TAMPA — Eight years ago, a 14-year-old boy was kicked out of the Florida State Fair and left on a dark, rain-soaked roadside. He ambled through vast parking lots, down an Orient Road sidewalk and over grass patches before seeing that a busy eight-lane interstate separated him from where he needed to be.
Andrew Joseph III tried to cross it. He was struck by a sport utility vehicle and killed.
Lawyers for his parents say Hillsborough County’s sheriff and one of his now-retired deputies bear responsibility for their son’s death. They’ve asked for $30 million to compensate for their loss.
Lawyers for the sheriff and his deputy say they did nothing wrong.
A jury will be asked to decide who’s right.
A trial eight years in the making opened Monday morning in a Tampa federal courtroom. A jury of 10, several of them parents themselves, were drawn back to what happened Feb. 7, 2014, outside the Florida State Fairgrounds.
It was Student Day, a tradition that typically draws thousands of youngsters to the fair with free tickets issued at local schools. Kids were not required then to be accompanied by a parent or guardian.
Shawntae Munn, mother to one of Joseph’s friends, dropped off Joseph and four other children in the early evening at Gate 3, on the south side of the fairgrounds. The group spent the next couple hours on the midway.
People stood shoulder to shoulder. Kids ran through the crowd. Fights broke out. Objects were thrown.
Amid what court documents called a “disturbance,” Hillsborough sheriff’s deputies detained several young people. A few of them were Joseph’s friends. He saw one boy drop a hat. He ran to pick it up and moved to return it, according to court records.
For reasons that are unclear, Cpl. Mark Clark detained Joseph. He escorted him to a “processing area” on the fairgrounds, court records state. Another deputy searched him, seized his property, took his picture, checked him for gang tattoos and marked him for ejection from the fair, according to court records. The reason, as written on an ejection form: “running through the mid-way causing disorderly conduct.”
Another boy, a 12-year-old who lived near Joseph, was ejected with him. He is referred to in court records by the initials “C.T.”
They were in custody for a little less than 45 minutes. Then, they were put into a sheriff’s van, which was driven away from the fair gates. The boys were dropped off at the western edge of the fairgrounds, near Orient Road and Interstate 4.
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“Once a child is in the custody of law enforcement, a sheriff is never allowed to turn that child out into the streets alone,” Guy Rubin, an attorney for the Joseph family, said in opening statements.
Deputies should have called his parents to come get him, Rubin said.
“If a sheriff does not do that, and as a result the child is hurt or killed, the sheriff is responsible.”
The boys and several other kids who had also been kicked out walked back to Gate 4, the closest entrance. The boys, according to court records, were trying to return to Gate 3, where they’d been dropped off, and where they expected Munn would be able to pick them up.
C.T. testified in a deposition that they encountered a sheriff’s deputy at the gate. The deputy, who was never identified, told them they could not reenter the fair and threatened to arrest them for trespassing. The deputy also told them, “the only thing separating you guys from the main gate is the interstate,” according to court records.
Robert Fulton, one of the attorneys representing the Sheriff’s Office, told the jury there is no proof the person who spoke to the boys was even a deputy. In fact, he said, deputies will testify that they would never tell anyone such a thing. He also noted several things Joseph did and did not do.
After he was kicked out of the fair, Joseph declined a ride home from a youth football coach. He had a cellphone and made and received multiple calls, but didn’t call his parents for a ride.
“Andrew Joseph’s death was tragic,” Fulton said. “The evidence in this case will show that his tragic death was not caused by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office and it was not caused by (Cpl.) Mark Clark.”
Rubin countered that it was the decisions of adults that set in motion the series of fatal decisions made by a 14-year-old.
Joseph and C.T. walked back to the Orient Road sidewalk and headed north, passing beneath the I-4 overpass. They ended up at the Hard Rock Casino, on the opposite side of I-4 from the fairgrounds.
Realizing they were heading the wrong way, the boys tried to get back to the fairgrounds by running across the busy highway. Heading north to south, they made it across eight traffic lanes, a middle guardrail and the grassy median.
Joseph then decided they needed to turn around, according to court records. The boys once again dashed across I-4, apparently trying to backtrack to the Orient Road sidewalk to return to the fairgrounds.
Joseph made it to the lane farthest north. There, an SUV hit him. The driver was not charged.
C.T. was able to make it safely back to the casino and walked back along the Orient Road sidewalk to the fairgrounds.
Joseph’s parents, Andrew Joseph Jr. and Deanna Hardy-Joseph, sat Monday among a legion of attorneys. They listened quietly as the jury heard about how they’d met in their native Louisiana, graduated college, fell in love, got married and eventually fulfilled their dream of having a son and a daughter.
The jury heard about Dad teaching his son football, and Mom cheering him on at games. They heard that young Andrew was a good student at St. Stephen’s Catholic School, how he’d never been in trouble.
They heard about a family that became immersed in grief, whose home became a shrine to their dead son. They saw the last photo ever taken of him: an image taken by deputies at the state fairgrounds.
The lawsuit, filed in 2016, alleges wrongful death and violations of Joseph’s civil rights.
Through the years, his parents have been outspoken in helping draw attention to those they say have been victims of police violence and negligence. They started a foundation in their son’s name, which aims to prevent similar tragedies. Two years ago, a granite paver bearing his name was installed on Tampa’s Riverwalk.
“There is still no proof he did anything wrong,” his father said then. “We want to make sure he did not die for nothing.”
Demonstrators, some affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement, gathered outside the federal courthouse Monday morning in downtown Tampa. Amid a news briefing, they held up signs.
“Andrew Joseph III should still be here,” read one.
On the eve of trial, attorneys announced a settlement between Joseph’s parents and the Florida State Fair Authority. Details of the settlement were not disclosed.
Changes have since been made at the fair, where Student Day is now called Family Day. All students have to be accompanied by an adult. And deputies must contact a parent if a child gets kicked out.
David Gee was sheriff at the time of Joseph’s death. Sheriff Chad Chronister, who took office in 2017, and Clark, the now-retired deputy who first detained Joseph, remain as defendants.
The trial is expected to last two weeks.