1. News

Bikers miss corn dogs but get $72,500 settlement from Florida State Fair

Al Greco, center, then a Hillsborough County sheriff’s captain working off duty, denies motorcycle riders entry to the Florida State Fair on Feb. 7, 2010, because of patches identifying their affiliations.
Al Greco, center, then a Hillsborough County sheriff’s captain working off duty, denies motorcycle riders entry to the Florida State Fair on Feb. 7, 2010, because of patches identifying their affiliations.
Published Aug. 27, 2014

TAMPA — The Florida State Fair Authority will pay $72,500 to three bikers who were turned away from the 2010 fair for not removing their club logos.

Two rode with the Spirit Riders Motorcycle Ministry. One rode with the U.S. Military Vets Motorcycle Club.

All wore patches identifying their affiliations and were denied entry into the fair by off-duty sheriff's deputies on Feb. 7, 2010, when a posted policy banned "club colors" in an effort to discourage gang activity.

None of the three men has ever been arrested, state records show. The artwork on their clothing depicted American flags, crucifixes and tiny white doves.

"We have crowns over our patches representing Jesus, king of kings," said Spirit Rider Tim Newberry, 56, of Auburndale, who was looking forward to the exhibits and a corn dog.

Even offering a deputy a Bible didn't help, said Spirit Rider Dennis Walsted, 45, of Lakeland.

"I'm a veteran," said Mark Denico, 58, of Polk City, who served in the Air Force. "To be turned away like I didn't have any rights was disturbing."

After the incident, the men filed a federal lawsuit against the Fair Authority, operations manager Bill Bullock, executive director Charles Pesano, Hillsborough sheriff's Maj. Al Greco and Sheriff David Gee, whose off-duty deputies provided security at the fair under Bullock's supervision.

On Monday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth A. Jenkins dismissed the complaint because a mediator reported that the parties had reached a settlement.

Greco, assigned to the sheriff's homeland security division, was a captain working off duty when scores of bikers arrived as part of a 2010 ride organized by the West Coast Confederation of Clubs, which also draws members from the Outlaws.

Some bikers took off their colors to buy tickets but put them back on and tried to enter.

"You all are playing a game," Greco is heard on video telling a group that included Newberry, Walsted and Denico. "We're not playing it. You leave, or all of you are going to jail for trespassing."

That year, the fair had posted signs at entrances banning club colors, formalizing a practice in effect for years. Authorities hoped to discourage gang-related activity that had "plagued" the fair since the late 1980s, the director stated in court records.

After the lawsuit, the no-club-colors signs were replaced by a posted policy stating that the fair may turn away or eject people who are disruptive or who display behavior associated with "criminal gang membership."

That cleared the way for bikers to attend subsequent fairs.

It didn't, however, eliminate disruptions. Just this year, despite the presence of nearly 200 deputies, swelling groups of teens and young adults stampeded the midway and forced the early shutdown of the fair on Hillsborough's student day.

Deputies ejected 99 people, including 14-year-old Andrew Joseph III, a student at St. Stephen Catholic School in Riverview. The night ended in tragedy: Andrew died crossing Interstate 4 on foot. His parents said he was no criminal and had no gang tattoos.

The motorcycle-riding adults say it's a mistake to lump them in with people who cause trouble.

"They were judging a book by its cover," said Tarpon Springs lawyer Jerry Theophilopoulos, who represented the bikers. The 2010 incident that provoked the lawsuit was headed to court almost before it began.

Bikers planning a ride to the fair checked in advance with the Sheriff's Office gang unit to see if they would be allowed to enter.

When they learned they would have to remove their colors, they showed up anyway, but with an attorney and a video camera.

The question of whether to exclude them shot up the fair's chain of command, court records show. Greco consulted with Bullock, who checked with bosses, including the executive director.

Defense attorney Jay Daigneault of Clearwater said that while the Fair Authority and its insurance company decided to settle the lawsuit, he still believes the no-club-colors policy was constitutional.

"The settlement shouldn't be interpreted as an admission of liability in any way, shape or form," he said

The bikers see the settlement as a victory and say they plan to use some of the money on a party to celebrate with other members of the West Coast Confederation.

"This is big for us to win this," Newberry said. "This is our liberty and rights."

Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report.