decide the city of St. Petersburg should not pay the family for the shooting of his father.
Afterward, then-mayor Rick Baker helped raise scholarship money for him to go to college.
After running into trouble as a freshman in high school, a school counselor sat him down.
“Where’s your dad?” he asked. “If he was alive, would he let you do that?”
No, TyRon II thought. He decided to change his attitude.
A stretch at a school in St. Petersburg wore on him, though. To grab a bite to eat at a corner store, he’d walk past the intersection every day. “Weird” is the only word he can find to describe the feeling.
“What if I end up like him?” he thought.
Other moments weren’t as bad. While wearing a T-shirt with his dad’s name, someone in Family Dollar recognized him. He could grab whatever he needed, the man said, and he’d pay for everything.
“It’s been a long, long, long 20 plus years without him,” said TyRon II.
He wishes his father could have seen his daughter turn 1. Maybe he would sing along with her to Cocomelon, the nursery rhymes she loves.
• • •
Two red scrapbooks lay on a shelf in a bedroom closet. Newspaper clippings from 1996 are glued to the brown paper, bound together into family history books.
Funeral photos sit between worn-down letters. Glitter glue illuminates the pages of news clippings Roderick Pringles began keeping after his brother’s death. He became the family spokesperson when media flooded in.
“How the hell I got that position, I don’t know,” he said. All he wanted was for the chaos to subside.
The funeral arrangements fell on his shoulders, too. But one day, as he walked into the funeral home, he was told they owed no money. Someone had paid it off. To this day, he doesn’t know who. He’s grateful.
On his brother’s birthday, the memories flow back. He never forgets Nov. 2, either — the day Ron was buried. Twice a year, he goes to the gravesite.
“You never recover,” said Roderick, now 52.
Everybody in the family misses Ron, he said. “He was the baby.”
He sat in the living room of his St. Petersburg home. Chatter from the television and surround-sound speakers filled the room, spewing local news broken up by advertising slogans.
Ron tried not to take life too seriously, his brother remembers. He loved fishing and eating crabs, something Roderick could never wrap his head around.
“I hate crabs. They’re too much work, not enough food.”
He remembers Ron telling him he needed some clothes the year before he died. When Roderick sent a few outfits and sneakers, he could hear the joy in Ron’s voice, grateful his big brother had helped, then bragging to friends about it later.
Roderick still wonders how the shooting could have been ruled justified by the State Attorney’s Office, why the officer put himself in harm’s way by stepping in front of the car. The police department suspended the officer for two months without pay — but in 1998 an arbitrator overturned it.
Roderick didn’t protest afterward, though people asked him to join.
“My little brother is gone,” he told reporters then. “I don’t think burning down no building is going to bring him back.”
He wonders, did people know what they were rioting for?
“I don’t hate police,” he said. “I don’t even hate the officers that killed my brother. I hate the fact that they got a pension still.”
He decided, right after Ron was killed, that if he was ever pulled over, he’d drive to his grandmother’s house. That way, he’d have a witness. Today, he thinks, he’d roll all the windows down, so officers could see clearly inside the car.
These days, Roderick keeps to himself, floating between his job at Best Buy and home. He spends time with his kids, who live down the street, and his grandkids.
He never opens the scrapbooks. They’ll rest until his grandchildren — one 5, the other 10 — are old enough to understand.
• • •
Pamela Lewis slips out of her daughter’s apartment with a cigarette in hand as the anniversary cake is cut.
The kids are distracted, squished on the living room couch as some watch TV, others refuse to look away from their smartphones.
When they hear they’re allowed to grab a slice of cake, the room clears out. Pamela comes back inside, where she’ll spend most of the evening hugging, laughing, and playing with the kids.
The words “In loving memory of TyRon” — once written across the top of the cake — are now spread around the room in random pieces.
Soon, Deanne asks, “who wants more?”
It’s hard to track who’s inside, who’s outside, who’s gotten cake, who hasn’t. People are laughing and dancing to the music flowing from the TV. Still, this year’s gathering is smaller and quieter than most.
Occasionally, the jokes die down for somber moments. Pamela holds back tears.
She gave all the pictures of her son away. She couldn’t bear to look at them.
She’s older, not better. Weaker, she said, not stronger.
“I just try to hold on,” Pamela said, “but I’m really broken.”
She sat at her daughter’s kitchen table in August, tear-streaked, as memories spilled out. For years, she has shied away from media. But on that day, she let out her grief.
Each death of a young man magnifies her pain, takes her back.
Why did the officer have to shoot? What if the ambulance had arrived faster?
“The funeral — that was the worst funeral of my life,” she told jurors when she testified at the wrongful death trial. “I haven’t gotten over TyRon. I never will. That was my baby.”
The Tuesday before his death, in a phone call, Ron told her he loved her. He was killed on Thursday. “He never told me he loved me,” she said. Maybe he knew he might die, she thinks. Could he sense it?
Ron was a “hard head,” she remembers, in and out of the criminal justice system since he was a young boy. She found it difficult to motivate him to go to school or find a job. “I didn’t really raise him,” she said. “I had him.”
Good or bad, she said, he was still her child.
Her psychiatrist put her on medicine to steady the anxiety and ease the depression, Pamela said, but it doesn’t relieve the pain.
The mental health counselors she has seen for the past two decades don’t grieve like she does. They don’t look like she does. How could they understand?
“I don’t need the pills,” she said. “I need peace of mind.”
Alcohol doesn’t help much, either. She only picks up a cigarette when she’s stressed, but those moments pop up more frequently than she hopes.
She hasn’t connected with other moms who’ve lost a child. She’s not ready, she said. Still too angry.
These days, she lives close to her family and mostly keeps to herself.
She worries about young folks who won’t listen to adults. She prays to God that her grandchildren don’t end up like her son.
She wishes the Lord would’ve taken her, instead.
The Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg provides partial funding for Times stories on equity. It does not select story topics and is not involved in the reporting or editing.