A fatal shooting riles a Tampa dog park. Was it self-defense or more sinister?

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The day before a man fatally shot John Walter Lay in his favorite Tampa dog park, Lay stood in the park and recorded a video.

He had just had a run-in with a man who, according to Lay’s friends and family, had been harassing him at the park for months, hurling homophobic slurs and threatening him.

Standing near one of the park’s towering trees, the morning sun shining on his face, Lay talked into his phone’s camera.

“So this morning while I’m walking — and we’re the only two here — he comes up to me and screams at me, ‘You’re going to die, you’re going to die,’ and I asked him to just leave me alone, and so far he has,” Lay says in the video.

Friends say that the next morning, at the same park and at about the same time as the previous morning’s encounter, the man shot Lay dead. He was 52.

As of Thursday, the shooter has not been arrested or charged. The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office has released few details about what happened and didn’t issue a news release about the shooting until four days after it occurred, and only after a Tampa Bay Times reporter asked about it. The agency said the Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office will decide whether to file criminal charges in the case.

The sheriff’s office on Thursday confirmed that 65-year-old Gerald Declan Radford was the shooter.

In a text message to a Times reporter, Radford indicated he shot Lay in self-defense.

“I was attacked. I defended myself. End of story,” the text said.

He sent a second text advising the Times to contact the sheriff’s office for information. When asked for a phone interview, he responded that the sheriff’s office has his phone, and he declined a request to meet in person, saying that he was “in no fit state.”

Asked if he had an attorney, he responded: “I have done nothing wrong.”

Lay’s family and friends told the Times that they don’t believe Radford’s account. They said Lay had been going out of his way to avoid Radford and they believed he would only have gotten in a fight to defend himself.

Albert Darlington, Lay’s friend and landlord, said Radford, who goes by Dec, sent him a text the next day claiming Lay “attacked me at the park and I had to defend myself.”

“In my opinion, there’s no way in hell this is really self-defense,” said Darlington, 68. “For over a year, Dec has done nothing but harass Walt. He screams and hollers and calls him a f----t every time he gets to the dog park. He’ll sit there and he’ll say, ‘I’d like to punch him right in the f—king mouth’ ... and it has gotten worse and worse and worse.”

A new family, escalating harassment

The friends Lay made at the dog park were a big part of why he stayed in Tampa rather than move closer to his family, said his sister, Sabrena Lay Hughes.

Lay was born in Kokomo, Indiana, a year after Hughes. He got picked on in school because he was redheaded, Hughes said.

“Boys would be trying to beat him up, and he wasn’t a fighter even as a child,” said Hughes, who lives in North Carolina. “He would just run to my hall.”

The siblings were still young when they moved with their father to the Atlanta area. Lay loved horses, and some mornings his family would wake to find him asleep on the back of his horse grazing in the pasture.

In high school in Paulding County, Georgia, Lay played football and did props and set design for theater productions. After graduation, he served about four years in the U.S. Navy before moving to Tampa in the 1990s to be near friends, Hughes said.

Here, Lay shared a home with another man named John, so he started going by his middle name, Walter or Walt, his sister said.

Most recently, Lay worked in customer service for a health care company, helping people fill prescriptions online, and delivering food and driving for Uber in the evenings.

Lay had contemplated moving to North Carolina to be closer to Hughes, or back to Indiana to be near his mom. But he began to develop a stronger sense of community in Tampa after he adopted a black mixed-breed shelter dog he named Fala. Lay started going to the West Dog Park, sometimes multiple times a day, so he and Fala could exercise, his sister said. The county park is a sprawling, tree-shaded expanse in unincorporated Tampa, just north of Tampa International Airport.

“He found all these friends at the dog park and he was like, ‘They’re just like a family here, I just love meeting everyone and their dogs and learning about their lives,’” she recalled.

Will Meyer, 71, described Lay as his best friend and said they met one day when walking their dogs at the park. Lay started to regularly come over to eat dinner with Meyer and his family.

Lay “was the most friendly person you could ever imagine,” Meyer said. “He was nice to everyone and treated everybody as a human being.”

Meyer said Lay settled in with a big group of dog park friends. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, the friend group split due to political differences.

”One group was a little bit liberal and the other side was bleeding a little too much to the right,” Meyer said. “It escalated and one group would meet at one corner of the park and the other group in another.”

Lay and Radford were initially on friendly terms. But after Radford found out about Lay’s politics, and that he was openly gay, Meyer said, Radford began to target Lay, calling him slurs when he was walking in the park.

