TAMPA — Corey Thornton was 12 the night he went with Andrew Joseph III to the Florida State Fair. His mother would only let him go if he was with Joseph, who at 14 was like the big brother in the neighborhood, and with whom he felt safe.
Now 21, Thornton took the witness stand in a federal courtroom in Tampa on Friday and detailed everything the couple did on the night of Feb. 7, 2014 — since arriving in the fair until the sheriff’s deputies kicked them out until he saw his friend die.
His memories of that night, still vivid eight years later, were the focus of the fifth day of testimony in the federal lawsuit Joseph’s parents filed against Hillsborough County Sheriff’s officials. Their lawyers accused the sheriff’s office of triggering the events that led to their son’s death when he attempted to cross Interstate 4 in what was described as a desperate effort to get back to where the mother from a friend had dropped them off earlier in the evening. .
Thornton pressed a finger on a touchscreen to draw a red line on an aerial map of the fairgrounds. He showed a jury the path he and Joseph traveled as they struggled to find their way back to the main gate, where they were to be picked up.
He described their run across the freeway and Joseph’s decision to turn around before being hit by an SUV.
“I failed to come back,” Thornton said.
His eyes shining, he let out a few heavy breaths and moaned.
“I can’t do this, man,” he said.
In a crowded audience gallery, spectators wept and murmured. U.S. District Judge Mary Scriven suspended the trial. Thornton left for a few minutes, then returned to continue testifying.
The story he told bolstered the argument of Joseph’s family lawyers that the sheriff’s deputies neglected their duty by not informing the parents of the teenagers after they were kicked out of the fair.
It was student day, when school children in Hillsborough County got free tickets to the fair. Before leaving, they planned everything they would need – organizing their journey, collecting money to buy food, assembling the clothes they would wear. It was chilly that night; Joseph lent him his coat, a racing-style jacket with the M&M’s logo on it.
Thornton was asked what he was most looking forward to.
“Going on rides,” he says.
Was this the perfect place for a child?
“Of course,” he said. “It was the fair.
They were too young to drive. A friend’s mother took them and several other children to the fairgrounds. She let them out at the main door. They understood that she would pick them up at the same place when the fair closed.
Thornton remembered walking halfway, mesmerized by the lights, the crowds, the rides.
He talked about the first encounter with law enforcement midway. He said they had been at the fair less than half an hour when Joseph stopped to talk to a girl he knew. As they spoke, two deputies passed, escorting another teenager who had been detained. Joseph recognized the boy and began to follow the deputies.
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“He’s like, ‘He’s my cousin,'” Thornton said. “‘What’s going on with my cousin?'”
The deputies said nothing, he said. As Thornton followed him, he felt someone grab him from behind. He identified the person who grabbed him as Mark Clark, the retired sheriff’s deputy who, along with Sheriff Chad Chronister, is a defendant in the lawsuit.
He and Joseph were taken to a fenced area, where they were forced to empty their pockets and had their pictures taken.
He was scared. Joseph sought to reassure him, he said, telling him they had done nothing wrong and to cooperate.
“I didn’t know if I was going to leave this treatment center perfectly fine or if I was going to leave with bruises and bumps,” Thornton said.
The boys were driven in a windowless van to a field near Orient Road and then released. The van is gone.
It had started to rain. The boys walked through a wet, muddy field to a guard hut, where they sought shelter under an overhang. A deputy told them they couldn’t linger there, Thornton said.
They then headed for Gate 4, the west-facing entrance to the fair.
Thornton said they met another deputy there. He said the deputy was wearing a green uniform, with a badge and badge. He couldn’t remember his name. They asked if they could re-enter the fair to return to the main gate, where they had been dropped off. He said the deputy refused, told them they were encroaching and the only thing separating them from the main gate was the freeway.
They drove back to Orient Road, headed north under an overpass, turned right, passed through the Hard Rock Casino and back outside.
They could see the fairground lights beyond the freeway, Thornton said. Barbed wire lined the top of a fence that bordered the roadway. They found an opening in the fence and headed for the highway. They crossed eight lanes of traffic and started walking east.
At that time, Joseph received a phone call. Thornton couldn’t hear what was being said. When he hung up, Joseph said they had to go back. They ran, again, across the highway.
The lawyers did not ask what he had seen. He did not stay at the scene of the accident.
Instead, Thornton said, he drove back to Orient Road and then to the fair, where he finally encountered his vehicle.
At first he didn’t tell anyone what he had seen. He said it didn’t seem real.
The trial continues next week.