Sunday, August 19, 2018
Public safety

‘I went off the deep end,’ says shooter in south Tampa Facebook feud

TAMPA — Brian Sebring left work early on Monday, armed himself with his wife’s handgun and an AR-15 rifle, and drove to a stranger’s house in an area of Tampa where he has lived since childhood.

He was afraid, he said. He had never met Alex Stephens but believed he was a felon ready for a fight.

Once the shots had been fired, Sebring, 44, was the only one with a hot muzzle. He was the one in trouble, accused of shooting Stephens, 46, over a Facebook post on politics that quickly turned personal.

"I’m not a bad guy," Sebring said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, "but I mean, this guy threatened to hurt my family, and I went off the deep end. I wasn’t thinking right. You know, after this I’m going to go see a therapist or something, man, because that’s some scary s---, that I could lose my temper like that and do something so stupid."

Stephens was shot in the thigh and buttocks. He was discharged from Tampa General Hospital shortly after the shooting. He did not respond to an interview request.

Sebring was released from the Hillsborough County jail Tuesday night on a $9,500 bond. He faces felony charges of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon and carrying a concealed firearm.

He wiped tears from his eyes Wednesday as he stood in his driveway taking phone calls from police and lawyers.

Sebring said his guns had never been fired outside of a gun range until Monday night. Now, in addition to legal problems, he is a target of social media trolling across the country.

"I ruined my life over this," Sebring said. "Now my mother is too afraid to leave the house, my sons are afraid to walk to school or church, all because of some keyboard gangsters."

BACKGROUND: Facebook political argument ends with Tampa man shot in buttocks

The Facebook dispute had its roots in a comment Sebring added to a friend’s post about Donald Trump. The post has since been taken down, and Sebring’s electronic devices were seized by police, he said.

Tyler Travis, a Facebook user who witnessed the exchange, told the Times that Sebring was "badmouthing felons who couldn’t vote."

Sebring, a registered Democrat, said he was responding to a felon who wrote that "even though he lost the right to vote, he wanted to share his political opinion."

Sebring characterized his reply as, "If you want to voice your opinion, don’t do criminal activity, don’t get caught, be a productive member of society."

He said the comment drew hundreds of responses.

But Stephens, who has a Facebook account under the name Dusty Rhodes (not the late wrestler), took the argument to Sebring’s private Messenger account, Sebring said.

Stephens has a felony record and served stints in state prison on charges that include robbery and cocaine possession. His latest term ended in 2016.

Sebring had also been arrested but had pleaded guilty to misdemeanor battery charges and attended an anger management class. He retained voting rights.

He looked up Stephens’ criminal record before their Monday encounter, Sebring said.

Stephens knew where he lived, Sebring said, and had threatened harm to his wife and autistic son.

Stephens sent Sebring his address and told him to "come on over" if he wanted a fight, and to beep the horn if and when he showed up, Sebring said.

Sebring said he dug at Stephens, too.

In a screen grab obtained by the Times, Sebring wrote, "Dude I’m going to empty a full 5.56 magazine into your head," followed by, "You really want me to come to your (house)."

"I just snapped and let primal rage take over," Sebring said Wednesday.

Sebring said he drove to the home he shares with his 68-year-old mother, wife and two sons, armed himself with the guns and then parked his truck in the street outside Stephens’ home.

When Sebring honked, he said, the 6-foot, 230-pound Stephens came running "like a linebacker."

Tampa police previously have reported Sebring’s initial account that the other man charged him.

"I told him, ‘Man, you better stop, man, I got a gun,’ but he kept running," Sebring said. "It looked like he was holding a steak knife in his hand and I got scared. When I shot him, he dropped it and ran back in the house."

Police spokesman Steve Hegarty said Thursday there was no mention of a knife by either man. Nor did either man say the victim had a gun.

Travis, who is Stephens’ friend, said Stephens told him he was shot in the butt turning away, ducked behind a tree, and then was shot again in the legs as he retreated into the house.

Sebring said he was nearly home when he spotted a police cruiser and parked his truck. He emptied his guns and told the officer what he had done.

Both Sebring and Stephens attended Robinson High School, but not at the same time. They share multiple friends on Facebook, some of whom have joined the growing Internet debate on Sebring’s actions.

"I know both of these two and got to witness quite a bit of the fall out," reader Shonia Cruz Munoz posted on a Times story. "The victim IS the victim — let’s leave it at that.... Threats were made but only one chose to use weapons. Only one chose to drive to someone’s home and open fire on him.’

Contact Anastasia Dawson at adawson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.

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