Editor’s note: This is the second of five articles this week that explore the consequences of unintended shootings in Florida. Click the links here to access the series intro, Part I, Part II, Part III and Part IV.
Fifteen-year-old Bradley Hulett stood in his home in the Fish Hawk community of Lithia, Hillsborough County, his fingers clamped around a lighter. Snap. Snap. Sizzle.
He didn’t smoke, but the flicker calmed his mind in the kitchen that night, Dec. 12, 2019, a week or so before winter break from his advanced placement classes at Newsome High School.
Brad Hulett stared, puzzled. His son often puzzled him.
“What the heck are you doing with a lighter?” he asked.
“Dad, it’s like a stress reliever,” Bradley replied. “Two for 79 cents? You can’t buy a fidget spinner for that.”
Bradley put it on the counter and came over to Brad. He was starting to look healthy again, after a back injury from a basketball scrimmage around two years earlier, his dad thought.
Bradley patted his dad on the shoulder, just like every night.
“All right, man,” the boy said before going to bed. “See ya!”
That was the last time Brad Hulett saw his son alive.
Brad Hulett (left) and his oldest son Bradley Hulett shared a love of sports – and particularly Ohio State’s teams and a distaste for Michigan’s. (Photo courtesy of Meagan Hulett)
The king is born
Brad, a healthcare information technology consultant, had three children from a prior marriage. He and his wife Meagan Hulett – a middle school teacher who he met while living in Maryland in 1997 – wanted one of their own. Seven years later, with “Survivor” on the TV, they swaddled their baby in a king costume, with a soft yellow crown.
“It was perfect from literally the second he was born,” Meagan recalls.
One thing nagged at Brad, though: His Uncle Bradley died at 18. A family friend with the same name was murdered. But a name shouldn’t decide a future, he concluded. Welcome James Bradley Hulett II.
The Huletts moved to Florida when Bradley was a toddler – and it didn’t take long for others to see that Bradley was special. At 3, he could name all 50 states. From preschool on, the parents heard, “We wish we had a class full of Bradleys” from every teacher.
Bradley Hulett always put others among his peers before himself, his parents say, always offering the seat next to him on the school bus to students who often sat alone and looking past their differences to forge genuine friendships. (Photos courtesy of Meagan Hulett).
But it wasn’t just his brains that earned him praise. The king’s heart was just as big.
From the autistic boy in his preschool class who Bradley defended from bullies to the neighborhood girl whom he invited to play football with the boys, he protected the odd man out.
As Bradley grew, he became a magnet for new friends. But he did more than just see past the classic high school tropes: the nerds, the jocks, the outcasts. He was a bridge; he brought them together.
‘This is our season’
One weekend, by then in high school, Bradley’s eyes locked on the rim on a Fish Hawk neighborhood basketball court. His hand slipped behind the ball, the rough bumps dragging along his fingers. Elbow down. Knees bent. Extend. Swoosh. Another three.
Brad followed the arc of his son’s shot from the sideline. It had been a long two years since the guard, then 13, ran into a much bigger player during a practice at the YMCA. He crashed to the floor, the growth plates in his back shattered.
But even when he was on the bench, Bradley was an integral part of the team.
Man, this is our season, Brad thought as he watched him move along the three-point line in the park. During fall ball, his son averaged over 20 points a game.
Though often a star on his teams, he loved being a teammate. And while Bradley loved basketball, he learned to swing for the fences before he started sinking threes.
Bradley met Ryan Eckley on a baseball field. Eckley, now 19, recalls them sitting in a dugout, hidden from their coaches. The two 8-year-olds would compete to see who could fit more pieces of Double Bubble in their mouth. Bradley won, but when his 12-piece bubble popped and splattered across his face, they laughed as they rushed to scrape off the pink stickiness before a coach could see.
Bradley Hulett was a favorite among his baseball teammates – one who didn’t complain when riding the bench as a child, his parents say. (Photos courtesy of Meagan Hulett)
Theirs became the No. 1 team for 9-year-olds in AAU baseball the next year. But that season presented a challenge: Bradley kept getting hit by pitches. He swore off the sport.
He moved from the diamond to the court, and basketball became his focus.
Bradley started travel basketball, and in the summers attended camps and open gyms, determined to make the Newsome High School basketball team. He didn’t, but like his injury, it didn’t stop him from playing.
“I think had he lived, I think he would have actually made it,” Brad said of the school team’s next season. In his last travel basketball game, Bradley scored 29 points.
