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Wager over game touches off riot at Avon Park youth facility

The Avon Park Youth Academy in Polk County is classified as a moderate-risk facility for male offenders ages 16 to 19.
The Avon Park Youth Academy in Polk County is classified as a moderate-risk facility for male offenders ages 16 to 19.
Published Aug. 19, 2013

AVON PARK — A team of St. Petersburg juvenile delinquents wouldn't settle a wager over a basketball game at a youth detention facility Saturday night, authorities said, touching off a riot that caused injuries and hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage.

Seven teens were hurt — one with a broken leg. Of the 20 buildings at the Avon Park Youth Academy, 18 were damaged. Teens fought each other, broke glass, set fires and played demolition derby with staff golf carts.

About 150 law enforcement officers responded to the melee and brought the riot to an end within hours. But nearly half of the 138 teen inmates were taken away to county jail, kept separate from the adult population.

The riot started around 8:30 p.m. at the facility following a five-on-five basketball game between teams from St. Petersburg and Orlando, according to the Polk County Sheriff's Office. The Sheriff's Office gave this account Sunday:

The St. Petersburg team lost but refused to pay a wager — three "cup of noodles" soups — that had been agreed upon as the stakes for the game. The teams started fighting. Other teens joined in. The violence escalated.

The youth academy houses 138 offenders ages 16 to 19 and is in unincorporated Polk County on part of the Avon Park Air Force Range. It is classified by the state as a moderate-risk residential program that provides education and vocational training.

The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice maintains the facility, but the security staff works for G4S, a private company contracted by the state.

The facility's rules ban G4S employees from carrying equipment such as pepper spray that authorities said might have helped them respond to the fight before it got out of control.

As the fighting spread, the staff called 911 at 8:34 p.m. Polk County deputies arrived and set up a perimeter with help from the Florida Department of Corrections, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Florida Highway Patrol, the Highlands County Sheriff's Office and fire rescue personnel.

Authorities evacuated the G4S staff, then restrained each teen with zip-tie flex cuffs. No academy staff members or law enforcement officers were hurt, and no inmates escaped.

Seven teens were taken to Florida Hospital in Sebring with what authorities described as minor injuries. In addition to the broken leg, there were bruises, cuts, lower back pain and one concussion.

During the riot, teens ruined 18 buildings at the facility, doing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage, the Sheriff's Office said. An office building containing inmate records and a trash bin were set on fire, but firefighters put out the flames. Teen inmates also commandeered a staff radio and golf carts.

There are no security cameras at the facility, so authorities don't have surveillance video.

"Once law enforcement officials have completed their investigation, DJJ will conduct a thorough internal review to enhance safeguards that provide for the safety of youth and staff in Florida's juvenile justice facilities," Department of Juvenile Justice spokeswoman Meghan Speakes Collins said in a statement.

She said this was the first incident of this magnitude at the facility. Officials said 21 employees were there when the riot started.

On Sunday, the teen with the broken leg remained hospitalized while 73 others were being held at the youth academy. Another 64 were taken to the Polk County Jail in Frostproof.

The Polk Sheriff's Office is investigating and expects to seek felony charges against teens involved in the riot.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.