NEW PORT RICHEY — In the past few weeks, authorities say, a small group of Gulf Middle School students have been attacking each other — white on black, black on white. Officials aren't quite sure how the racially motivated fights began. But things escalated Wednesday, police say, when two white adults joined the beat-down of a white boy whose friends are black.
Arrested in the latest attack are a 16-year-old boy, his 21-year-old sister and her 33-year-old boyfriend — a felon with a white supremacist tattoo.
"I'm taken aback by this situation," said Steve Wade, the school resource officer at Gulf Middle. "You always have little fights at school. But this is very disturbing."
The fact that adults joined the fight is "wholly inappropriate," Wade said.
Wednesday's attack happened after school, as the 14-year-old victim and his friends walked down Madison Street to play basketball at Gulf High School.
According to New Port Richey police reports, the 16-year-old boy, who is a student at Schwettman Education Center, and his sister, Carolann Esposito, punched and kicked the victim as they shouted the n-word to the victim's friends. The friends were held back from helping the victim by Esposito's boyfriend, Thomas Herwander, who was released from prison in November after serving an eight-month sentence for grand theft and organized fraud. According to the Florida Department of Corrections, one of Herwander's tattoos is a pair of S-shaped lightning bolts, a neo-Nazi symbol.
A teacher at Gulf High saw the commotion, broke up the fight and stayed with the victim until paramedics arrived, Wade said. He said the boy had bruises and cuts, but did not need to be taken to the hospital.
Wade said he believes this attack was retaliation for an April 16 brawl between two 14-year-old boys — one black, one white, both students at Gulf Middle.
That fight happened also happened after school, near Gulf Drive and James Street, a few blocks from the high school. Witnesses said the black boy said, "I'm going to get you, cracker," before pushing the white boy in front of a car, which hit him, according to a police report.
Wade said the white boy suffered a broken leg and was released from the hospital the next day. The black boy was arrested and charged with attempted murder.
The report said that fight was in retaliation for yet another racial altercation.
Wade said the agitation might be coming from an outside source, possibly a student whose family members have white supremacist views.
Esposito, the 21-year-old arrested in Wednesday's attack, told police "The reason this whole thing started is because of those f------ n------."
Wade said the attacks are shocking and upsetting, but they are localized to a small group. He said the school has had no problems with racist graffiti or fighting on school grounds.
"The school is very peaceful, racewise," Wade said. It seems to be an "outside influence funneled to a couple students."
Principal Stan Trapp said he's been in close contact with Wade and the school district to monitor the situation at his 900-student school. He doesn't know how it all started.
"It's still at a very minor stage" as far as the number of people involved, Trapp said.
Wade said extra officers will patrol streets near the school during the afternoons when school gets out.
We want to "make sure we don't have this happen again," Wade said.
He was on the scene quickly Wednesday and said the attackers fled — but, as Wade interviewed witnesses, Herwander rode past the scene on his bicycle. Witnesses shouted, "That's the guy! That's the guy!"
Herwander, Esposito and the 16-year-old all live at the same address on Marine Parkway in New Port Richey. All three were arrested Wednesday. The two adults are both unemployed.
Herwander is charged with aggravated child abuse. He is being held in lieu of $5,000 bail.
Esposito is charged with felony battery and child abuse. Her bail is set at $10,000.
The 16-year-old — whom the Times is not naming because he is a juvenile — is charged with felony battery.
The 14-year-old victim was back at school Thursday — sore, but okay, Wade said.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6229.