Saturday, February 17, 2018
Public safety

Scary clowns making life harder for the real clowns of Tampa Bay

It's tough to be a clown these days.

Those who don the traditional bright makeup, oversized shoes and bulbous red nose of clowns do so to make people happy, to cheer up the sick and make children laugh.

Then came reports across the country — and recently here in the bay area — of people dressed as clowns, menacing and threatening people.

Some reports were real. Many were hoaxes. In both cases, there have been arrests.

"The people causing these problems are not real clowns," said Clearwater's Revonda Anderson aka Vondie the Clown. "They're mean-spirited ... making fools of themselves and making people hurt in many ways.

"It's disgusting for us (clowns), and we have to fight that image."

Clown hysteria has arrived in the Tampa Bay region just in time for Halloween.

RELATED: Clown hysteria breaks out in Tampa Bay: Pasco County, Largo investigate reports of creepy clowns

The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office said a Largo High School student reported being chased by a man in a clown mask on Wednesday at her school bus stop. The teen escaped unharmed and the incident is still being investigated. The Largo Police Department on Friday said it investigated reports of clowns spotted near the middle and high schools there but found nothing to support those accounts.

The Pasco County School District on Friday put its schools on alert after a group calling itself "Aint Clownin Around" posted threats against students and teachers on Twitter. But no classes were cancelled; district officials said they were just being cautious.

The Pasco County Sheriff's Office said it was investigating clown sightings in Holiday, Hudson and Port Richey and reports of people posing as clowns reaching out to kids on social media.

"We want to caution everyone that these types of acts are not being taken as a joke and are being investigated as threats," the Sheriff's Office said.

No such reports have been made to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office or the Tampa Police Department. But law enforcement agencies across the region are warning residents to be wary.

"We know it's out there, so people should be on heightened alert for anything suspicious," said Hillsborough sheriff's spokesman Larry McKinnon. "If you see something, say something."

RELATED: Attention creepy clowns — Scaring people in a mask is illegal in Florida (and real clowns are sick of you)

Clowns always seem to get a bad rap. Stephen King didn't help matters when he wrote It, a 1986 horror novel about an evil clown menacing children. In 2009, a Palm Beach County woman was fatally shot at point-blank range by an attacker dressed as a clown.

This year's hysteria seems fueled by social media and copycats. The New York Times reported that there have been a dozen or so clown-related arrests around the country. Some were arrested for faking stories of threatening clowns, others were arrested for actually being threatening clowns.

Professional clown Jeannie Sommer of Safety Harbor said the problem with such stories is that once children are scared of clowns, it doesn't really go away. Sommer, who performs under the clown name Wags, said she's encountered plenty of adults who still fear clowns.

"Kids are definitely sponges and at a young age and can be mesmerized by what they see," she said. "That impact can be a positive one that lasts into adulthood, but if that seed planted is negative — I've had adults go out and leave the room when I came into a party."

Clown hoaxes don't help matters. In Pensacola earlier this month, a woman shared a video of a clown lurking in her backyard. She posted two days later it was a prank meant only for her and that there was never any danger. Yet the video surpassed 10 million views — and how many actually knew it was a hoax?

Last week, another video of a masked and menacing figure in the tall grass from Ocala also went viral. But Marion County sheriff's deputies were left scratching their heads.

"It is suspicious in nature, but there is nothing we could do on our front because of lack of evidence," said Marion County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Lauren Lettelier. "For all we know it's a prank."

In Gainesville, police recently received reports that children saw a van with four men dressed up like clowns looking to frighten people.

While it's not illegal to dress up as a clown, Florida law could help police crack down on creepy clowns: it states that anyone "wearing the mask, hood, or other device ... with the intent to intimidate, threaten, abuse, or harass any other person" can face a misdemeanor charge. There is an exception for Halloween masks, however.

Gainesville police spokesman Ben Tobias has another concern: clown pranksters could end up being seriously injured or worse under the "stand your ground" self-defense doctrine for gun owners in Florida.

"Hopefully, it's just some people that think they're being funny," Tobias said, "when in reality they're putting a lot of college students and parents who are here on edge."

Times staff writer Anastasia Dawson contributed to this report. Contact Sara DiNatale at [email protected] Follow @sara_dinatale.

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