Sunday, January 21, 2018
Public safety

Dad of teen killed after being tossed from state fair criticizes authorities

TAMPA — The parents of Andrew Joseph III want answers.

Four days after their 14-year-old son was struck and killed on Interstate 4 after being ejected from the Florida State Fair, the only thing authorities have given them is a clear plastic bag filled with the last items he held.

A slightly smashed phone. His wallet with $6 and a game ticket inside. Three rubber friendship bracelets made by his little sister.

Andrew was killed Friday night, several hours after he was among dozens of youths ejected from the fair when fights broke out. His death brings renewed attention to the chaotic behavior that for years has plagued the annual student day at the fair — leading the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, Florida State Fair Authority and Hillsborough's school district to start searching for solutions.

And Andrew's parents to question the safety procedures.

"This is just gross negligence from top to bottom," said Andrew's father, Andrew Joseph Jr. "Kick kids out and shut down the fair, this is their safety plan?"

Even a trip to the Juvenile Assessment Center and a mark on his son's clean record would have been better, his father said, than simply taking him to the gate and instructing him to leave.

"I wish they would have taken him to the JAC, because then I would have my son now," he said.

On Friday night, about 200 deputies struggled to control chaos on the midway when hundreds of teens ran out-of-control through the fair. Ninety-nine people were ejected; 12 were arrested.

Many of those involved had gained entry using a free student ticket and were not accompanied by adults, said an email from Charles Pesano, executive director of the Florida State Fair Authority.

Changes will be implemented immediately, Pesano wrote.

"The Florida State Fair will limit entry with free student tickets to before 7 p.m. each night for the duration of the fair," Pesano said. Access with free student tickets after 7 p.m. will be allowed only with an adult.

Col. Jim Previtera said the Sheriff's Office is making changes and considering more, but its ejection policy will likely remain.

Andrew and the others were dropped off at Gate 4, near Orient Road. Deputies expected them to call for a ride. Authorities don't monitor the children.

Andrew's parents did not hear from their son. It is not clear what he did during the three hours between his ejection and his death, nor why he attempted to cross I-4. The driver, a Polk County man, was not charged.

Sheriff David Gee said it "wasn't logistically possible" to call all the parents, given the scope of the trouble.

Ball game vendor Scotty Conley said Friday was the worst he has seen in his three years working at the fair. He said he saw fights break out and about 50 teens each on different sides of the midway running toward each other until they collided.

The vast majority of the teens ejected were black, officials said, which prompted Gee to write Tuesday to several leaders of the black community, asking for help.

Pastor Moses Brown of Pastors on Patrol told a reporter his group will gladly work with the Sheriff's Office. He hopes educating students and involving them in the planning might make strict enforcement unnecessary.

He said the fact that most of the teens were black is "embarrassing." He hopes that through education, Pastors on Patrol can instill a pride in the youths that might motivate good behavior.

"When you take pride in where you come from, you sometimes refrain from expressing a lot of your hostilities in public," he said.

For Deanna and Andrew Joseph Jr., the conversation does little to fix the way authorities handled the night.

"These are children, not criminals," Joseph said. "Andrew had no gang tattoos, his name wasn't in the system. He was in their custody. They were responsible for him."

Though several counties have annual days off from school for students to attend the fair, the problem seems to be contained to only Hillsborough County's day, the Sheriff's Office said.

Hillsborough's top school officials said Tuesday that the problem needs to be addressed, but none favored doing away with the annual day off.

Superintendent MaryEllen Elia said the district is considering an education campaign telling students how to behave, similar to what is done before Gasparilla.

Every year, she said, the district meets with law enforcement and the fair authority afterward to see how things went, she said. This year's fair ends Monday.

School Board member Doretha Edgecomb urged the superintendent to reach out to grass roots community organizations. "We've got to reach every kid and tell them how to behave at the fair," she said.

Andrew's parents regret ever allowing their son to go to the fair with his friends. He was a straight-A student and athlete at St. Stephen Catholic School in Riverview, they said, and they trusted him to do the right thing.

On Tuesday, they were still waiting for someone to take responsibility. The only person who reached out to the family was Previtera, who left a message earlier this week.

"We received no condolences, no apologies," Deanna Joseph said. "I had to go on TV to get even one call."

Times researcher John Martin and staff writer Jimmy Geurts contributed to this report.


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