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Teens run wild during Florida State Fair's first Friday

Col. Jim Previtera uses an aerial map of the Florida State Fair to discuss the rampaging teens who ran through the fairgrounds Friday.
Published Feb. 11, 2014

TAMPA — The first Friday of every Florida State Fair brings droves of Hillsborough teens, who get the day off from school and free admission. And each year, shortly after sunset, dozens of unsupervised minors start stampeding through the midway, the Sheriff's Office says.

They're fighting each other, robbing other patrons, stealing food and battering deputies.

The phenomenon is so common, deputies even have a term for it: They call it "wilding."

Authorities said the lawlessness is mostly confined to the first Friday. But they've never publicly shared details until Monday — after several media outlets, including the Tampa Bay Times, reported that 14-year-old Andrew Joseph III was kicked out of the fair Friday by deputies before he died while crossing Interstate 4 that night.

That day, approximately 200 deputies could not handle the chaos, sheriff's officials said. Some witnesses estimated 150 to 200 teens running wild.

A commander with 30 years of experience, Maj. Tom Feeney, said it's the worst thing he has seen in law enforcement. He asked the Florida State Fair Authority to shut down the fair around 9 p.m.

As with the other teens ejected before then, Andrew was driven by deputies to Gate 4, along Orient Road. They dropped him off about 8 p.m. and left.

Some deputies are posted near that gate but are not tasked with watching the juveniles. Deputies do not call the children's parents. The Sheriff's Office expects they will be picked up just like they were dropped off earlier.

Deputies were so overwhelmed Friday they could not "baby sit" the juveniles at Gate 4, sheriff's Col. Jim Previtera said Monday. Feeney had already called for backup to help with the out-of-control midway.

Street deputies arrived to help the on-site deputies, who are paid by the Fair Authority.

Teens were stealing candy apples and throwing them at deputies, Previtera said. One tried to launch a hand truck at a deputy, and another robbed a woman in a wheelchair of her purse, he said.

Deputies ejected 99 people and arrested 12 others. Of those 111 people, 16 were young adults. The remaining 95 were age 17 and younger .

Deputies probably would have arrested more people, Previtera said, but they often had to disengage for their own safety.

Andrew, a Riverview resident and eighth-grader at St. Stephen Catholic School, was not accused of any crimes.

Previtera did not have details of what Andrew supposedly did — only that it was "disorderly conduct" on the midway. He was killed nearly three hours after his ejection while crossing I-4 about 10:45 p.m.

Deputies did not have details about what Andrew did between 8 and 10:45 p.m. Previtera said the agency is sharing all its information with the Florida Highway Patrol.

Andrew's family could not be reached for comment Monday, but on Saturday called their son a sweet, caring young man who got straight-A's and was going to be confirmed at church Sunday.

That's not the profile expected of someone wilding, though a branch of social psychology is devoted to studying "crowd psychology." Individuals in large groups often feel a loss of responsibility for their own behavior. People act differently.

Previtera says the Sheriff's Office met three times last weekend with fair officials and planned to again on Monday. He said they likely will reposition some deputies and consider adding private security this week.

Before next year's fair, the agency plans to coordinate with community groups, including Tampa's Pastors on Patrol, the NAACP and the Sheriff's Black Advisory Council to get the word out that such behavior is unacceptable — like Tampa does before the Gasparilla parade.

The Sheriff's Office will consider other changes, though Previtera stopped short of saying the agency would alter its method for ejecting teens. The agency did not take responsibility for Andrew's death, with officials saying their interaction with him ended with his ejection.

Previtera said he called Andrew's parents on Sunday at Sheriff David Gee's request. A relative picked up Andrew's mother's phone, and Previtera said he briefly explained that he is available to answer any questions Andrew's parents might have.

"It's a tragedy, certainly," Previtera told reporters on Monday. "It's a 14-year-old. It's a tragedy."

The Fair Authority on Monday said in a prepared response that safety is its No. 1 priority, and that it works with the Sheriff's Office to ensure visitors' safety.

The authority is considering options, and while its directors did not commit Monday to anything, possibilities include closing earlier on busy nights and setting a limit for how late students can enter with free tickets.

Hillsborough County School District spokesman Stephen Hegarty said school officials review students' participation in the fair each year — not just misbehavior, but also how they conducted their livestock exhibits and other activities.

Hegarty said the ejections and arrests of teens will likewise be discussed by school and fair officials after next weekend. So far, he said, no proposals have been floated to cancel the students' day off because of the trouble. He said it was still unknown how many of those involved were students from the district.

"Right now, there are no plans to do anything differently," Hegarty said.

Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3433.

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