In Williams Park, 'spice' addicts overwhelm idyllic setting

From left, Errin Shelton, 37, Morgan Hill, 45, Troy “Happy” Gilmore, 35, and Timothy Barker, 45, smoke and chat in front of the World War I memorial on Feb. 5 in Williams Park.
From left, Errin Shelton, 37, Morgan Hill, 45, Troy “Happy” Gilmore, 35, and Timothy Barker, 45, smoke and chat in front of the World War I memorial on Feb. 5 in Williams Park.
Published Feb. 17, 2013

As the sunlight lurches over the city's eastern high-rises then spills down through the oaks and onto the damp Bahia grass, Williams Park draws its first breath of the new day.

The cool air smells of coffee and cigarette smoke. Beneath a lingering crescent moon, beeping blue buses pull to the sidewalks and sleepy-eyed riders shuffle aboard. A family of squirrels hunts for day-old bread.

These 4.3 acres in the heart of downtown St. Petersburg are seldom quiet, but in this brief moment they are almost peaceful. Perhaps only now, before the booze and dope and pain pills overwhelm this place, is life here at all like it used to be.

From its once world-famous bandstand, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford addressed thousands. People packed benches to hear the Sunshine City Band. Families picnicked on the grass.

But as downtown blossomed, the park languished. Politicians quit coming. Concerts declined. Families preferred the waterfront.

Now, in its 125th year, the park is home to a new community: drug dealers and drug addicts, hell-raisers and drunks, hustlers and philosophers. The economy here runs on bus passes, cheap beer and thousands of hand-rolled synthetic-marijuana joints. It has become an inhospitable island, surrounded by fast-moving concrete rivers and, on three sides, a wall of 9-foot-tall buses.

To those nearby, the park is a cancer that has long diseased what could be a prime city block. St. Petersburg leaders are searching for solutions: more regular markets and luncheons, fewer transit stops, redesigned sitting walls.

But their ideas are not new. For decades, officials have tried and failed to revitalize the park.

Nearly all of its daytime residents are homeless. The majority are substance abusers. Many are mentally ill. Some are dangerous.

A few want help out of this place.

Most do not.

• • •

Just after 7 a.m., a man with a scraggly goatee and rotting teeth wobbles by a gurgling fountain in the middle of the park. His shirt reads: "I'm not as think as you drunk I am."

"I'm going home," he says. "I think I'm going to throw up."

On the park's southwest corner, the regulars exchange cigarettes and complaints about the police in front of the World War I memorial. They reminisce about a time when people could drink a beer in the park undisturbed.

Nearby, a quiet man in a black trench coat flips through the weathered pages of a Winston Churchill biography.

Morgan Hill is a former crack addict. In Williams Park, he found a family of sorts. They share conversation and blankets and, quite often, a stiff drink.

He turned 45 on Jan. 30. To celebrate, he drank more vodka and beer than he can remember. He acted crazy and deserved to go to jail. The arrest was his 14th since 2006. He doesn't blame the cops.

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"Just doing their job," he says.

He sees it this way: The wealthy people who work in the neighboring buildings complain about the homeless to City Council members who complain to the mayor who complains to the police chief who orders his officers to do something.

As he explains his theory, the street corner grows crowded.

A man in sagging gray jeans raps about Williams Park. He says he has schizophrenia. He calls himself "Smoove Threat."

An older man, homeless for 35 years, smokes the nub of a synthetic marijuana joint, commonly referred to as "spice." He tells jokes about frogs and sex and about frogs having sex. He calls himself "The Joker."

A 29-year-old with a sloping nose and a long chin paces the sidewalk. He wants to sit, but he can't. He has a trespass warning that bars him from the park. He says he is bipolar and has made some bad choices. He has robbed people, stripped at gay bars and prostituted himself. But, the man quickly adds, he once received 10 weeks training from a Christian retreat to become a pastor. He got a plaque.

Back on the memorial, Hill lights a menthol cigar.

"A lot of homeless people out here," he says, "are their own worst enemies."

They lie about their conditions and ailments. They feel people owe them something. They don't intend to ever leave.

Williams Park, he says, is no one's home.

• • •

It is 10 a.m. in Spice City.

Dozens of joints have been rolled and lit. A cloud that smells like skunky, burnt grass and singed hair settles overhead.

Two men twist palm fronds into roses and crosses. They work the "Corridor," the stretch of sidewalk on Fourth Street where panhandlers ask for change.

Ronald "Blue" Wilson, 23, is new to the craft. He is from Rhode Island but came to St. Petersburg hoping for a job. He has a tangled mess of long blond hair and a marijuana leaf tattooed to his chest. He carries his life in a blue Cookie Monster backpack.

Wilson comes to the park, really, because he has little else to do. He sells to make a few bucks.

"It gets you a beer, a burger and a cigarette," he says. "And maybe a little spice to get high."

Around here, his choice of business is unusual.

Williams Park currency isn't cash, it's spice joints. Each morning, people pool money and head to a grocery mart. The cashiers sell the 10-gram packs, like "Mad Hatter" and "Scooby Snax Potpourri," but only to people they know. One $20 pack turns into 30 joints that are priced at $1 each. Profits go to bus passes, booze, pills, marijuana or, most often, more spice.

• • •

It's 10:45 a.m. From a bench near the fountain, Nicholas Terolli watches the day's first arrests along First Avenue N.

He is 26. His T-shirt is clean, his hair tidy and his beard trimmed.

"You know what this park is all about?" he asks.

He opens his mouth wide and tosses in a pair of blue 30 milligram oxycodone pills.

