His friends say the only thing Joshua Carmona loved more than baseball was his mother.
She would take him on road trips to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown and buy tickets months out for New York Yankees games at Tropicana Field. She would cheer from the bleachers at his West Tampa Little League games, and whenever he talked of going pro some day, it was always as a way to take care of her.
But baseball also brought his mother together with the man she would marry, Stephen D'Angelo. Trips to Tropicana came to include the daughter the couple have together, now 3, and Carmona eventually stopped tagging along. By the time he enrolled at Jefferson High School, he had given up on trying out for the team.
On Monday, Tahirih Lua D'Angelo's 39th birthday, Carmona picked up a baseball bat his stepfather had given him and struck his mother as she stood in the kitchen of their Riverview townhome, relatives and sheriff's investigators said. He beat her repeatedly then stabbed her neck with a butcher knife. She was found in a bathroom, nearly decapitated, her body wrapped in a comforter.
Horrified, friends and family are left probing through memories that might somehow explain how a bright loner once teased in school for being a momma's boy could so violently attack the woman who gave him life.
They point to the changes in his family, the pressures of college's first year, the counseling sessions for depression. His drug use came to the surface in November, when Pennsylvania State Police found him with marijuana, contemplating suicide in a stolen car.
The rarity of children killing a parent — it accounts for about 2 percent of U.S. homicides — helps explain why it's such a shocking crime.
But few other explanations are clear in Tara D'Angelo's death, except perhaps this: She inspired a deep passion in her son, so much so that he once brought a high school auditorium to tears reading an essay on how much he loved her.
"He was always with his mom, talking about how he loved her and he didn't want to let her down," said his high school friend Miguel Guzman. "He loved his mom to death. He really did."
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Raised by a single mother of three, Tara D'Angelo developed a love for sports at an early age.
She was full of energy, outgoing and "soft-hearted," said her best friend Renee Davis. She had held a job ever since Davis met her at Hillsborough High School. If she happened to have a night off, it was spent singing karaoke, tailgating with friends or hanging out at casinos.
When D'Angelo was 20, she became pregnant with Joshua. She had only known his father briefly and when he learned of the pregnancy, he left, Davis said.
When her son was about 4, D'Angelo left him with her mother and moved away. Details about why are few. Relatives say she worked odd jobs in Arizona, Wyoming and Oregon, staying in contact with her son and making trips home for holidays.
In April 2009, she moved back to Tampa and five months later, she met Stephen D'Angelo. Joshua could have lived with his mother the day she came back, but he chose to remain with his grandmother until she died when he was 11.
His mother would take Joshua on trips and work extra hours to pay for the toys and video games she knew he wanted, but the once happy child became more and more withdrawn.
"If she knew he wanted something she would get it for him," Davis said. "That's why I don't understand why he would do this. She worked so hard to buy him stuff because she wasn't there for him when he was growing up. But it wasn't enough."
• • •
Miguel Guzman befriended Joshua Carmona in a freshman math class at Jefferson High School after making a joke about his Yankees baseball cap. Carmona was quiet and nerdy and Guzman, by his own account, was a popular troublemaker.
Guzman was drawn to his new friend's kindness and depth. Carmona would help him with his homework and Guzman would stick up for Carmona when bullies picked on him in the hallways. He would walk Carmona to classes, like "a human cage."
When kids laughed and called him a mama's boy, he got so mad he turned "red as the sun," Guzman said. Carmona had a temper, and it showed when Guzman told him he was leaving school sophomore year to get a GED.
Relatives saw his temper, too, and worried because he rarely engaged them in conversation, said his uncle Luis Carmona. Most of his days were spent inside his bedroom.
"There was nothing keeping him there if he disliked the people he was with," Luis Carmona said. "He was smart, he was educated, he had every opportunity, and every resource available to him to leave was there."
Guzman, 20, lost contact with Joshua Carmona until he saw him last summer working at a juice kiosk in the Westfield Brandon mall. Carmona talked about how excited he was to be going to Fordham University in Manhattan.
• • •
Most of Carmona's friends from high school got to know him junior year. That's when he started smoking marijuana and became more outgoing, said one friend, Yahel Hernandez, 19. Hernandez was popular, a member of many school clubs and had a big group of friends.
After he befriended Carmona, Hernandez said, the once shy honors student began attending games and homecoming dances. He became president of the National Math Honors Society and spoke out on politics.
Senior year, Hernandez persuaded Carmona to join him in the "Mr. and Mrs. Jefferson" pageant. Hernandez took the title, but Carmona was thrilled to be chosen second runner up. For the talent portion, Carmona read about his mother — a moving speech that brought the auditorium to tears, Hernandez said.
Things took a turn for the worse, though. His first kiss was from Sabrina Feliciano, class valedictorian, after he asked her if she would be his date for the senior prom. But even teachers soon learned the story behind why she showed up to the dance alone. Her date passed out in a hotel room while "pre-gaming" with friends, and didn't make it to the dance until well after it was over.
Carmona always made her laugh, Feliciano said, but she distanced herself from him because of his partying.
Still, she said, "The guy who did this to his mom was not the Joshua I know."
Carmona maintained his grades, earning a perfect score on his AP Psychology exam. He graduated 11th in his class last May, completing the Criminal Justice magnet program and earning a certification to be a security guard. He doted on his little sister and is only seen smiling in family photos with her.
But shortly after graduation, Tara D'Angelo kicked her son out of the house — where he lived with her, Stephen D'Angelo, the couple's daughter and an aunt — for smoking marijuana. Stephen D'Angelo is a customer service representative for a utility company and his wife, who works at a Walmart, was pursuing an associate's degree.
Carmona spent about a month couch surfing before he left for college in a rental car. He saw his mother briefly before he left, said her father-in-law Bob D'Angelo.
Carmona left Fordham midway through the first semester and his friends assumed it was because of financial struggles or grades. He never told them he had been arrested for stealing a woman's car after driving to Pennsylvania to attempt suicide.
Four months later, Carmona, 18, is in jail on a charge of first degree murder, awaiting a bail hearing Monday. His public defender declined to comment for this story. Carmona was arrested after being pulled over by a Hillsborough County sheriff's deputy Monday night.
Investigators said he had intended to kill his stepfather, too, but his plan fell through. The family has told his step-sister that her mother won't be coming home. Talking to her about her brother will be a harder conversation.
They've set up a gofundme.com page to help pay costs they're incurring from the slaying.
"I don't think I can call him my friend knowing what he's done, but for a while he was my best friend," Hernandez said. "When I think back on all of those interactions I still feel the same and those memories I'll never forget."
Contact Anastasia Dawson at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.