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‘The crime itself is so egregious’: High school party-crasher who killed homeowner after being turned away is sentenced

James Z. Powell and Joel Tatro (WESH screenshots)

James Z. Powell and Joel Tatro (WESH screenshots)

A 20-year-old man in Florida will spend more than four decades behind bars for shooting and killing the father of a high school classmate after crashing the boy’s house party four years ago.

Seventh Circuit Judge Raul A. Zambrano on Friday ordered James Z. Powell to serve 45 years in a state penitentiary for fatally shooting 45-year-old Joel Tatro in the man’s home, court documents reviewed by Law&Crime show.

Powell, who was 15 at the time of the shooting, was convicted by a Volusia County jury in March on charges of second-degree murder and aggravated assault. In addition to the decades of incarceration, Judge Zambrano sentenced Powell to probation for the rest of his life.

Powell was initially charged with first-degree attempted murder because Tatro, who suffered a gunshot wound to the neck, initially survived but was left paralyzed from the neck down. However, Tatro, in March 2022, died “from COVID-19 with complications from the gunshot,” the medical examiner determined, Orlando CBS affiliate WKMG-TV reported.

According to a probable cause affidavit, Tatro hosted a party for two of his children and their high school friends on the night of Feb. 16, 2019, at his home in Oak Hill, about 50 miles northeast of Orlando. There were about 20 people in attendance, police said.

At approximately 1 a.m. on Feb. 17, a dark blue Dodge sedan carrying multiple people pulled into the driveway of the Tatro home. Several witnesses told police that they immediately recognized Powell and two other males from school as they got out of the vehicle and approached the Tatro residence. None of them had been invited to the party.

The party attendees confronted the interlopers before they reached the house and told them the party was “by invitation only, and they should probably leave,” the affidavit states.

“Powell refused to go and began cursing. Joel Tatro came over to where the group was standing and told Powell he was trespassing, and he had to leave,” police wrote. “Powell stated, ‘You don’t know who you’re fucking with,’ and he shoved Joel Tatro, who then shoved him back. In response to being shoved, Powell yelled at [Tatro], ‘I’ll f— kill you,’ and Powell then produced a black 9mm handgun from the waistband of his pants, pointed it at [Tatro], who was about three feet away, and began firing.”

Tatro immediately fell to the ground after being struck in the neck by one of the bullets. At least six witnesses told investigators they were within at least four feet of Powell or Tatro and the time of the shooting and said he fired three or four shots.

After the shooting, Powell and the two males he was with returned to their vehicle and fled.

First responders arrived shortly and transported Tatro to Halifax Hospital in Daytona Beach, where he was in critical condition.

Before being sentenced, Powell addressed the courtroom at the S. James Foxman Justice Center and pleaded for mercy, attempting to blame the pandemic as the ultimate cause of Tatro’s death.

“But this situation was never supposed to happen,” Powell said, according to The Daytona Beach News-Journal. “This was a COVID death, sir. I never had no intention of doing no harm to him.”

However, Powell’s words reportedly did not affect Judge Zambrano’s view of his actions.

“People have a right to be safe in their own home,” the judge reportedly said. “Mr. Tatro was in his own home. And it is up to the rest of the world to respect people in their homes. You didn’t do that. I don’t know why you didn’t do that. And you compounded everything by arming yourself with a firearm. And then using it. The crime itself is so egregious. It’s so egregious that it resulted in the death of a human being.”

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Jerry Lambe is a journalist at Law&Crime. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and New York Law School and previously worked in financial securities compliance and Civil Rights employment law.