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Charges dropped against St. Petersburg City Hall brawlers

ST. PETERSBURG — So much for the "Brawl at City Hall."

The Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office said Tuesday that it dropped misdemeanor charges of disorderly conduct against the two men who got into it after the St. Petersburg City Council's Oct. 15 vote to privatize a public sidewalk fronting BayWalk.

Frederick Dudley, 76, and Ronald Deaton, 61, were arrested after tussling with each other moments after the council's 5-3 vote to cede the sidewalk to BayWalk's owners.

"We have better things to do than prosecute a couple of old men who got angry in the heat of the moment," said Assistant State Attorney Richard Ripplinger.

BayWalk's owners insisted they couldn't revive the failing complex unless the city gave them the sidewalk so they could close it to loiterers, panhandlers and demonstrators. Dissenters protested, saying it would hurt free speech, not help BayWalk.

Emotions ran high on both sides — and the yelling started as soon as the vote was over.

The Rev. Bruce Wright, who opposed giving up the sidewalk, screamed: "You are so full of (expletive) it is ridiculous."

More barbs flew. Frederick Dudley, the older brother of council member Bill Dudley and a supporter of the vote, yelled back: "Why don't you move?"

Free speech activist Ronald Deaton, who opposed the vote, responded with an expletive. Then Dudley rushed Deaton.

They grabbed each other's neck and tumbled to the ground near the TV cameras.

Deaton was on top, and that's who police officers pulled off first. Dudley was helped up, then walked around the council chambers looking for his glasses. He was already apologizing.

"Stop it you're going to break his shoulder!" a woman yelled as police took Deaton into custody. Onlookers yelled for police not to hurt him. Minutes later, Dudley was in custody too.

Police spokesman Bill Proffitt said that officers acted properly, and that no favoritism was shown to the relative of a council member.

"At the time the officer got there (Deaton) was on top of the other guy trying to punch him," Proffitt said. "Once we secured the first person then we went and arrested the second person."

The brief fracas was broadcast live on cable TV and played out in front of several TV news crews and amateur videographers who posted their videos online. Ripplinger lamented that he can't watch more of his cases online.

"Their actions were disorderly, and some may view that Dudley charged Deaton," the prosecutor said. "But that was after Deaton got profane with him. I think their actions are mutual. It could have been avoided. They were both out of line in this situation."

And police were right to detain both men, Ripplinger said.

"The arrests were based on probable cause and served a purpose that night to calm things down," he said. "But prosecuting them further isn't going to accomplish anything."

Deaton could not be reached for comment. Dudley wrote several letters of apology afterward. He apologized again Tuesday — sort of.

"I'm sorry that it happened," he said. "I really feel bad that it happened. It was not one of my better moments.

"I felt I had good reason to do it, but I shouldn't have done it."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

Charges dropped against St. Petersburg City Hall brawlers 11/10/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 10, 2009 11:41pm]
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