After Tampa shooting claims ‘Big Kuntry,’ family pleads for justice

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TAMPA — Niki Carraway has just started to get used to life without her husband. In this painful day-to-day journey, last Wednesday was among the most difficult.

October 5 marked what should have been a joyful occasion for Niki and her husband Willie: 20 years of marriage. They had planned to go out to dinner to celebrate. But by the time their birthday rolled around, Willie had been gone for nearly six weeks.

The 45-year-old father of four, known as ‘Big Kuntry’ for his towering height and rural roots, was shot dead on August 27 while hanging out with friends along Nebraska Avenue in Tampa.

Above the family’s grief are unanswered questions and a desire for justice. Tampa police have not made an arrest in the shooting and say there are witnesses who have information that could help.

“But nobody showed up,” Niki said in tears the day after her birthday. “I just want whoever did this to him to be held accountable.”

A wise “teddy bear”

Niki remembers everything slowing down like a scene from a movie when she first met Willie at a club in Tampa.

Willie Carraway hadn’t been in Tampa long. Born in Gainesville, he grew up about an hour west of there in the small town of Cross City. A few years after graduating from Dixie High School in 1996, Willie moved to Tampa in 1999 and got a job with Dallas 1, a faith-based construction company in Thonotosassa. He was soon promoted to foreman overseeing stormwater and sewer projects, a position he held until his death, Niki said.

Willie “Big Kuntry” Carraway, right, and his wife Niki Carraway in a family photo. [ Courtesy Niki Carraway ]

They met at a bar called The Apollo. She was drawn to his broad smile. He asked for her number and called two days later.

“He was nice and was the first person who really wanted to get to know me for me,” she said. “There was no hidden agenda.”

They married in 2002.

“He just brought out a different happiness in her that I’ve never seen before,” Niki’s sister Amber Crump said.

Crump described his brother-in-law as a tough protector and provider and a wise and fun “teddy bear.” She remembered her support several years ago when she was a young mother rocked by a bad breakup.

“I didn’t want to live anymore. I wanted to give up,” she recalls. “He was crying and begging me not to think like I thought and telling me how much I was needed here. This moment meant a lot to me. »

Crump said Willie was like a father to his daughter, now 12, and he sees her as a fourth child. He had a daughter from a previous relationship who is now 24 with a child of her own. The Carraways’ other daughter is 6 years old; their son is 13 years old.

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He grew and matured as a father over the years, his family said, and gave his children experiences he didn’t have, such as visiting amusement parks and other trips. He loved driving his all-terrain vehicle and jet ski, and was part of an informal group of car radio enthusiasts who often got together to show off their systems and fight for bragging rights. Willie had a jet-black Dodge Ram pickup full of speakers and loved blasting his favorite song, “I Am Your Woman” by Syleena Johnson, his wife said.

An online flyer for Willie
An online flyer for Willie “Big Kuntry” Carraway’s visitation and funeral shows him with one of his most prized possessions, a Dodge Ram pickup he packed with spare speakers. [ Courtesy Niki Carraway ]

Willie helped motivate and organize his friends to come together, his friend Curtis Brooks said. The band’s annual trip to a major car show in Orlando in November won’t be the same without him.

“He gave nothing but good energy,” Brooks said.

Willie showed his affection with good-natured teasing and small talk, his family and friends said. He helped people who needed it and called people when he thought they needed it too, Brooks said.

“And he loved you just as much as before,” Brooks said.

On the night of the shooting, Willie and Niki had dinner at a sushi restaurant and returned to their Brandon home. He later went out to meet up with friends.

“I was able to tell him I loved him and he was able to tell me he loved me,” Niki said. “I never thought he wouldn’t come home.”

“What is good is good”

She later learned that Willie stopped along the 1500 block of N Nebraska Avenue, where police said a crowd of about 75 gathered outside the Robert W. Saunders Public Library. People were also hanging out across Nebraska at a bar called Vibe.

Willie parked his van in front of the library. Around 1:20 a.m., at least one gunman opened fire on the crowd, hitting Willie once, police say. He died in the hospital before Niki could get there.

Two other men – one in his mid-20s, the other in his late 30s – were also shot dead. Both were treated in a hospital and released. Niki said the man in his thirties is one of her husband’s friends.

Video shot by WFLA: Ch. 8 that morning shows yellow crime scene tape stretched across Nebraska Avenue and attached to a utility pole just below a flyer for Guns Down Gloves Up, a community league that promotes boxing as a means of combating gun violence.

The Tampa Police Department, as a practice, withholds the names of crime victims, citing Marsy’s Law, but released Willie’s with his family’s permission, hoping the media coverage would boost tips.

“We believe that several witnesses have not come forward,” police spokesman Jame Laneè said in an email.

Citing an active investigation, Laneè declined to say whether detectives believe any of the men shot were the intended target and how many shooters were involved.

Niki doesn’t think her husband was targeted.

“Everyone loved him. He had no enemy,” she said. “He could go anywhere in Tampa on any side of town and he was going to be accepted. “

The next day, dozens of people gathered at the spot where Willie was shot to pay their respects, first with a candlelight vigil and then a party. People from all over Florida showed up, Niki said. A video posted to YouTube shows dozens of people sipping drinks as music blares from cars and trucks, including Willie’s Dodge.

“It made me so happy to know that he impacted so many people,” Niki said.

Nicholas "Niki" Carraway holds a wedding photo of herself and her late husband, Willie "Great Kuntry" Carraway, at their Brandon home in September.
Nicole “Niki” Carraway holds a wedding photo of herself and her late husband, Willie “Big Kuntry” Carraway, at their Brandon home in September. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

She was encouraged by the stories people shared about Willie being there for them. Memories of her husband help her smile despite the pain: sitting at the table playing board games with the children, or smiling broadly when she loosens up on the dance floor.

“His children will have memories, but his grandson will only be able to learn about his grandfather through the stories we share with him,” she said.

For Carraway’s family and friends, a universally known phrase has a new personal meaning: No justice, no peace.

Niki said she understands that people who have information about the case may be afraid to speak up, but “good is good.”

“And you have to stand up for what’s right and pray and believe that God is going to protect you,” she said.

As the director of a children’s center, Niki said she always tried to help children develop social and emotional skills that could prevent them from picking up a gun in a moment of anger and change. lives forever.

Now his life has changed.

“It hit home,” she said. “So I make sure I can touch every kid that walks through that door.”

On the couple’s wedding anniversary, the funeral home called. Her husband’s ashes were ready. She picked up the blue urn with the gold trim the same day. Willie was finally home, and his wife took the moment as a sign that he was with her, watching her, and always would be.

Police have asked anyone with information about the case to call 813-231-6130 or use the Tampa Police Department’s mobile app. Crime Stoppers of Tampa Bay is offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to an arrest, and tipsters can remain anonymous by calling 800-873-8477, going to crimestopperstb.com or by using the Crime Stoppers app by selecting “Tampa”.

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