Posted on April 19, 2011

Britons Shot in Florida Killed as Part of ‘Gang Initiation’

Paul Thompson and Nick Britten, Telegraph (London), April 18, 2011

James Cooper, 25, and James Kouzaris, 24, were in Florida when they were killed at 3am in a gangland area rarely visited by tourists.

They apparently accepted a lift from someone they met in a bar, thinking they were being driven home.

A 16 year-old, named locally as Shawn Tyson, was charged with their murder. It emerged yesterday that he was freed by a judge last week despite being arrested over an armed robbery.

The bodies of Mr Cooper, a tennis coach who once played Andy Murray, and Mr Kouzaris were found riddled with bullets on a one-way street in the estate, known for drug dealing and gang activity. Police are investigating the theory that the pair spent the night bar hopping in Sarasota.

Officers suspect they believed they were being driven the 12 miles to the resort of Longboat Key.

Instead, they were taken to Newtown, Sarasota, where they were confronted by a gang of masked men.

Police sources said both men were running away when they were shot. Their bodies were found 50ft apart. They still had money on them and police found no evidence to suggest they had been wanting to buy drugs.

Sarasota police chief Mikel Hollaway said detectives had their suspicions but it would be unfair to state them. He said he believed the victims were there of their own volition.

Captain Paul Sutton said police were looking at the possibility of more arrests. He said: “More than one person ran when shots were fired.”

A police source said the two friends did not have their own transport, “so they were brought to this location”. He said: “Someone could have called ahead and people were waiting for them.” Sonja Seymour, 31, of Newtown, said: “I heard that when they arrived here there were already some people waiting for them. They were wearing masks. The men ran away and they were shot. I saw one of them lying in the street on his back.”

Police said the 16-year-old boy, charged with double murder, was believed to live with his mother in the housing estate.

He had been charged with aggravated assault after shots were fired in an attempted robbery two weeks ago.

However, he was released while police carried out further inquiries.

Police said he would now be charged as an adult which could lead to the death penalty.

The pair met at Sheffield University and became firm friends. Mr Cooper, who graduated in economics and business management, had gone to stay with his parents, Stan and Sandra, at Longboat Key in a £300 a week apartment.

Mr Kouzaris, a keen runner, cyclist and rugby player, had spent several months travelling around South America.

Mr Walton said his grandson was excited about the holiday. “The boys went out in Florida on Friday evening as young men do–but they didn’t come back. As it was late his mother rang his mobile and got no answer. She carried on ringing. Eventually a policeman answered it.

“They came to get Sandra and his dad and took them down to the police station, and only then did they tell them that the boys had been shot and killed. Sandra is shattered, as are we.”

Gina Cross, 31, of Florida, said she was hoping to see Mr Cooper the day he died. She first met the pair when they visited Florida in April 2009. They met for drinks last Thursday night and were to see each other on Saturday. She said: “They were so excited to come here. James said to me: ‘I’m so looking forward to seeing you.’ Then all of a sudden, one moment in time can change everything.

“I’m heartbroken, I’ve spent all week telling my friends what a great guy James is. It was the start of something special.”

James Roe, head coach at Kenilworth Tennis, Squash and Croquet Club, where Mr Cooper, an only child, had been a member most of his life, said: “He was an excellent tennis player as a teenager and became my doubles partner.

“He was an outstanding coach. There wasn’t much work over Easter so he took some time off.”

Mr Cooper, a season ticket holder at Coventry City, lived with his parents in a gated barn conversion in Hampton Lucy, near Warwick.

Mr Kouzaris also lived with his parents, Hazel, and Peter, both 52, in Northampton. He has a sister, Emily, 20. They described him as a “wonderful son”.

His aunt, Carole Kouzaris, of Syston, Leics, said: “It’s absolutely horrific.

“James was a lovely lad, popular, good-looking and adventurous.”