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Friday, April 22, 2011

'He panted, sat on the grass and died': Witness describes horrific final moments of Florida Britons as they tried to flee gunman

By Daily Mail Reporter

-Police probe possibility that the friends took a wrong turn while walking to a 24-hour diner for an early morning breakfast

-'We just see a white dude laid out. There's blood everywhere': police release transcript of witness's 911 call

British tourists James Cooper, 25, (left) and James Kouzaris, 24, were found riddled with bullets 50 feet apart in a rundown residential area

The horrific final moments of the two Brits gunned down in a Florida ghetto have been described by a key witness.

In graphic testimony, the witness told how he saw James Cooper and James Kouzaris stumble away from the gunman before they collapsed and died on a run-down estate in Newtown, Sarasota.

The witness, who cannot be named for fear of revenge attacks, said he heard five shots ring out before peering out of the window to see what had happened.

Describing the moment he saw Mr Cooper, the witness told the Sun: 'I saw a blond-haired man bleeding from three gunshot wounds to his chest.

The murdered British tourists were on holiday with family and friends in the Gulf coast town of Sarasota, Florida

'He staggered underneath a clothes line and over tree roots. He panted, stopped and just sat down on the grass where he died.'

His attention then turned to Mr Kouzaris, he said: 'This dark-haired man shuffled across the street bleeding from a bullet wound to his head and slumped in a driveway next to the front of a pick-up truck.'

It was then the witness, who had been watching television at around 2.50am, called 911.

Detectives are probing the possibility that the friends may have taken a wrong turn while walking to a 24-hour diner for an early morning breakfast.

But the friends ended up on a run-down estate after their night out in the upmarket resort of Sarasota.

Detectives are exploring an innocent but increasingly compelling explanation of just how James Cooper and James Kouzaris could have ended up on a run-down estate after a night out in the upmarket resort of Sarasota.

Captain Paul Sutton admitted that detectives had previously ignored ‘lifestyle differences’ between Britons and Americans and assumed the tourists would never have dreamed of trying to get around on foot.

He said they were now ‘more open to the idea they walked’, after learning from the victims’ families that the two men, friends from their Sheffield University days, used to go hiking together.

The Gator Bar, the last venue that police believe the pair visited early on Saturday morning, is just 1.5miles away from a branch of IHOP, a popular 24-hour diner chain and one of the few places in the city to get food at that hour.

Captain Sutton said the IHOP was a popular early-morning destination for drinkers after the city’s bars close at 2am.

He said it was ‘very possible’ that the pair – their judgement impaired by alcohol – could have ‘lost their bearings’, overshot the correct turning and ended up in the dimly-lit streets of Newtown, a low-income housing project.

It was here that Mr Cooper, a 25-year-old tennis coach, and Mr Kouzaris, 24, a town planner, were found dead in a backstreet, both shot several times, just after 3am on Saturday morning.

The contents of their pockets were on the floor and it is thought they died as a result of a botched robbery. The IHOP is on 12th street while the men eventually turned off on 21st street. It is possible that they confused the digits for the two streets.

Last night, Mr Cooper’s parents spoke of losing their only child and paid tribute to their ‘angel’.

Sandra and Stanley Cooper were on holiday with the victims when they were killed, and were staying with them at the beach resort of Longboat Key, 12 miles away from the crime scene.

They are now being comforted by friends and relatives at their £850,000 home in Hampton Lucy, Warwickshire, where Mr Cooper lived with them.

In a statement they said: ‘We loved our son and he loved us so strongly. A day never passed without telling each other, “I love you”.’ They described Mr Cooper as a ‘gentle, kind, compassionate, clever and an athlete’.

They said: ‘As his parents, our lives have been shattered, but through us and his friends and family he will live on.

Last drinks caught on CCTV: James Cooper and James Kouzaris are seen in Smokin' Joe's bar at 00.14am on Saturday, shortly before they were killed

Murder Site: The rundown area in Sarasota where the two Britons were found, on opposite sides of the road

‘God bless you son, heaven has another angel, but this world is a colder and poorer place without you in it.’ Mr Kouzaris’s teacher father Peter and mother Hazel, both 52, live at a £400,000 family home in the affluent suburb of Kingsthorpe, Northampton.

Tributes to the Northamptonshire County Council worker have poured in from family and friends.

His sister Emily wrote on the Facebook website: ‘My brother was a legend and he will be missed and loved by many many people.’ The victims’ families insist the pair did not take drugs and police say there is no indication that drugs were a factor in the crime.

Officers revealed yesterday that the murders could have been caught on CCTV.

They also released a transcript of the 911 emergency call from a Newtown resident in which she told a dispatcher:

‘We just see a white dude laid out. There is blood everywhere. He is just laid out. Don’t know if he’s dead.’

Shawn Tyson, a 16-year-old drop-out from a special needs school, has been charged with killing the pair.

He lives just 100 yards from the site of the murders and had been released from youth custody for allegedly firing a gun at a car only 12 hours before the killings.

Captain Sutton stressed that the suspect was ‘no criminal mastermind’ and very unlikely to have been able to arrange an ambush.

He would also have been unlikely to organise a robbery close to his home, suggesting the crime was opportunistic.

At the same time, police have been unable to find any taxi driver who picked up the pair.

‘It’s more likely that they were walking and simply strayed into the area,’ Captain Sutton said.

He said detectives had received several leads after publishing CCTV images of four young women chatting to the men in Smokin’ Joe’s bar up until 90 minutes before they were killed.

Chief homicide prosecutor Karen Fraivillig said she was confident they can charge Tyson with first degree murder but said she will not be seeking the death penalty as he is still considered a juvenile under Florida law.



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