Florida murders: teenager accused of killing two Britons linked with feared street gang

The teenage gunman charged with murdering two British tourists in Florida is linked to a notorious street gang that terrorised the Sarasota neighbourhood for two years.

Shawn Tyson...handout image

The nickname Young Savage tattooed across the chest of Shawn Tyson ties him to leaders of the Second Line gang that operated in the district of Sarasota where the Britons were shot dead, according to a local crime investigator.

The revelation of Tyson’s apparent gang association will fuel anger over the blunders by prosecutors that led to his release from custody charged with an earlier gun attack just hours before James Cooper, 25, and James Kouzaris, 24, were killed. It will add to suggestions of a pattern of troubled and sometimes violent behaviour by Tyson, well before the incident for which he was arrested earlier this month.

It will also raise fresh suspicions of accomplices to the botched attempted robbery of the two young Britons, whose bodies were found 40 yards apart after shots rang out in the small hours of the morning.

More than a week after their killing, it remains unclear how and why the two university graduate friends, holidaying in the US and staying with Mr Cooper’s parents on a beautiful barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico, ended up in the grim Sarasota gang stronghold after a night of bar-hopping.

They were allegedly gunned down early last Saturday by Tyson, 16, a swaggering school dropout who had twice recently fired off shots in The Courts, a crime-ridden district, from a .38 calibre revolver, the suspected murder weapon.

Now it has emerged that the tattoo emblazoned on his chest links him to the feared “enforcer” of the Second Line gang, responsible for a string of robberies and murders in the Newtown district that includes The Courts.

The Sunday Telegraph has established that the same words are inked on the forearm of DeAndre Tunstall, jailed for murder in November after a police crackdown on the gang’s leadership.

A police spokesman said that Tyson was a not a known gang member. But a veteran Sarasota private detective who has for years investigated fraud in Newtown said that Tyson was among young thugs coming to the fore since the arrest of Second Line leaders.

“These tattoos are gang tags that identify these hoodlums when they are operating on the street and also when they inevitably end up in prison,” Bill Warner said.

“Tyson would never have had the nerve to tattoo ‘Young Savage’ across his chest, where everyone can see, if it he wasn’t associated with the gang. The tattoo is a gang identification and it’s a tribute to Tunstall. This kid had increasingly shown that he liked to fight and was willing to pull the trigger. He was showing how tough he was. He was graduating.”

Tyson’s family background was always troubled. When he was younger, his father was sentenced to two years in prison for aggravated assault with a weapon, and neighbours said a step-father had also served jail time. But Tyson was described as an “an average teenager” and “normal kid” before he started to go off the rails after dropping out of Oak Park school last June, aged 15. He was a successful school athlete but experienced learning difficulties and had run-ins with the authorities.

Early this year police had their first direct encounter with Tyson after a 22-year-old woman claimed he had threatened her and her brother with a revolver during an argument. “My brother said ‘put your gun down’,” she told police. “Tyson replied ‘ We don’t fight. We shoot’.” She also said that he later fired at her car. But no charges were brought.

Then on the evening of April 7, nine days before the double killing, Tyson was arrested and charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon for shooting at another occupied vehicle, then beating up the driver.

In court he admitted firing the gun and a judge agreed with prosecutors that he should be held in juvenile prison as he was a danger to the community. Prosecutors were told to bring a police detective involved to the next hearing, on April 15.

But that request was apparently not passed on. No detective turned up and, after a three-minute hearing by a different judge, Tyson was released to his mother’s custody of his mother, with no objection from prosecutors.

Shortly before 3am the next morning, Mr Cooper and Mr Kouzaris were shot several times as they tried to flee between the squat barracks-like single-storey homes on The Courts public housing estate, Newtown’s poorest enclave.

Just 24 hours later, Tyson was arrested on suspicion of the killings and prosecutors quickly acknowledged that his release from custody barely 12 hours before the deaths had been a mistake.

