TAMPA — It was late the night of Feb. 7, 2014, when Andrew Joseph Jr. got the call: Had he heard from his son?
The boy, Andrew Joseph III, had gone that night with friends to Student Day at the Florida State Fair. But he wasn’t around when a friend’s mother came to take them home.
Testifying in a Tampa federal courtroom Monday, the elder Joseph recounted how he drove to the fairgrounds, where he encountered a state trooper who told him there’d been a death on nearby Interstate 4.
He remembered being asked to call his son’s phone. He remembered the trooper getting out of his car and placing a hand on his shoulder. The call, he was told, rang to the person who’d been killed on the interstate.
This was how Joseph Jr. learned that his family would never be the same.
The father’s words, which drew tears from courtroom spectators as the federal trial over his son’s death entered its second week, helped illuminate the tragedy’s continued devastating impact.
“That was my namesake,” he said. “That was the last of my DNA. There’s no more of that left. He was my best friend.”
Andrew Joseph Jr. and his wife, Deanna Joseph, are suing Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister and the retired sheriff’s deputy who detained their son the night he died, alleging that deputies set in motion the events that led to their son’s death.
Andrew Joseph III was 14 when he and several other teens were kicked out of the 2014 Florida State Fair. In court, witnesses have described Joseph’s hourslong effort to get back to the fair’s main gate, where a friend’s mother was supposed to meet to take him home.
The then-12-year-old boy who was with Joseph that night testified last week that an unidentified deputy gave them erroneous directions, which led them to try to cross the busy interstate. Joseph was killed there when he was struck by an SUV. The boy, in disbelief at what he’d seen, at first didn’t tell anyone what had happened.
Hours later, as cops worked to confirm the dead boy’s identity, Joseph Jr. was asked if his son was wearing something funny around his waist that night. Joseph Jr. hadn’t seen his outfit. He called his wife and asked what kind of belt their son had worn to the fair.
On the phone, he said he heard his wife scream. When she spoke, he learned his son had worn a Gucci scarf around his waist.
The trooper again put his hand on the father’s shoulder. The outfit was a match. It was confirmed: His son was dead.
“It’s like a brick wall just fell on me,” he said.
In court, over a defense attorney’s objection, Joseph Jr. said he later learned that questions about his son’s belt were an effort to identify him as a gang member. The boy was not in a gang and had never been in trouble, he said.
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The father was given a plastic bag marked “Evidence.” It held his son’s belongings — wristbands, a wallet his grandmother gave him for Christmas, $7 in cash and a shattered cellphone.
People at the scene, deputies among them, prayed with the father. State troopers asked if he was OK to drive and offered to take him home, he said. After a while, he left on his own.
Joseph Jr. said he arrived home to a crowd of relatives and friends, who hours earlier had anticipated they’d be celebrating the teen boy’s confirmation, scheduled for the next morning.
Walking inside, he locked eyes with his wife. Everyone screamed.
“We had experienced something as a family that was indescribable,” he said.
At the next day’s ceremony, someone saved a seat for his son. People placed roses on his chair. Andrew Joseph III had two funerals — one in Florida, the other in the family’s native Louisiana. He was buried in New Orleans.
“It’s the hardest feeling in the world to have to go to the graveyard to visit your child,” his father said.
He spoke of the lingering effects — stress led him to develop physical health problems. His wife, once organized, punctual and professional, now struggled daily to get out of bed, missed appointments and misplaced her belongings. He described watching her one day as she lay in bed, tears soaking into her pillow as she slept.
“As her protector and provider, I felt helpless,” he said.
The family’s pain, he said, was compounded by the manner in which the Sheriff’s Office spoke of their son. In the days after the tragedy, sheriff’s officials told local media outlets that Andrew Joseph III was among a group of teens who had caused a disturbance on the midway, running and knocking over patrons.
“Basically, the Sheriff’s Office was tearing (him) down, calling him a thug, somebody who was ‘wilding’ at the fair,” he said. “I knew it was untrue because it was totally out of character with the child that I raised.”
Attorneys for the Sheriff’s Office are expected to begin presenting their case Tuesday.