TAMPA — Corey Thornton was 12 the night he went with Andrew Joseph III to the Florida State Fair. His mother would only let him go if he was with Joseph, who at 14 was something of a neighborhood big brother, and with whom he felt safe.
Now 21, Thornton sat on the witness stand in a Tampa federal courtroom Friday and detailed everything the pair did the night of Feb. 7, 2014 — from when they arrived at the fair to when sheriff’s deputies kicked them out to the moment he saw his friend die.
His memories of that night, still vivid eight years later, were the focus of the fifth day of testimony in the federal lawsuit Joseph’s parents have brought against Hillsborough County sheriff’s officials. Their lawyers have accused the Sheriff’s Office of setting in motion the events that led to their son’s death when he tried to run across Interstate 4 in what’s been described as a desperate effort to get back to where a friend’s mother had dropped them off earlier that evening.
Thornton pressed a finger to a touchscreen to draw a red line over an aerial map of the fairgrounds. He showed a jury the path he and Joseph walked as they struggled to find their way back to the main gate, where they were to be picked up.
He described their run across the interstate and Joseph’s decision to turn back before he was struck by an SUV.
“Didn’t make it back,” Thornton said.
His eyes glistening, he let out a few heavy breaths and whimpered.
“I can’t do this, man,” he said.
In a packed courtroom gallery, spectators wept and murmured. U.S. District Judge Mary Scriven paused the trial. Thornton left for a few minutes, then returned to continue testifying.
The story he told bolstered the case lawyers for Joseph’s family have argued: that sheriff’s deputies neglected their duty by not notifying the teens’ parents after they were ejected from the fair.
It was Student Day, when Hillsborough County school kids get free tickets to the fair. Before they went, they planned everything they’d need — arranging their ride, gathering money to buy food, assembling the clothes they’d wear. It was chilly that night; Joseph let him borrow his coat, a racing-style jacket with the M&M’s logo on it.
Thornton was asked what he most looked forward to doing.
“Getting on rides,” he said.
Was it the place to be for a kid?
“Of course,” he said. “It was the fair.”
They were too young to drive. A friend’s mother shuttled them and several other kids to the fairgrounds. She let them out at the main gate. They understood that she would pick them up in the same place when the fair closed.
Thornton remembered walking the midway, mesmerized by the lights, the crowds, the rides.
He talked about the initial encounter with law enforcement on the midway. He said they’d been at the fair less than a half-hour when Joseph stopped to talk to a girl he knew. As they spoke, two deputies passed, escorting another teen who’d been detained. Joseph recognized the boy and began to follow the deputies.
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“He’s like, ‘That’s my cousin,’” Thornton said. “‘What’s going on with my cousin?’”
The deputies didn’t say anything, he said. As Thornton followed, he felt someone grab him from behind. He identified the person who grabbed him as Mark Clark, the retired sheriff’s deputy who, along with Sheriff Chad Chronister, is a defendant in the lawsuit.
He and Joseph were taken to a fenced-in area, where they were made to empty their pockets and had their pictures taken.
He was scared. Joseph sought to reassure him, he said, telling him they’d done nothing wrong and to cooperate.
“I didn’t know if I was going to leave that processing center perfectly fine or if I’d leave with bruises and bumps,” Thornton said.
The boys were driven in a windowless van to a field near Orient Road, then let out. The van drove off.
It had started to rain. The boys walked across a wet, muddy field to a guard shack, where they sought refuge under an overhang. A deputy told them they couldn’t linger there, Thornton said.
They then walked to gate 4, the westward-facing entrance to the fair.
Thornton said they encountered another deputy there. He said the deputy wore a green uniform, with a nametag and badge. He couldn’t remember his name. They asked if they could reenter the fair to get back to the main gate, where they’d been dropped off. He said the deputy refused, told them they were trespassing, and that the only thing separating them from the main gate was the interstate.
They walked back out to Orient Road, went north beneath an overpass, turned right and went through the Hard Rock Casino and back outside.
They could see the lights from the fairgrounds beyond the interstate, Thornton said. Barbed wire lined the top of a fence that bordered the roadway. They found an opening in the fence and moved toward the highway. They ran across eight traffic lanes and began to walk east.
Just then, Joseph got a phone call. Thornton couldn’t hear what was said. When he hung up, Joseph said they needed to turn back. They ran, again, across the interstate.
Lawyers didn’t ask what he saw. He didn’t stay at the crash scene.
Instead, Thornton said, he walked back to Orient Road, and back to the fair, where he finally met his ride.
At first, he didn’t tell anyone what he’d seen. He said it didn’t seem real.
The trial continues next week.