"Vitamins," he says, grinning.

A navy blue St. Petersburg police cruiser idles 100 feet away. People here call it the Batmobile.

Rob Taylor, who weighs 290 and has forearms like footballs, is Batman. Rick Kenyon, begrudgingly, is Robin, though he's the one who drives the cruiser.

The officers know almost everyone in the park, including the four just caught drinking beer. They've worked downtown together for about six years.

They have offered help to nearly every homeless person here. But shelters come with rules, and most require sobriety.

The synthetic drugs have made the cops' jobs even harder.

Florida has banned many of the common ingredients, but manufacturers continually adjust the formula.

"This spice is unbelievable," Kenyon says. "We've had some guys for 10 years and we've never had a problem with them. Now, the same guys are on this spice and they want to fight us."

The officers say they're fair, but give no breaks. The work is unrelenting.

Between early 2008 and 2012, there were 2,739 arrests made in the park. That's an average of about two per day.

The police presence, many argue, treats the park's symptoms but not its essential problems.

Mayor Bill Foster believes programs — such as concerts and markets — eventually will make the lawbreakers too uncomfortable to stay.

But public and private interests have for years tried to fix it: fresh gardens and street lamps, a refurbished bandstand and bathrooms, fewer benches, a nighttime closure and new neighboring businesses

Nothing worked.

• • •

At 11:30 a.m., Terolli is lounging by the fountain.

In Connecticut, at age 19, he got a job working with hazardous materials that paid $1,400 a week, more money than he could handle. Heroin hooked him.

"I came down here," he says, "to get clean."

He was in a car accident about a year ago. He got a doctor to prescribe pain pills for back pain he didn't have. He blew a $50,000 settlement on drugs and booze.

He comes to Williams Park to feed his habits. To eat and sometimes get a hotel, he sells the pills he doesn't take.

"Unless you're a drunk, a drug addict or a druggie," Terolli says, "you don't want to be here."

He stands up.

"You want me to give you an example? Count to 20."

He approaches a man on a nearby bench where many of the park's illicit drugs are purchased.

With five seconds to spare, he returns. He spins a joint in his fingers.

"PCP," he says. "Angel dust."

He takes a drag. His eyelids sag, his words crash together.

He smokes the joint until it's the size of a jelly bean. He flicks it onto the concrete path.

A thin-faced man with sunken eyes darts over and picks it up. He puts it to his lips and inhales.

• • •

By 1:45 p.m., the drugs and alcohol are in full effect. The morning's bustle has waned. People nap beneath the trees.

Larry Fultz sells hot dogs on the northwest corner. After four years, he has perfected the art of "no": to requests for sodas, cigarettes and, of course, hot dogs.

The palm frond artists have made $20. Wilson buys 305's cigars and Nutty Bars. Then back to his refrain: "Buy a rose for the special someone that you love?"

Near the bandstand, "Pops" has arrived. Robert Butler has sat on the same bench almost every day for the past 15 years. He won't reveal his age, but time has turned his beard white.

He gazes at the bandstand and imagines the music he heard ring from its stage as a boy.

He leans on a wooden cane and, in a plodding Southern accent, dispenses wisdom.

Butler sits with his back to the drug dealers: "Ain't nothin' but problems back that way."

• • •

By 4:50 p.m., the park has thinned. The Batmobile is parked on the grass near the southwest corner. Taylor and Kenyon patrol from 4 to 6 p.m. as commuters get on and off the buses. The smoke is so oppressive that it gives passers-by headaches.

The drug bench is empty, but not all the transactions are done.

A hustler, who is drunk, sets a pair of black Nike sneakers on the memorial wall.

"Two dollars," he says to his target, a man on a bike.

"They ain't got no shoelaces," the biker says. Plus, he only has a buck.

The hustler calls it a deal. The biker rides away with the shoes.

"I'm fixin' to do what I got to do," says the hustler, grinning. He stumbles across the road, in search of the day's eighth beer.

• • •

By 6:15 p.m., the Batmobile is gone. The park's residents trickle back as lights stringed around the oaks switch on.

On First Avenue N, an ambulance pulls between the buses.

Troy "Happy" Gilmore sits on the wall, teetering. He stares at the ground. He takes deep breaths. He is 35, a recovering crack cocaine addict. He has been arrested 55 times since 2005.

"Pneumonia," says his boyfriend, Timothy Barker. "He can't breathe."

A paramedic approaches.

"On that spice crap again?" he says. "That's what it was last time."

Gilmore climbs into the ambulance.

"He's a regular," the paramedic says before they pull away.

• • •

It's just past 7 p.m. The park doesn't close for four more hours, but the sun has faded along with most of the daytime inhabitants.

Two new officers begin night patrol. They catch a man rolling spice joints in a bus shelter. They confiscate the drugs and take his information. If the lab shows it contains a banned substance, they'll come back to arrest him.

The southwest corner is littered, with cigarette butts, discarded spice pouches, an empty ramen cup. The area is deserted but for a man with a curly red beard who has collapsed in the bushes.

The officers hoist him up and onto a bench. He must leave, they explain, or he'll be taken away. He slumps over, revealing the text on his shirt: "Alcatraz Psycho Ward Outpatient."

The man sits for a while, then stands. He totters north up the sidewalk, past flickering police lights and beeping buses and squirrels collecting the day's leftovers. He collapses, but gets back up. He reaches a bus shelter and stops to rest. At last, he rises.

He crosses the road and ambles into the darkness, leaving Williams Park to its rest.

Times researcher Caryn Baird and photographer Will Vragovic contributed to this report.