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'Day of Reckoning': Wrongful death lawsuit over teen ejected from state fair in 2014 heads to trial

The lawsuit was filed against the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office and the Florida State Fair Authority
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Posted at 6:20 AM, Sep 12, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-12 17:28:06-04

RIVERVIEW, Fla. — Andrew Joseph II and Deanna Joseph said their home is something like a shrine to their son. From the moment you walk into the home, you're immediately met with photos, mementos, and memorials to their son. Much of it is gifts from others.

"In the initial days, we felt the darkness, and we felt the isolation and the loneliness. But the moment in which the story started to gain momentum, people started to realize that Andrew's death was so so so so, so preventable. And that, in the essence, they saw that what happened to Andrew could possibly happen to one of their children. It couldn't help but pull at the hearts and the souls of so many people that what is my life could possibly be their life," Deanna Joseph said.

The Josephs lost their son on February 7, 2014.

"That night plays back in your mind, day after day, hour after hour. It never really goes away," Andrew Joseph II said.

Andrew Joseph II recalled his son's last day. He said Andrew III, who everyone called PeeWee, spent two or three weeks planning a trip to the Florida State Fair.

"For the first time, I got a chance to line his little mustache up, and he was really happy with his look," he recalled.

Joseph II said his son met up with his friends from school, St. Stephen Catholic, at the fair. That's when he saw a teammate being detained by a Hillsborough County Deputy.

He said his son walked over to pick up his friend's hat and shoe, and that's when a deputy approached him.

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"He instructed his partner to get my child as well as the next-door neighbor. And now they're officially detained and was detained for over for almost an hour. In a booking process where the last picture that I have on my son is a mugshot with him holding his name and his address and his telephone number on a piece of paper against the fence," the father recalled.

It's what happened next that's the basis of a wrongful death lawsuit. Joseph II said 99 teens, including his son, his neighbor's son, and an 8-year-old, were rounded up and kicked out of the fair. He says the kids were told:

"You guys didn't really do anything to be arrested. But we can't allow you to be here in a fair so we're gonna eject you. Meaning they were put in an official Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office paddy wagon, dragged off the premises and basically abandoned 100 yards from the interstate without calling anybody."

Joseph said his son was left to cross I-4 to get to his ride since he wasn't allowed to cut through the fair. The 14-year-old was hit by a 19-year-old driver.

"He wasn't given a breath test. He wasn't given a ticket summons. He was allowed to leave the scenes with my son's remains all over the front grille as if nothing had ever happened," the father said.

Andrew Joseph II said his son was made out to be a gang member, but that's far from the truth.

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"As we went through the discovery phase as well as the depositions, this case itself has absolutely nothing to do with wilding and nothing to do with gangs. Nothing to do with fighting at the fair. They drag my son's name through the mud, and really I just need him to be recognized as a 14-year-old innocent child that did absolutely nothing wrong that night. That's my only wish from this trial. That his name is cleared, that my father's name is cleared," he said.

Two years later, the family filed a wrongful death lawsuit. Guy Rubin represents the family.

"We expect more. We expect professionalism, we expect them to be the adults in the room. And especially when, when dealing with children, you have a heightened duty of care, and they just put these kids out on the street, and couldn't care less," he said.

"PeeWee didn't do a thing except the good gesture of trying to hand a hat back to his friend that had dropped it in the Midway, doing what a respectful young man would do, a person who showed more responsibility than the adults that at the end of the day caused his death," Rubin added.

In those six years, the case has gone to the appellate court twice. But on Monday, a jury trial officially starts.

"The sheriff did an investigation, but only to protect themselves from liability. They never conducted an investigation of their own officers to determine what went wrong that night. That would permit a 14-year-old and a 12-year-old to be on the interstate highway with no calls being made to parents, which is mandated by Florida law," he added.

ABC Action News reached out to Bob Fulton, the attorney representing the Sheriff's Office.

In a statement, he said, "We intend to try the case in the courtroom where the jury will be able to evaluate the facts and all of the evidence."

Deanna Joseph, PeeWee's mother, called Monday a day of reckoning.

"I feel a deep sense of resentment that I even have to experience something that I never asked for. This was thrusted upon my life. The peace that I knew, I no longer have. And although I don't understand why we have been brought to this moment in time, I do accept that. It is my calling at this point. You know, I didn't ask for this, but it was given to me," his mother said.

The family has seen change since their son's death. Teens are now given the opportunity to call their parents. The fair added more lights, security cameras, and observation towers. But the family said they want to see more changes, such as crosswalks and a change to the sovereign and qualified immunity afforded to law enforcement officers.

"When you have this special protection, you can get all the cases in the world if there's no consequence and the law won't change and recognize that harm is being done. Then what are the cases about? It's not to make one family, you know, wealthy from tragedy. That's not a victory for anyone," said Rubin.

In the meantime, the family is using their nonprofit, the Andrew Joseph Foundation, as a tool to teach kids how to interact with law enforcement as well as a place for families experiencing similar tragedies to come together.

"We can control the Andrew Joseph Foundation. We can control his name still being on the lips and in the minds of others through the foundation, although we could not control him still being alive. So it has been our hearts' work," Deanna said.

The trial begins Monday. The family plans to hold a press conference at noon.