Local News

Polk charges 61 in AP riot

WINTER HAVEN - Prosecutors have charged 61 juveniles in the Aug. 17 riot at the Avon Park Youth Academy. The 61 weren't misguided children, Sheriff Grady Judd said, they were hard-core thugs. He didn't blame the G4S staff or letting the 138 juveniles get out of control, but he fundamentally disagreed with the Department of Juvenile Justice for not equipping the staff at the Air Force Bombing Range facility with the proper training, infrastructure or tools, which could have been as simple as pepper spray and flexible handcuffs. "There was no contingency for this event," Judd said. The riot started when one group - called St. Pete - challenged the Orlando group to a basketball game. The St. Pete gang lost but reneged on a bet of three packages of soup.
Other inmates enticed the players to fight, which Avon Park Youth Academy G4S staffers were unable to break up. More juveniles became rebellious with the staff. One, Zayroux Graham, was charged with battery when a G4S staffer tried to stop the juvenile from walking into a restricted area. The staffer was struck in the mouth with a fist and knocked down, Judd said. G4S staffers retreated into a structure near the gate. A few minutes later, the Polk County 911 center received a "frantic call" that a "full-blown riot" was in progress. G4S staffers were ushered out by deputies. "They were terrified, and with good reason," Judd said. "A facade has been created across the state that we're too tough on juveniles," Judd addressed six TV cameras and a dozen reporters on Friday. "They just need counseling. The Department of Juvenile Justice needs to understand that there is a difference between a ... child and a hard-core thug." Some of the rioters were just kids who had made serious mistakes, Judd conceded, and he can't be certain how many of the 138 inmates participated in the riot. But the 61 had been charged with 919 previous crimes, an average of 15 each. Many were gang members, Judd said. As proof that the G4S staff was not properly equipped, Judd said after 75 Polk County deputies arrived, assisted by 75 officers from Osceola County, Highlands County, Sebring Police, Fish and Wildlife, Department of Corrections, Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the State Fire Marshall, and Florida troopers, 80 of the 128 were called over to the inner perimeter fence and were under control in 20 minutes. "G4S had no tools to control things," Judd said. "The sad truth of this riot is that it was 100 percent preventable. By DJJ rule, the G4S employees are not allowed to have any specialty equipment." Ironically, though, while under the supervision of law enforcement officers, violence broke out again, and the sheriff's office again had to separate the two juvenile groups in vans and buses. Eventually 71 juveniles were taken to Polk County Jail in Frostproof; 61 are still incarcerated. The juveniles couldn't have been returned to the Avon Park facility, Judd said, since windows were broken out, machines were turned over, the pharmacy was looted and one building was on fire. One G4S staffer fell during the riot and injured her knee; she was taken to the hospital, treated and released. No other staffers or law enforcement were injured. Seven juveniles were transported to Florida Hospital in Sebring: one had a broken leg, others had bruises, lower back pain, lacerations and one concussion. There is no video surveillance footage of the riot. DJJ has been totally cooperative since the event, Judd said, and G4S staffers recognized voices over staff radios that were seized, which juveniles were throwing punches and which were riding on staff golf carts when law enforcement arrived. Staffers assisted in preparing criminal charges. G4S Maintenance director Mark Frederick Magrini estimated $350,000 in damage to the facility. The DJJ may be billed by several law enforcement agencies who responded to the riot, Judd said. All 61 were charged as adults, Judd said. Three more will be charged with arson. All of the youths were between 16 and 18. None were from Highlands County. They were from Alachua, Broward, Charlotte, Columbia, Duval, Hillsborough, Indian River, Lee, Leon, Marion, Manatee, Miami-Dade, Oklaloosa, Orange, Polk, Palm Beach, Pinnelas, Sarasota, Seminole and Volusia counties. All 61 were charged with rioting and felony criminal mischief. Others were charged with burglary, petit theft, breaking into a vending machine, contraband and theft of a fire extinguisher. gpinnell@highlandstoday.com 863-386-5828