“He was our team,” Brad, a coach of many of his son’s teams, said. “He was the glue of our team.”
A lifelong best friend
Bradley came to every one of Newsome’s football games to support Ryan. And almost every time those Friday night lights dimmed, they and other friends would spend the night playing video games and having fun. Ryan and Bradley were always the last two awake, talking until the early morning
Sometimes, they played games on the Xbox. Other times, they projected funny music videos onto the wall and cackled into the early morning.
One night in late 2019, after Ryan’s football season had ended, Bradley surprised his friend during a late-night conversation.
“I’ve started to think there is an afterlife,” Bradley told him.
Bradley also said he wanted to learn more about religion. Ryan remembers encouraging him, but also thinking it was unusual. Bradley rarely spoke of his own wants; he cared more about his friends’ dreams: “He was a very selfless person. He just had a really big heart.”
Bradley showed that kindness to strangers, too, his parents say.
Bradley’s parents recall Bradley seeing a Newsome student wearing familiar shoes at a bus stop: His shoes, stolen days before. “Just bring them to me after school, since you don’t have any other shoes,” he said.
Like any other night
The day before Meagan Hulett and one of her daughters, Alaina, boarded a plane for Las Vegas – the girl, then 13, was in a national cheer competition – the mother picked Bradley up from his girlfriend’s house in Lithia. Having just earned his driver’s permit, he asked to drive.
“No,” she told him. She still feels guilty for that.
The next day, a Thursday, Bradley skipped school, something he did often enough for it to be noted on his report card sent home to his parents, while yet maintaining A’s in his classes. His mother made fun of him, during a Facetime call from 2,000 miles away that afternoon, for not knowing where the air conditioner was when a repairman came to the house to fix it.
She didn’t speak to him the day after, with him, yes, at school, and her running through Vegas hotels with a team of preteen cheerleaders. After school, Bradley went to a friend’s house, just like he did most Fridays. Court records tell what happened next.
Edwin Perez, a Tampa police officer, wasn’t home when his son picked the lock to the father’s bedroom to grab a Sig Sauer P320. One of the boys present suggested they use the gun to scare Bradley, who was playing video games in another room. The gun settled in Christopher Bevan’s hands, then also 15 and a close friend of Bradley’s. The Huletts described Bevan recently as being “larger than life” – and who they would have never thought would hurt their son.
According to court records, police arrived around 4 p.m., after a 911 call. Bevan told them he pointed the gun in an attempt to scare Bradley, and that the gun went off. A short while later that evening, police knocked on Brad’s front door.
“Are you Brandon’s dad?” an officer inquired.
“No,” he said, awash with relief. Thank God it’s not Bradley.
“Oh no, wait. Are you Bradley’s dad?” the officer asked, correcting his mistake.
They wouldn’t tell him what happened, but he knew from their refusal to let him drive to Brandon Regional Hospital, it must not be good.
Why we reported this series: Unintentional shootings affect hundreds of U.S. children each year. From foolish teenage games to curious children finding a guardian’s guns, nearly one child per day is injured or killed in such a case. The ripples from these incidents have been felt from Gainesville to Tampa to Jacksonville. Florida’s safe storage laws, if strengthened, could prevent these tragedies, experts say. But where state and federal legislation may stall, county school districts and Florida activists across the spectrum of gun ideology are promoting the safe storage of firearms in hopes of better protecting families.
He opened Facebook on his phone to see photos of barriers and a crime scene in his feed. It must have been a car accident. Don’t let his back be broken. He’s healthy. He’s playing basketball.
When Brad approached the hospital desk, he felt the stares of nurses and receptionists, the air dripping with an eerie weight.
“Hey,” he said to a nurse who crossed his path. “He can’t have glucose. We have a condition.”
The nurse didn’t respond. But a doctor soon did. Bradley had been presented with a gunshot wound.
How we reported this series: To dig deeper into the lives of the children lost in Florida, WUFT News interviewed family members and friends affected most deeply. In addition to speaking with experts working at nonprofits and other organizations focusing on the matter at large, we also reviewed many public records and previous news stories about the cases specifically as well as unintended shootings across Florida and the country in general.
Brad isn’t sure what happened next. But he remembers the thought that ravaged his consciousness when he heard the words “gunshot wound.”
I don’t want to see him. He thought of the night before. How Bradley made him laugh with his bargain lighter. How his son’s voice comforted him. How Bradley’s hand felt on his arm.
