TAMPA — One hot night in the summer of 2020, a man wielding two rifles sped through Tampa in a red sport utility vehicle. He accosted other drivers, firing at random, as police scrambled to find and stop him.
Five people were shot but survived. Others narrowly avoided serious injury, among them a Tampa police officer.
Antonio Cruz-Ortiz — a man with no history of committing crimes, but a long history of mental illness — was arrested on charges that included attempted murder of a law enforcement officer.
On Monday, the case against him ended with a guilty plea and a 30-year prison sentence.
Cruz-Ortiz, bald and wearing orange, appeared Monday morning by videoconference from the Falkenburg Road Jail for a virtual court hearing. In a plea agreement with state prosecutors, he admitted to more than 25 felony charges and accepted 30 years in prison, with 10 years probation to follow.
“This plea agreement was achieved because all parties, including the victims in the case, came to recognize and appreciate the role that mental health played in the case,” defense attorney Daniel Fernandez said in court.
Fernandez had prepared to wage an insanity defense at trial. Two mental health experts said Cruz-Ortiz was not sane when the crimes occurred. But experts also found his mental illness may have been caused or aggravated by his use of illegal drugs. That likely would have made an insanity defense ineffective, the attorney said.
Cruz-Ortiz, 31, said little during the nearly two-hour hearing. Listening to translations from a Spanish-language interpreter, he spoke only to answer a series of standard questions from Judge Lyann Goudie, meant to ensure he understood the plea and its consequences.
None of the victims attended the hearing.
The shootings occurred July 30, 2020. Court records describe a spree that began early in the evening, when Tampa police and Hillsborough sheriff’s deputies began to receive reports of gunfire throughout the city.
In the Cooper’s Pond apartment complex, near Lambright Street and Dale Mabry Highway, five people were returning from dinner when they saw a red SUV speed into the parking lot. Cruz-Ortiz emerged, yelled something in Spanish, and fired once from what appeared to be an AR-15 rifle.
Minutes later, Miguel Perez Rodriguez was heading south on Dale Mabry Highway in a truck, waiting to turn left onto Lambright, when he noticed a red Dodge Durango beside him. Cruz-Ortiz, the driver, stared at him and laughed. He pulled out a rifle and fired twice at the truck’s front tire before speeding off.
Another man, Jonathan Powers, saw the shooting and followed Cruz-Ortiz for several miles east down Lambright. Along the way came more gunshots. Carlos Hidalgo heard them while waiting at a red light at Himes Avenue. His back window shattered. Bullets zipped through his car and out the windshield, missing him by inches.
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Flor Ferrer Khalil and her son, Miguel Ferrer, were down the road headed east at Habana Avenue when Cruz-Ortiz pulled up next to them, began to yell, then fired three times. She and her son were shot in the legs. Ferrer’s children, who were riding in the backseat, were not injured.
Powers kept following, at one point taking a picture of the red SUV. At Rivershore Drive, Powers was shot, too.
About 10 minutes after the first shooting, Tampa police Officer Austin Lassiter spotted the SUV heading east on Hillsborough Avenue, near N 34th Street. Lights and sirens activated, the officer chased the vehicle onto 43rd Street, where it slowed to a stop.
Cruz-Ortiz stepped out, rifle in hand, clad in what was described as an American flag-patterned tank top. Lassiter leaned toward his passenger seat as bullets shattered his windshield.
More officers swarmed the area. They found Cruz-Ortiz lying on a landing outside his parents’ apartment. Two rifles lie nearby.
A letter attorney Fernandez provided to state prosecutors as part of plea negotiations describes several statements officers heard Cruz-Ortiz make after he was arrested.
“Mom, kiss me,” one officer heard him say. “The police are trying to kill me.”
Others officers heard him make statements indicating he believed people were out to hurt him.
“I did not want them to kill me,” he was heard saying. “I was the boss of them. … They betray me.”
The letter details a life derailed by mental illness.
Cruz-Ortiz was married 10 years, had two children, and had worked as a certified nursing assistant.
As early as 9, he’d experienced hallucinations. His father recalled his son describing visions of a woman-like figure who would torment him at night, according to the letter. He also spoke of visits from the ghost of a dead child.
His family said his delusions and hallucinations seemed to get worse in the years immediately before the shootings, according to the letter. His wife recalled paranoid thoughts. He would look at pictures of other women, assert that they were his wife, and accuse her of being unfaithful.
He would hear voices and see people in their home who weren’t there. He spoke of seeing shadows and feeling that he was being choked. Sometimes his family would stay in hotels because he would see “demons” or other figures in their home and become frightened.
In one clinical interview after his arrest, Cruz-Ortiz told a forensic psychologist he believed people and cars were chasing him, so he shot at them.
In Monday’s court hearing, Cruz-Ortiz told the judge he now takes several medications for his mental illness.
“I think the plea agreement and the resulting sentence best satisfies the purpose of sentencing,” Fernandez said, “which is just punishment, deterrence, protection of the public and potential for rehabilitation.”