CLEARWATER — An off-duty Pinellas County sheriff's deputy broke up a playground scuffle by handcuffing a 9-year-old boy and seating him in the back of a patrol car, according to police and witness reports.
Barbara Yorio, who said she was picking up her grandson when she saw the handcuffing last week, said the deputy screamed, "How stupid can you get?" at the fourth-grader before escorting the crying boy to the cruiser.
"It was just very disturbing," said Yorio, 60, who is not related to the boy. "This police officer just immediately ran over and slapped those handcuffs on. There was not a second's hesitation."
Deputy Mark Eastty, hired by the Sheriff's Office in 2006, wrote in an incident report that he saw Eric Tackebury Jr. punch Jesse Emry, 10, in the face at the Forest Run Park playground around 2 p.m. on Feb. 3. Eastty wrote that he grabbed Eric's hand to stop another hit, but Eric tried to pull his arm free.
"Eric was breathing very heavily and had a very angered look on his face," Eastty wrote. "His hands were still clinched into a fist. For my protection and Eric's and the fact that I was not wanting to struggle with Eric, I placed handcuffs on his wrists (double locked)."
Witnesses remember it differently. Yorio, who was about 30 feet away, said Eric didn't prepare for another punch or struggle, but that he froze when he saw the deputy and began to cry when he was grabbed.
Yorio said the deputy yelled, "What are you, stupid? You see a police officer standing there and you go punch someone?"
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Eric, interviewed at his Countryside home Thursday, said he and Jesse were play-fighting with sticks after getting out of class at the nearby Curlew Creek Elementary School.
It escalated when Jesse, a fifth-grader, threw Eric's backpack and grabbed him by the neck, Eric said. He punched Jesse, he said, to defend himself.
"Just one punch," said Adam Lenok, 40, who was picking up his 8-year-old son, Matthew, at the park before the handcuffing. "That's all it was."
Eric, measured Thursday, stands 4 feet 8 and weighs 80 pounds. The deputy, who witnesses said was wearing his work uniform, was described as about 6 feet tall and "definitely built," Lenok said.
"I think it was a little harsh the cop handcuffed the kid," Lenok said. "He should have just took him to the side and said, 'What was that all about?' "
"I was crying. I was scared," Eric said. "He said, 'Have you ever been to juvie (juvenile detention)?' I said no. And he said, 'That's where you're going.' "
That quote does not appear in Eastty's report. Neither does the word "stupid," part of the quote Yorio said she heard and then wrote down to remember.
When read Eastty's report, Yorio, who lives in Palm Harbor, called it "absolutely untrue."
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After the handcuffing, two Clearwater police officers responded and contacted Eric's father on his cell phone.
"I could hear my son crying and freaking out in the background," said Eric Tackebury Sr.
After the Clearwater officers arrived, Eric's handcuffs were removed. The boys told officers they were friends. No charges were filed.
Sheriff's spokesman Tom Nestor said no internal investigation into the handcuffing was launched and that Eastty's supervisor, Sgt. Joseph Gerretz, said the deputy had done nothing wrong. The case is now closed.
Nestor said handcuffs are used at deputies' discretion on "a case-by-case basis," including when dealing with children. Using the restraints can be vital for the safety of victims, officers and the suspects themselves.
Photographs taken by the family, with time stamps from that day, show red marks on Eric's right wrist.
Tackebury said an out-of-county deputy urged him to take the photographs to court, though three law firms he has proposed the lawsuit to have shied away.
"Now my son's afraid of the police," he said. "What if something happens? Who's he going to run to?"
Drew Harwell can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4170.