RIVERVIEW — They knew the coronavirus still looms large over life in Hillsborough County, but they didn’t care.
Their friend was dead. Riverview High School is still closed. And the authorities encouraging them to keep social distancing weren’t going to stop them from mourning. Or hugging. Or crying together.
For just a few moments Tuesday afternoon, some 200 teenagers gathered on the basketball court in Riverview’s Panther Trace neighborhood to say goodbye to Demona Deon Oliver Jr., a basketball star and popular senior at Riverview High School.
The impromptu memorial service started with a group text among members of the Sharks basketball team, but Deon being Deon, the small gathering soon grew to a legion of teens, drawn from their houses for the first time in more than two months, said Deon’s close friend Jaden Ramos.
Many said they simply needed to know if the rumors were true — that Deon was the unnamed 18-year-old male killed in a crash along Interstate 75 on Monday afternoon.
“It was crazy, everyone was just like, ‘I don’t believe it,’” said Ramos, 18, a senior at Riverview High School. “You know, you see stuff on Instagram when somebody dies and if it’s somebody you know, you feel it. But Deon was just so close to us, like, I can’t even believe that he’s not at home right now, upstairs in his room.”
The Florida Highway Patrol did not release the names of anyone involved in the crash, under its interpretation of Marsy’s law — a 2018 amendment to the Florida Constitution intended to protect crime victims.
News organizations including the Tampa Bay Times reported that an unnamed teen was a passenger in a car driven by another 18-year-old who clipped the back of a pickup truck while trying to change lanes on I-75 near Gibsonton Drive. The impact sent the vehicle spiraling into the median, where it eventually overturned, sending one teen flying through the windshield to his death.
The driver and another teen passenger were wearing their seatbelts and survived the crash with minor injuries, troopers said. They weren’t identified, either.
Not even a post to the official Riverview High School Instagram site named Deon Oliver as the boy who died in the crash.
“Prayers to the Riverview Shark family as we deal with the loss of one of our seniors yesterday," reads the post on the “Shark Community” Instagram page. "It’s hard to see a student go so young.”
To confirm Oliver’s identity, the Times placed two calls and two emails to the Medical Examiner’s Office. There was no immediate response. The Highway Patrol reiterated its policy against releasing victims’ names. The Hillsborough School District said it could not provide student information.
Ramos, like many of Oliver’s friends, said he learned of his friend’s death in a text message from a friend at school who heard it from another friend who heard it somewhere else.
“I thought they were playing, and I kept saying, ‘Nah man, you’ll have to show me the body to convince me Deon’s gone,’” Ramos said. “But then they kept talking about it for a while, and I called him but he didn’t answer, so I was like, I’ll just drive over to his mom’s house and if he’s there I’ll hit him for playing like that because it really wasn’t funny. But then as I was driving I started speeding a little bit because I was getting that worried feeling in my stomach."
He saw cars in the driveway and people outside crying.
“I got out of the car and was yelling at everyone like, ‘Tell me the truth. Man, you’re lying, he’s really upstairs sleeping isn’t he.’"
Then he saw his friend’s mother and she collapsed in his arms, sobbing, he said.
"I spent the night on the couch cause I just couldn’t go home.”
Ramos and Oliver grew up together, he said. They’ve been best friends since they were 8. They spent their summers shooting hoops and were in the same classes at school.
Ramos asked Oliver’s family whether they would like to speak with the Tampa Bay Times and they declined. Oliver’s mother, father, sister and brother mourned his death in Facebook and Instagram posts.
Deon Oliver wore jersey number 5 and hoped to play basketball in college and the NBA. He was a dreamer, a jokester, and a friend to everyone he met, his friends said.
They stood on the basketball court Tuesday holding blue, white and red foil balloons, some shaped like stars, others like the number 5. Someone brought a bouquet of wilted purple daisies arranged in an empty bottle of cognac. Another brought three tall prayer candles in Riverview’s school colors, white and blue.
It didn’t take long for Hillsborough County Sheriff’s deputies to hear about the gathering. They broke up clusters of crying teens and reminded them of social distancing orders. The deputies were firm but sympathetic, waiting to move in until balloons had been released into the air amid chants of “Deon” and “Family.”
Then, tow trucks arrived and the teens scattered.
“I hurt for these young people as they mourn the loss of their friend," Sheriff Chad Chronister said in an email to the Times. “While we respect the need for his loved ones to be able to pay their respects, it’s important to do so in the safest way possible.”
Chronister noted that funeral homes are adjusting to accommodate COVID-19 restrictions, including limits on the size of gatherings.
For Junior Pena, 16, it didn’t seem fair. The sophomore had spent the morning at Westfield Brandon mall, walking among crowds of people eager to shop again.
“I mean, everything is opening back up so why can’t we be together right now?” Pena said. “We can get a haircut, go to a restaurant, go to the mall — why can’t we mourn? I mean, it’s just not right that everything has to stop, you know? I won’t let it stop when it comes to Deon. His story is going to be heard.”
Friends of Oliver said that if they can’t attend a funeral, or any formal gathering to remember their friend’s life, they’ll find another way to get together again — this time in a less conspicuous place.
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