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Police: Gasparilla arrests more than triple from 2009

TAMPA — The rain and strong wind gusts that arrived Saturday afternoon didn't stop the pirates, but it tamped down the Gasparilla crowds.

If things felt different at this year's event, don't just blame Mother Nature. From the flotilla to the parade, crowds were far smaller than years past. Officials promised -- and delivered – a crackdown on underage drinking and bad behavior. The number of arrests Saturday was more than triple the 2009 total, Tampa police said Saturday evening.

There were at least 413 arrests Saturday and the vast majority were alcohol related, according to Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy. An updated arrest total was expected late Saturday night. There were 127 arrests in 2009. Saturday's arrest total included 406 misdemeanor cases and seven felonies.

The Tampa Police Department designated the Kate Jackson Recreation Center as a processing area for juveniles but had seen only one person by midday.

Judd Hickinbotham, 32, came to Tampa from Atlanta for his sixth Gasparilla.

"There's nothing like it," he said.

But this year is different than any other.

"It's wetter, it's colder, it's different because there are a lot less people here. It's a lot better this way. There are less people in line at the port-o-potties."

For others, the rain was too much. Dozens of people streamed down South Howard Avenue before the parade had ended. Chrissy Sanning of Orlando gave up early on her sixth Gasparilla.

"It's miserable," said Sanning, who sported a few beads and a poncho.

The crowd, she said, was only about half as large as prior years.

At St. John's Episcopal Church, members saw both the upside and downside of a tamer and wetter Gasparilla.

Just before the parade started, there were no drunken kids at the Orleans Avenue church's safe house. Usually by that time on Gasparilla day, there would be at least two kids who had too much to drink, said Leland Baldwin, who runs the safe house.

Baldwin attributed that to the heavy police presence as well as the bad weather.

Fewer paradegoers also meant the church took in less money in parking fees. Just before 2 p.m., the church shut down its parking lot behind the Four Green Fields pub. The church, which typically hauls in $3,000 and donates it to charity, took in $500 on Saturday.

"There was no one coming to Gasparilla," Baldwin said.

Before the streets were drenched with rain, the intersection of Howard and Mississippi avenues was wet with beer. Police officers stopped paradegoers and explained they couldn't bring large coolers or open containers to the parade. Police asked some people for identification to make sure they were 21 years old, but mostly just made people dump their drinks.

On Howard Avenue near Bayshore Boulevard, police Officer Joseph Perrone stopped a group of friends who drove from Spring Hill for the parade. He asked Tyler Shue, 25, if he had alcohol in his bottle of Coke.

"Do you have Jack in there?'' he asked, referring to Jack Daniel's whiskey.

Tyler opened the bottle and held it up to Perrone, who smelled it. "I don't like Jack,'' Shue said.

Perrone let the group pass by.

"There's zero tolerance," he said. "Nobody can come through here with alcohol. If you catch them early, you're not going to have as many problems later."

But they weren't able to catch everyone. Girls mixed drinks along the parade route, a group refilled their cups with a small keg hidden under a blanket and one of Shue's friends made it past Perrone with a small bottle of whiskey in his pocket.

At 1 p.m., about 15 officers gathered in the parking lot of the Sweetbay supermarket on Swann Avenue for an afternoon roll call. They listened to their captain, Robert Lovering.

"Today," he said, "we've come to try to make a difference from this day forward on how Gasparilla is going to be run. We have a zero — zero — tolerance for alcohol. Everybody from the media to the neighborhoods are going to be videotaping everything you do and everything you don't do. Nobody wants anybody peeing or crapping in their yards and they're not going to get away with it."

"Officer safety is paramount," he said. "Watch your backs out there. Some of you are used to Ybor. This is Ybor."

Officers Mike DiStefano and Terrance Covias snaked through the soggy streets of Hyde Park looking for lawbreakers. They spotted a young woman carrying a can of Natural Lite and stopped the car.

"Ma'am?" one asked. She put her can down. "Don't try to hide the beer. Let's see your I.D."

She didn't have one. She said she was a 20-year-old University of Tampa student. She got angry when the officers pulled out their notebooks.

"What are we getting written up for?" she asked.

"You're 20," Covias said. "Are you high?"

"What are you even doing?" she yelled.

Twenty minutes later, they drove away with a sample of her beer as proof of her crime. She stayed behind crying. Officers tried to "catch and release" people who committed minor offenses instead of detaining them.

The citations are considered arrests, McElroy said, but most people weren't handcuffed or taken to jail. Instead, many of them were given citations to appear in court. All told, just 23 people were taken to jail and one child ended up in juvenile detention.

Just before noon, officers near the parade starting point at Bayshore and Bay to Bay boulevards nabbed a man with an open can of Budweiser. They confiscated his brew, and wrote him a ticket for having an open container. He was not taken to jail because he is a local resident and the charge is a misdemeanor.

Not everyone got in trouble, though. One member of the Gaucho Association of Tampa krewe was seen with a drink a block off Bayshore. The Gauchos — five men dressed in black and red pirate suits — included one member sporting buttons reading "Don't Panic" and "Show Me Your Hooters." They were told to leave the alcohol at home, said David Smith, the krewe's vice president.

"Someone forgot," Smith said.

Just as a female police officer was writing Chad Frowick a ticket for an open container, another officer told her not to bother.

"They just told [her] to chill out," said Frowick, 45.

The pirates went on their way, heading toward the parade route with glum faces but no citation.

Jeff Pollins, 21, took a friend's advice and drove from Cape Canaveral for his first Gasparilla.

"I love it so far," Pollins said while using a palm frond to shield his head from the rain. It's a trick he learned from the cable television show Man vs. Wild. "You never thought that show would come in handy."

Gusts Saturday morning reached 30 mph, said Bay News 9 meteorologist Brian McClure.

A small-craft advisory was in effect because of the choppy waters, said Coast Guard spokeswoman Mariana O'Leary.

The dreary forecast wasn't discouraging people from setting up early on Bayshore Boulevard. Or getting their beverages in order.

South Tampa residents sipping beers at 10 a.m. strolled down to the Sweetbay Supermarket on Howard Avenue, where they bought more beer, mixes and red Solo cups. Several-dozen people in the parking lot were gathered around a large pirate ship that doubled as a cooler. It was called the "Get Wrecked II.''

Nearby, in the same parking lot, Tampa police officers gathered to receive their assignments.

"We're going to treat the paradegoers with respect and dignity,'' said Assistant Chief Marc Hamlin.

But officers are cracking down. Illegal drinking, public urination and flashing are all forbidden this year. So are coolers with beer. If you see them, police Capt. Rob Lovering told officers, tell the owners to take them home.

Chrinta Thery, 40, and Jeffery Ross, 44, flew to Tampa on Friday from New Jersey for their first Gasparilla. A friend who lives near Bayshore invited them down, saying Gasparilla was a party that shouldn't be missed.

"They said the parade doesn't start until 2, but they woke us up at 7:30. I heard 'arrgh!' " Ross said.

The two were ready with pirate bandannas and beads, undaunted by the threat of rain. "We hope there's 80-mph winds and high seas."

Vendors pulling carts of pirate toys, inflatables and flags struggled against the wind as they walked down Bayshore.

"A couple of carts have been tipped over by the wind," said Robb Hastings, 46. He said his already heavy cart is even more unmanageable because the inflatables and flags act like a sail, which works against him in the windy weather.

Police: Gasparilla arrests more than triple from 2009 01/30/10 [Last modified: Saturday, January 30, 2010 10:48pm]
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