Darlington, Lay’s friend and landlord, said Lay and Radford had differing views on politics and society and that Lay “leaned to the left and Radford leaned to the right.”

A Times review of Radford’s Facebook page showed it includes reposted memes that are disparaging to LGBTQ+ people.

Lay’s friends said that Radford’s behavior toward Lay escalated into harassment.

“Then it got to where when Walt would walk by, Dec was trying to get him to bump into him so he could start a bunch of crap,” Darlington said. “I even said to Dec, ‘What are you trying to do, harass (Lay) until he jumps so you can kick his ass?’ And all he would do was smile and look at me.”

Lay told friends he didn’t want to give in to Radford’s bullying by avoiding the dog park. Darlington and others said they urged Lay to report the harassment to police.

”And Walt was like, ‘Well, I don’t want to get the cops involved and make it worse,’” Darlington recalled.

Hughes said her brother would relay how Radford was being aggressive toward him and how it was causing friction in their group of friends, so Lay said he decided to move to another part of the park. His friends followed him, Hughes and others told the Times, which seemed to further irritate Radford.

Though Lay was reluctant to get the police involved, his friends said that he did take advice to start documenting his interactions with Radford.

Friends said the video he made the morning of Feb. 1 at the park was his first one, and he sent it to a friend that morning.

“Walt attacked me and I had to defend myself”

On the afternoon of Feb. 2, hours after the shooting, Radford texted Darlington a photo of himself with what appeared to be bruising under one eye and an abrasion above one of his eyebrows.

“I’m so sorry to tell you, Walt attacked me and I had to defend myself,” the text said. “I never thought he would go for me. I really sorry. I really had no choice he was too crazy.”

Darlington didn’t know yet that Radford had fatally shot Lay.

”My first impression was, this looks like you’re building an excuse for something that already happened,” Darlington said. “Little did I know that Walt was already dead.”

He called Lay’s number and got no answer. That night, he woke to check if Lay had returned home. He wondered if Lay was in jail or the hospital.

Darlington went to the park the next morning and didn’t see anyone, so he called someone who usually visits the park.

“He said, ‘Oh, you didn’t hear?’ and he told me that Dec had shot Walt and killed him,” Darlington said.

His mind went back to the text Radford had sent a day earlier.

Meyer said the day Lay was shot, a mutual friend called and said something terrible happened at the dog park.

”Immediately I thought to myself, Walt was killed,” Meyer said.

Friends converged on the park. When Meyer arrived, he saw 15 to 20 police cars. Radford got out of one of them.

”We looked around at each other and I thought, this guy just killed our friend and he is not in handcuffs?” Meyer said. “It was unbelievable to us.”

He and others said they believe that Lay’s killing was not self-defense.

It’s unclear if there were witnesses at the park at the time of the shooting or if the sheriff’s office has obtained any video that would shed more light on what happened.

The sheriff’s office on Wednesday released to the Times nine pages of the investigative report on the case. Nearly all of it was redacted. It included Lay’s name and birthdate, and indicated that he was shot with a semi-automatic handgun.

The Times on Thursday sent the sheriff’s office a detailed list of questions. The office declined to answer some, citing an active investigation, but confirmed that Radford called 911 after the shooting, that detectives were aware of the video Lay made the previous day and that they were “diligently investigating every avenue, including speaking to individuals who have come forward.”

Unanswered questions

Hughes said the sheriff’s office has shared with her family few details about the investigation. The family learned from his death certificate that he had been shot in the chest and the round perforated his heart, aorta and lung.

In the weeks before his death, Lay had been working overtime to land a bonus he could use on a trip to Indiana to visit his mother, Hughes said. Instead, she came to Tampa last weekend to collect personal effects from his home, including some of the many paintings the lifelong artist had made.

Hughes believes Radford targeted her brother, though she doesn’t know if it was because he was gay.

“People that want to be angry can find a reason to hate, and so I believe that he just hated my brother and it ate away at him,” she said.

She said she wants to see justice done for her brother, though she said she’s not sure yet what that looks like.

Hughes said she had planned to take Fala back to North Carolina. But her brother asked a friend to take care of the dog if anything ever happened to him.

In the end, Hughes decided to respect that wish. And besides, Lay’s family reasoned, Fala would be happier with the Tampa pack he already knows.

Times staff writers Dan Sullivan and Hannah Critchfield contributed to this report.