“Obviously if we all knew that day what we know today, I’m sure many people in the room would have done something differently,” said Erica Arend, supervisor of juvenile prosecutions.

The Courts, a run-down district, is a different world from the pastel-coloured antique shops, galleries, bars and restaurants of Main Street, the tourist heart of this affluent western Florida seaside town where the two British friends had arrived for dinner with Mr Cooper’s parents, Sandra and Stanley, the previous evening.

The four were staying in an apartment on nearby Longboat Key, a narrow strip of land whose white beaches, azure waters and beautiful sunsets have attracted the likes of tennis star Maria Sharapova, author Stephen King and talk show host Jerry Springer to buy homes.

The Coopers, from Warwick, had rented there before and told friends they loved it. They returned for April accompanied by James, their only son and a tennis coach who once played Andrew Murray as a junior. They were joined by his Sheffield University friend Mr Kouzaris, from Northampton, who had just spent several months travelling the world.

The two played tennis on the seafront courts, swam and bicycled. “They were always laughing and joking,” said Wally O’Connor, 62, who has lived at the Whitney complex for six months. “They were great kids.”

After what proved their last dinner together on April 15, Mr and Mrs Cooper drove back from central Sarasota in their rented car, leaving the two young men to go to the bars on Main Street and – according to the plan – take a taxi back to the holiday flat later.

CCTV images show them drinking and talking to young women in Smoking Joe’s, a popular haunt. The last image is timed 1.23am on April 16, but witnesses say the two moved to the nearby Gator Club, before it and all the town’s bars emptied out after the 2am closing time.

What happened over the next 50 minutes is a mystery, but shortly before 3am they were gunned down in The Courts – an intimidating housing estate with no stores, no bars, no attractions but a dreadful reputation. They had no car and did not take a taxi.

When The Sunday Telegraph visited The Courts last week, teenage “spotters” patrolling on bicycles circled past constantly, monitoring the movements of strangers and passing the details by mobile phone. In just five minutes’ drive the affluent city centre gave way to boarded-up trailer homes and concrete block houses with small barred windows.

It was a graphic reminder of how divided American society remains – the prosperous population of Longboat Key is 99 per cent white, the overwhelmingly unemployed residents of The Courts are almost as predominantly black.

America’s love affair with guns and lax firearms laws only add to the combustibility of that mix. Yet it is a harsh and dangerous reality of which few tourists would be aware – even if their guard is not down and judgement possibly skewed after a relaxed night out drinking.

“You can go from extreme glitz to high danger in just a few blocks in Sarasota,” said Mr O’Connor, a former school drugs counsellor in the town. “It’s particularly dangerous for tourists who don’t know where those borders are.

“If it’s late at night and you get disorientated, you are going to be a target if you’re white or look like a tourist. You would only go there deliberately if you wanted drugs. These were lovely clean-living kids and there is no way they were looking for drugs.” Police have also discounted any narcotics connection and family and friends insisted the two did not take drugs.

In a country where the car is king, detectives did not at first even contemplate that the men might have walked, though they are now considering the possibility that they set out on foot to a 24-hour diner, but took a wrong turning.

Mr Warner believes another scenario rings true. “I think they were somehow lured there, maybe by a woman – remember they’d been chatting up girls in the bars. And the idea there was to rob them but something went badly wrong.”

In the closed world of The Courts, even when the shots rang out during the silent early hours, there was just one call to the emergency services. A resident, too scared to give his name, later described peering out of a window after he heard the bullets.

He saw one man, bleeding from three gunshot wounds, staggering underneath a clothesline and over tree roots. The victim panted, stopped and “just sat down in the grass”, where he died, the witness said. The other fatally-injured man shuffled across the street, bleeding from his head, before slumping in a driveway.

Nobody supposes that Tyson, a boy with learning difficulties, too young to drive or drink in a bar, would have orchestrated any plot or ambush. But tragically for Mr Cooper and Mr Kouzaris, whyever they were in the Courts that night, Tyson was apparently there too.


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