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Fair restricts free youth tickets after 'wilding'

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Published:   |   Updated: February 11, 2014 at 08:41 PM

TAMPA — The Florida State Fair, reeling from a rampage involving hundreds of youths on opening night, announced late Tuesday it is taking steps to curb such outbreaks by requiring that any minor presenting a free entry ticket after 7 p.m. be accompanied by an adult.

The move had been discussed by the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Department this week as one possible response to a night of violence Friday that resulted in a dozen arrests and 99 ejections for disorderly conduct, including a 14-year-old boy who later was killed when he was hit by a car crossing Interstate 4 nearby

“Given the events of last weekend, we are working with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office to enhance our policies and procedures and increase security throughout the fairgrounds,” Charles Pesano, executive director of the State Fair Authority, said in a statement.

The new restrictions take effect immediately. The fair runs through Feb. 17.

The rampage had left law enforcement and community leaders wondering what went wrong and how to make it right.

Sheriff's deputies, numbering almost 200, said they were overwhelmed by the throng of youth running amok — wilding — through the crowd after 6 p.m. Friday. Deputies ended up closing down the midway early because of the chaos.

Apparently, wilding on the first Friday night of the state fair is an underground tradition.

Among the dozen or so arrested that evening was 18-year-old Jarmal D. Lemus of Tampa, who said he and a couple of other young men were trying to protect themselves from a rush of youths.

“We were over there by a corn dog stand and a group of dudes tried to corner us,” he said. “I don't know what happened. A fist was thrown and I swung back for my life, trying to protect myself.”

He said he didn't know how many rushed him.

“I couldn't keep count,” he said. “It happened so fast. You do what you got to do.”

As he delivered some punches, deputies spotted him and arrested him and a friend, charging both with affray.

After that, he said, he doesn't know what happened.

“I got handcuffed,” he said, “and they took us out of the way.”

Lemus said he is aware of the notorious Friday night tradition of wilding.

“I knew something was going to happen,” he said, “I just didn't know I'd be a part of it.”

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Most of the chaos was blamed on black youths, law enforcement officials and others said.

“A lot of those kids came from our community, unfortunately,” said the Rev. Moses Brown, a local pastor and spokesman for Pastors on Patrol, an outreach organization that helps black families in the Tampa region. “I find it heartbreaking that they are out in public doing this. They are representing their families and their community and to see that type of recalcitrant behavior ... where did we go wrong?

“Have we missed out in our churches? Have we missed out in our families, the classroom?” he said. “We have to find the rudimentary cause of this.

“I apologize on behalf of those who should have known better.”

No one was seriously injured at the fairgrounds, though a 14-year-old boy who was ejected from the fair was struck and killed on Interstate 4 after he left.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, which provides security at the fair, was aware of the tradition and put extra deputies on duty, but there wasn't enough to hold back the rampage on Friday night, said Sheriff David Gee in letters Tuesday to the local chapter of the NAACP, Pastors on Patrol and the department's Black Advisory Council. The letter called for a meeting after the fair is over to discuss ways to keep out wilding in the future.

Gee said Friday night saw “unprecedented incidents of violence and disorder,” and that even though nearly 200 deputies were on duty at the fair, “unruliness and misbehavior overwhelmed the resources and jeopardized the safety of everyone at the fair.

“The disregard for order and lack of respect for other persons was alarming in itself,” he said. “I am more concerned that the overwhelming number of youth and young adults arrested or ejected from the midway for misconduct were African American, and I recognize the responsibility to address this issue and ensure that the circumstances are not repeated in the future.”

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The sheriff said education “will be a critical component of any such campaign and that communicating the dangers of such reckless behavior to the youth is important.”

A discussion of the issue arose at the Hillsborough County School Board meeting Tuesday, as board members and school officials agreed that more conversation is needed about how best to make sure future “Fair Days” are safe and family friendly.

“Each year, it's happening and it's starting to get progressively worse to the point that the sheriff's office was not prepared to handle this,” said board member April Griffin. “Our students are off for the day. A lot of parents are dropping off their students at the fair, since they get in for free. That's going to be something the fair authority figures out, but I think we need to be a part of the conversation.”

Superintendent MaryEllen Elia said the district could launch a campaign to keep students on their best behavior during fair events, similar to one used before Gasparilla festivities, a strategy that has been successful in stemming bad behavior and underage drinking during Tampa's signature event.

“Our suggestion is we become more proactive with parents and children with behaviors that will lead to a great day at the fair and keep us in a position that we can participate in this community event,” she said.

Board member Doretha Edgecomb said the campaign should reach beyond the schools and into the community.

“We've got to make connections with community groups that have some investment in how our children fare in the world no matter where they are,” she said.

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Authorities are considering changes in fair policy, including limiting the hours when young people are admitted free to the fair on its first Friday, typically known as “Student Day” of “Fair Day.”

The problem of rampaging youth on the first Friday of the fair dates back to the 1990s or earlier and some years are worse than others, deputies said. Last year, 56 people were ejected and two were arrested the first Friday night of the fair; in 2012 there were 48 ejections and eight arrests; and in 2011, 93 ejections and nine arrests.

Carolyn Collins, president of the Hillsborough County branch of the NAACP, said she was unaware there was a wilding problem at the fair and has never heard of it even though she's been involved with the organization for years.

“We did not know about it,” she said.

She said she has sent Gee a letter asking to meet with him about the issue.

“It needs to be addressed,” she said. “This ... is a problem of youth. We have got to figure out how to resolve it. There are no easy answers.”

She suggested sitting down with young people to get their perspectives, their ideas.

“Everybody,” she said, “plays a role in this.”

kmorelli@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7760

Tribune reporter Erin Kourkounis contributed to this report.

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