TAMPA — An atmosphere of family fun at the Florida State Fair was trampled Friday night by a crowd of young people carrying out an annual practice known as wilding, sheriff's investigators said.
By the end of the night, the fair closed early and one teenager among the 99 people ejected for disorderly conduct was killed — hit by a sport utility vehicle as he tried to cross Interstate 4.
Twelve people were arrested on charges including trespassing and fighting.
Now, authorities are considering possible changes in fair policy, including limiting the hours when young people are admitted free to the fair on its first Friday, “Student Day.”
The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, which provides fair security, planned for the annual stampede but deputies quickly became overwhelmed as a small group of running teens swelled to hundreds of people running and pushing everyone and everything in their path, Sheriff's Col. Jim Previtera said.
The department based its planning on last year's lower levels of violence. Similar outbreaks have been made headlines before nationwide, including an August 2011 incident on opening day of the Wisconsin State Fair.
“These kids get together and they'll start with a small group of kids and they'll begin to do what they call wilding … or raging,” Previtera said. “What they do is they start to run. And the small group will start to run and everyone will join them and pretty quickly it becomes a stampede.”
This year, candy apples were snatched from concession stands and used like baseballs thrown at deputies, and one person picked up a metal hand truck and swung it at a deputy like a boomerang, dropping it before it hit its target.
No deputy was seriously injured. Deputies became swamped by the chaos, which began shortly after dark.
“We actually had deputies who witnessed crimes but couldn't take any action because they couldn't get to them,” Previtera said. “The crowds prevented them from getting to them.
“I know of at least one account of a lady in a wheelchair being pushed to the side and her purse being taken. … The commander conveyed story young lady knocked to the ground and her belongings taken.”
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The sheriff's office is asking the public to come forward with any information or video showing crimes that happened that night. Previtera said deputies will work to make arrests.
One of the juveniles ejected for participating in the wilding, Andrew Joseph III, 14, was killed nearly three hours later when he was struck by a 1999 Ford Explorer as he tried to run across I-4, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.
The problem of rampaging youth on the first Friday of the fair, when students are admitted free, dates back to the 1990s or earlier, Previtera said. Some years are worse than others.
In contrast, Previtera said, no one was ejected or arrested at the fair Saturday and Sunday.
Last year, 56 people were ejected and two were arrested the night of Student Day; in 2012 there were 48 ejections and eight arrests; and in 2011, 93 ejections and 9 arrests.
Previtera said the youths who take part in the stampede are predominantly African-American, and the sheriff's office has worked with its partners in the community — including the NAACP — to address the problem and reach out to youngsters beforehand with a message: This behavior is dangerous and unacceptable.
That was news to Carolyn Collins, Hillsborough County NAACP president, who said she had never heard of the practice before. But Collins said she would reach out to the sheriff's office to work together on it.
Previtera said the sheriff's office is also talking to fair officials about changing policies — perhaps limiting the hours of free admission on Student Day and requiring they be accompanied by adults.
In response to inquiries, The Florida State Fair Authority issued this statement:
“We are considering a range of options to help ensure the well-being of everyone who attends the fair, including an earlier close on busy nights to limiting the latest entrance time of use for free student tickets.”
Unofficial estimates were that nearly 50,000 people visited the fair on Friday, although it's unclear how many were there when the stampede began. Previtera said the problems started just after 6 p.m.
“The weather had been pretty dismal throughout the day,” he said. “Indications through the day had led us to believe the crowd might be lighter than normal at night, but we were still staffed to our maximum capacity and we were prepared for any issues that might arise ...
“Typically in the past, when they engage in this wilding, we're able to control it by placing bodies on the midway, placing deputies on the midway and interrupting that pattern, if you will, up and down the midway. We started that very early in the evening. By 8 o'clock, we had begun to make a number of ejections.”
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Previtera said a number of large fights broke out.
“Some estimates were that there were as many as 150 to 200 people engaged in an affray at any given time,” he said.
The sheriff's commander decided around 9 p.m. that the fair needed to be shut down and that process began shortly after 10.
The fair doesn't have an official closing time so the normal closing times are 10 p.m. to 12:30 am, depending on the day of the week, the weather, and the attendance, according to the fair authority.
Those who were ejected were not ordered off fair property, Previtera said. They were taken to Gate 4 on Orient Road, which Previtera described as safe and well-lit. Deputies are in the area to provide assistance.
The sheriff's office has been hit by questions about why it didn't call the parents of Andrew Joseph III to let them know he had been ejected so they could pick him up.
Previtera replied that deputies were “tapped to the limits;” calling the parents of all the youth ejected “wasn't practical for us.”
“These deputies would literally bring someone to the gate and turn around and go back to the midway because other deputies were yelling for backup,” Previtera said. “I mean, there were large fights. ...
“So in an ideal world, sure we would like to call the parents and tell them, you know, why their child was kicked out. But they were left at the fair alone without adult supervision. The sheriff's office cannot take the place of an adult in each and every situation.
“We took them to the safest place we had, and that was Gate 4.”
Still, at the direction of Sheriff David Gee, Previtera contacted the Joseph home after the boy's death and conveyed that he would go to their home to address their questions.
“I opened the door for her if they would like to speak to me,” Previtera said. “I sincerely extend the condolences of this office to that young man's family. It's a 14-year-old. It's a tragedy.”