Tamon J. Stapleton’s high school graduation pictures arrived at his mother’s house on the same day that police say he was killed trying to rob an East Knoxville convenience store.
His mother, Joy Stapleton, had three days earlier returned home from her honeymoon. The photos were taken May 29 at the Mountain View Youth Development Center in Dandridge.
Her hopes then for her son were that he would one day walk across a college stage with a diploma in hand. Her son’s excellent grades and easy grasp of mathematics offered her hope he would one day occupy the ranks of a respected profession.
“I thought of him being an engineer,” the 38-year-old mother said the day after his death. “He had the mind of an engineer. He could crunch numbers like no one else.”
Despite his intelligence, Joy Stapleton said her son lacked common sense. He was a follower, she said, who would do anything for his friends — even commit armed robbery.
The 18-year-old was shot in the head about 2:35 a.m. Monday as he cleaned cash with one hand from the register of the Breadbox, 6210 Asheville Highway. In his other hand he held a loaded 9 mm semi-automatic pistol with a round in the chamber ready to fire, according to the Knoxville Police Department.
Tamon Stapleton had marched the clerk at gunpoint through the store and behind the counter to the cash register. His face was covered with a shirt, his mother said.
The clerk had a friend sitting in a vehicle outside who watched the robbery unfold. The man, whose name has not been released by police, grabbed his own 9 mm semi-automatic pistol and headed for the store.
Based on what police told Joy Stapleton, her son looked up as the man entered the door. The man told police Tamon Stapleton was raising his weapon when the man fired a single shot.
KPD spokesman Darrell DeBusk won’t say where the round struck Tamon Stapleton. His mother said the shot was to the head.
“They (police) offered to let me see the video, but I declined,” Joy Stapleton said. “I don’t want to see my son get killed.”
DeBusk said police “won’t be releasing” the video from the store security camera to the public.
“We probably won’t retain a copy of it,” he said.
The clerk’s friend doesn’t face any charges in the shooting. DeBusk would not say whether the shooter had a handgun carry permit that allowed him to have a gun in a vehicle.
“According to the district attorney (general), it wouldn’t have mattered if he had a permit or not,” DeBusk said.
Joy Stapleton insists the man who killed her son should face criminal charges.
“Tamon was in the wrong, but that man should have dialed 911,” she said. “He should not have taken the law into his own hands and killed my son. But he wanted to be George Zimmerman.”
Knox County Deputy District Attorney General Kyle Hixson said he couldn’t address the Breadbox shooting, but noted Tennessee law allows for lethal force if a person thinks death or serious bodily injury are imminent.
“You have a right in Tennessee to defend yourself, and you have a right to defend others,” Hixson said. “You don’t have to have a carry permit to defend yourself or another.”
Joy Stapleton said she doesn’t know where her son got the handgun. Police said the serial number had been obliterated, so it appears the weapon is stolen.
Joy Stapleton had spoken to her son about two hours before his death. She was sitting outside about 12:30 a.m. Monday guarding her home from another drive-by shooting when he came outside to get a cigarette.
“I told him to get his butt back inside,” she said. “He’s (on probation) and can’t be outside after 10 p.m.”
A Juvenile Court judge in April had released Tamon Stapleton to his mother’s custody after a drug arrest. That was a week before his 18th birthday.
Because of his numerous arrests — beginning at age 13 on charges of aggravated burglary and felony theft — Tamon Stapleton had been deemed a candidate for the Serious Habitual Offenders Comprehensive Act Program.
Tamon Stapleton’s criminal record included shoplifting, disorderly conduct, attempted robbery, fleeing, aggravated assault and possession of pot.
Tamon Stapleton’s misdeeds prompted a judge to sentence him to the Mountain View juvenile facility. The teen was there when two other occupants killed themselves last year.
Joy Stapleton said she asked a probation officer to send him back to Mountain View a second time.
“He was hanging with the wrong crowd, and I was afraid for his life,” she said.
When Tamon Stapleton got home from that stint, he was shot in the ankle in November 2014 during a drive-by shooting at his mother’s Catalpa Avenue home. The home has been shot at several times, with police usually noting the victims were uncooperative.
The last reported shooting was about 1 a.m. May 13.
Joy Stapleton said she hoped her son was turning over a new leaf. He had the high school diploma and last month landed a job at a fast-food business.
“He was excited about that job,” the mother recalled. “He said, ‘I finally did something on my own.’ ”