And he didn’t see him. The image of Bradley holding a tiny flame in the kitchen will always be ingrained in Brad’s mind.
Meagan was sitting in her Las Vegas hotel room when her son’s girlfriend called her cell phone. “Bradley’s been shot,” the girl said hysterically. Meagan almost laughed.
“Bradley hasn’t been shot,” she said. “What are you talking about?”
Then, her husband called. The unimaginable solidified into stark reality.
Meagan Hulett initially didn’t believe the news from her husband that her first child had been shot. She remembers him for his selflessness, humor and intelligence. (Photo courtesy of Meagan Hulett).
More of Bradley’s friends called his mother as they drove to the hospital.
“Turn around,” she instructed each friend who called.
She didn’t want anyone else to get hurt trying to drive through tears. A few made it there, though, with Eckley and three friends pleading with a receptionist to see Bradley.
“No, not right now,” they were told without explanation.
Bradley died at 5:45 that evening. His friends sat on a curb outside, devastated. Ryan read a text Bradley had sent him, seemingly not too long before the gun went off: “I love you, bro.”
Friends with everybody
Meagan returned home that Monday, still in the clothes she wore when she received the news her son had been shot. Brad’s friends took his guns away, along with his ammo.
The world just kept coming. Friends and neighbors bringing food. News vans assuming positions outside their gated community. Condolences and opinions piling on Meagan’s Facebook account. Amid the concerned and curious outside and online, the Huletts had to plan a funeral.
A very young Bradley Hulett smiles while sitting with his sisters Alaina (middle) and Ava. They were constant companions, their mother said. (Photo courtesy of Meagan Hulett)
But they couldn’t have planned for what happened. Bradley attracted so many mourners that two hours wasn’t enough time for everyone to pay their respects at the funeral home.
Some of his friends coped through respectful jokes – they told his mother they’d fail all of their classes without Bradley to cheat off of. Others, like Bevan, needed a bit more comfort. The friends he and Bradley shared wrapped their arms around him, Meagan said.
A few months later, with the pandemic still new, they were in court as Bevan faced manslaughter and related charges. After over a year of anger and sifting through the truth, a judge dismissed the charges, with the Huletts saying they wanted restoration for Bevan, not prison.
Meagan said it’s important that her son’s death isn’t mischaracterized. “I hate to say an accident, because an accident is like driving down the road, and you get in an accident,” she said. “You made no bad choices. You just got in an accident. This was unintentional.”
The Huletts have trekked numerous other paths in Bradley’s honor. One led to Tallahassee with Brad’s efforts to see child access prevention laws for firearms in Florida strengthened, so that the provisions are more proactive than reactive. Another led back to basketball and a legacy team and equipment donations from the BH3 Foundation created in Bradley’s memory.
They don’t know where they’ll go next. The adjustment to the law never passed. Coaching the memorial team was too much on Brad. But wherever they go, Bradley’s legacy will trail.
In his wake
With one of their daughters moving to homeschooling and the constant questions persisting, the Huletts decided to move from the town they loved to Estero, a village in Lee County, in 2021.
But by September, they were back in the path of possible tragedy: Hurricane Ian. As the family prepared to evacuate, and with tears spilling down her cheeks, their eldest daughter, Ava, 17, pulled photos of Bradley from the walls. Meagan reassured her they were saved digitally, but Ava wouldn’t let a piece of him be washed away.
Brad watched and then realized that he needed to grab his son’s ashes. Eventually, their car was filled mostly with Bradley’s belongings. “Bradley was not tied to this house except through us and the pictures,” his father said.
The family had to try three hotels before they could find a room that worked for them. Each room was on the third floor – Bradley’s basketball number was 3.
“Third floor again. Must be Bradley,” their youngest son, Biagio, now 9, pointed out as they settled in a room.
Their house – and photos – made it through Ian unscathed.
Three years after his death, Bradley is remembered for his smarts and his humor, for sinking three point shots and for looking out for his family and friends.
Eckley, who just finished his freshman season as a punter for Michigan State, calls out to Bradley at the start of each game, home or away. Ohio State was one of Bradley’s favorite college teams, so before the Spartans hosted the Buckeyes on Oct. 8 in Lansing, Eckley took a knee in the endzone, and spoke to his departed friend.
“We made it; we’re both here,” he whispered beneath the thunder of the crowd. “I can’t thank you enough. Watch over me, and protect me. I love you.”