TAMPA — In pictures, Jared Asa Semp stands against the dark, with black makeup encircling his eyes. He wears black boots and baggy, circus-style leggings as he waves a set of burning flower-shaped rings. He kneels before wide-eyed crowds and exhales flammable vapor, igniting fireballs in the night air. In a video, he dances to a techno beat on a dim-lit stage, clad in a leather vest and Gothic-style skirt, spinning and twirling a flaming pole.
This is how the people who knew Semp like to remember him: a performer, defiant of danger, a man who liked to be seen.
Semp, 31, was killed Sept. 24 at his home in Tampa.
He is one of 31 homicide victims in the city this year. Amid a surge in violent crime that has taken hold in the months of the pandemic, the city’s homicide total has already matched that of last year.
Semp’s killing has yielded no arrests so far. Tampa police released his name and photo, an increasingly unusual step in an era when state laws intended to protect victims often diminish them to nameless statistics.
He left behind a network of fellow performers, college classmates, and friends that spanned much of central and west Florida. They want people to know who he was.
Friends knew him as Asa. He grew up in Ocala. He had a brother named Joshua.
He came to Tampa for college at the University of South Florida. He studied psychology and graduated in 2012.
He was a teaching assistant in theater classes, instructing students on how to perform circus skills like juggling and riding a unicycle. He would demonstrate tricks like the rolla bolla — an act where one balances atop a board that sits on a rolling cylinder.
He was known as a “burner,” a live performer whose medium is fire. He learned through fellow burners how to manipulate flames into stunning visual displays. He took the stage and turned flaming sticks before patrons at local music festivals, regional Burning Man events, and gatherings like Twisted Tuesdays at the Red Lion Pub in Orlando.
He didn’t do it for money or even for recognition, friends said. He was an artist who performed for himself.
“It was a passion for doing something that evoked an emotional response in someone else,” said Mary McKenzie, a fellow fire performer.
He acted occasionally in stage shows. He would assist sound technicians at burlesque shows in Orlando.
He worked for a time as a behavioral therapist. Later, he worked odd jobs to support himself. He’d been a waiter and a casino slot machine technician. He was a familiar face at local Renaissance festivals. He’d taken an interest in leather works, and learned how to make collars and vests and belts. He’d studied to become a life coach.
Perhaps more than anything, though, he was known as a devoted friend.
“Some people’s goodness shows in how often they continue to show up,” said KC Allen, a fellow performer. “Some people’s goodness is shown in how often they’re willing to stay up on the phone til 4 in the morning to make sure you’re okay. His story is more about that … that he was willing to keep showing up and be an ear for a lot of people.”
Most recently, Semp lived with roommates and a girlfriend in a big blue two-story house at 1916 E Columbus Drive, just north of Ybor City.
A girlfriend, Bailey Stevenson, lived there with him until they parted amicably earlier this year. He was someone she could turn to in times of crisis, like when she needed to pay for an emergency car repair, or when she needed an ear for her worries. He helped pay for her to attend cosmetology school and become a hair stylist.
“He helped me in so many ways,” she said.
Word of his death stunned those who knew him. He had never been in trouble, and was not known as someone who was involved in drugs or any kind of criminal activity.
“It’s baffling,” McKenzie said. “Why would you murder someone so kind and so giving and generous?”
Police have revealed few details about the circumstances of his death. They have said only that the crime was not a “random act.”
The word that circulated among his friends is that Semp’s roommates came home before 7 p.m. and found him dead as multiple people fled the house.
“They were trying to rob him,” Stevenson said. “The only not-randomness of it is they had to have known he had stuff, that he had a good amount of money in the house.”
None of Semp’s friends know who his assailants were, she said.
“I really, really hope they find these people,” Stevenson said. “Because he didn’t deserve this.”
Anyone with information regarding the death of Jared Asa Semp is asked to contact the Tampa Police Department at 813-231-6130. Tips can also be provided anonymously through Crime Stoppers of Tampa Bay at 800-873-TIPS (8477).
Semp’s friends have also set up a Go Fund Me page to help his family with funeral expenses.