TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Standing at the meat market counter, Tara Jones noticed the clerk eyeing the photos of her son that dangle from her neck.
Jones has worn two laminated images of TeSean Blue since September, when he was gunned down while riding his bicycle in north Tampa. Superimposed over the photos are the words “Gone Too Soon,” and his nickname, “Bama.” He was 18.
It was late November, and Jones was at the Meat Depot Supermarket on East Fowler Avenue waiting for the clerk to wrap her ground beef.
Jones told the clerk that Bama was her “baby boy,” her only son. She asked if the clerk, who looked about TeSean’s age, knew him. No, the clerk replied, but he’d seen him around.
Then he asked what happened.
“I said he was shot for no reason,” Jones recalled, “and he looks at me in my face and says, ‘I’m sorry for your loss, ma’am.’
“I didn’t know he was the one who murdered my son.”
Jones and her son moved to Tampa from Decatur, Ala., in 2016. They were living in public housing there, and Jones worried that TeSean, youngest of her three kids, would become a statistic there.
They settled into an apartment in Carrollwood. Blue made lots of friends and they gave him a nickname that’s a nod to his home state. He spent a lot of time in north Tampa and Sulphur Springs area, hanging out and playing basketball.
On the evening of Sept. 3, Blue was riding his bike south on Banyan Avenue a few blocks north of East Busch Boulevard when someone shot him again and again in the back. He died at Tampa General Hospital before his mother got there.
Devastated, Jones and her family grieved and waited on news of an arrest. Tampa police detectives warned that murder cases can take months or longer to solve.
Recently, Jones’ phone rang. It was Neal Smith, the lead detective on her son’s case, calling to deliver the news she’d been waiting for. But she was stunned by what Smith told her next.
Smith asked if she remembered an exchange with a meat market clerk. She said yes, and her heart began to race.
“He said, ‘The guy who helped you is the guy that murdered your son.’ And I just lost it.”
An arrest report details how detectives came to charge 18-year-old Misael Andrew Mora with second degree murder with a firearm.
A witness to the shooting said he was with Mora on Banyan Avenue when Blue road up to talk with them. As Blue rode away, the witness heard Mora say he was going to shoot “Bama.” According to the witness, Mora pulled a .38-caliber pistol from his waistband and fired seven shots. Blue fell to the ground.
Another witness told detectives that Mora called him the night of the murder and said he did a “kill on sight,” or KOS, and “Bama” was dead, the report says. The witness said Mora told him he “emptied a clip” and knew Blue was dead when he fell to the ground.
Mora was already a suspect in an unrelated conspiracy to commit murder case. As part of the investigation into the conspiracy case, detectives found photos of Mora and two other suspects holding firearms and flashing gang signs. Other evidence showed they claimed to be affiliated with the Folk Nation, a criminal gang with chapters throughout the country, the report says.
Mora was already on probation from a 2016 arrest on charges of robbery and battery of a person over 65, and the photos showing him holding a shotgun and pistol were evidence that he had violated the terms of his probation.
When Mora showed up to the probation office Dec. 4, he was arrested on the probation violation charge.
During an interview at the department’s downtown headquarters the same day, Mora told Neal and Detective Gary Sandel that he was a member of the Folk Nation gang and knew “Bama” but denied any involvement in his murder.
After about two hours of questioning, he changed his story.
Mora said he’d just left a barbecue that day at his house on East Annie Street and was walking with two friends when they saw Bama riding his bike. Mora said Blue stopped to talk and then as he pedaled away, Mora pulled a .38-caliber pistol from his waistband and fired in the direction Blue was riding. He told detectives he didn’t mean to shoot Blue and didn’t know he’d been shot.
“Mora stated that he met the victim’s mother several days after the murder at his job and he talked with her briefly,” the report says. “Mora advised that incident made him feel remorse for what he did.”
“We kept bringing up TeSean’s mother,” Smith said in an interview. “You could see it in his face, the bowing of his head. He would cry. We knew based on that that he really wanted to get it off his chest and after a couple of hours he just told us.”
The chance meeting at the market happened Nov. 29, a Thursday.
Jones had just left her job as an office assistant in the Criminal Investigation Division of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office on Falkenburg Road and stopped at the Meat Depot for a few pounds of ground beef. She’d seen the teen later identified as Mora on previous shopping trips.
If the exchange at the meat counter that day rattled Mora, he didn’t show it. Jones said he acted “non-nonchalant.”
“For him to say, ‘I’m sorry for your loss,’ having caused me this loss, I can’t understand that,” she said.
She went back to the store some days later, she said, and talked to a manager who told her he was shocked Mora had been charged with murder.
An employee who answered the phone at the Meat Depot this week told the Tampa Bay Times that the store manager was out of the country.
Mora’s motive remains unclear. There’s no indication in the report that Blue was involved in any gang activity and Jones is adamant that her son was not. She believes Mora was jealous of her son, that perhaps an argument with Mora over a girl back in February might have played into the shooting.
Jones said her family is grateful to Smith and the rest of the Tampa Police Department for their hard work and to the Sheriff’s Office for an outpouring of support. She’s now preparing for what can be a long, grinding legal process. Mora faces life in prison, and Jones plans to be at every court hearing.
She’s still trying to accept that her son is gone. She cries herself to sleep in TeSean’s room, which is still exactly as he left it. In her living room, a framed photo collage created in his memory stands next to a white Christmas tree decorated with ribbon and globes of red, one of his favorite colors. She’s thankful for the support from family members helping her cope with the grief.
“I lost a lot of my faith,” she said, “but I’m gradually getting it back.”