Huge crowd, fatal shooting have officials, residents examining Crab Fest
Published: Tuesday, April 30, 2013 at 7:54 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, April 30, 2013 at 7:54 p.m.
Fish frying, crabs steaming, music blaring out of speakers from shiny and colorful parked cars. Children riding horses, women still smelling like they’re fresh from the hair salon, and the air thick with barbecue smoke.
These were the sights and sounds of the Williston Crab Festival, a three-day event held the fourth weekend in April for at least two decades.
This year drew its largest crowd and its largest headline: A 36-year-old man was shot to death amid the crowd and four others were wounded, at least one critically.
By Monday morning, deputies had arrested 19-year-old Devonte Ocasio and charged him with one count of attempted murder and one count of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Ocasio was not charged with the murder of 36-year-old Barry Barney or with shooting the three other victims, as investigators await the results of ballistic testing and sift through conflicting witness statements regarding the possibility of a second shooter.
Crab Fest has no official organizer, yet for several years the festivities have caused the Levy County Sheriff’s Office to close at least a half-mile stretch of County Road 318, also known as Northeast 40th Street.
Between Friday afternoon and Sunday, officials estimate over 10,000 people descended on the county of just over 40,000 residents to attend Crab Fest.
The Levy Sheriff’s Office described the festival as “unsanctioned and non-permitted” in a news release Monday. Sheriff’s spokesman Lt. Scott Tummond told The Sun that the festival had become such a problem for law enforcement in recent years that the Sheriff’s Office has had to pull in manpower from other agencies, including the Williston Police Department and the Florida Highway Patrol, to bolster its own patrols.
Regarding the shooting, Tummond said “our office believes this may have been motivated by some type of drug-related crimes ...”
That portrayal incensed members of the primarily black, east Williston community, some of whom took to social media to express their views. They say the festival is a largely peaceful event and a culturally significant one for the town.
Simone Chandler, 23, said she traveled from Tampa to attend the Williston festival. “This is one of the biggest events of the year,” Chandler said. “I’ve been coming here since I was a little kid and there’s never been a shooting.”
The Rev. Johnnie Jones III of Fountain of Life Church, located on the festival site, hosted a play area for children on his church’s property that included a rock-climbing wall and bungee-jumping trampoline.
Jones said based on word of mouth, he heard the shooting was a result of an argument, not drug activity.
As for the event being “unpermitted,” Jones said he contacted the Levy County Commission beforehand and was told he did not need one.
Levy County attorney Anne Bast Brown confirmed to The Sun that as of last year, county commissioners decided to abandon its permitting process after an unsuccessful attempt to establish a municipal ordinance on the matter of special-event permits, but she added, “it wouldn’t have mattered for Crab Fest because there is no one that has ever taken the lead role in order to apply for a permit.”
According to Brown, the Rev. Jones and Lt. Tummond, the Crab Fest essentially involves a series of yard parties all hosted on the same day, something that is technically legal. Tummond said that, despite the technical legality for individual landowners to host parties on their property, the crowds become so large they spill onto the road and force officials to close it.
In 2012, the Levy Sheriff’s Office reportedly spent over $10,000 on policing the Crab Fest and providing emergency medical resources, including an ambulance and medivac.
Jones said he agrees the event needs to be better managed and he said he and other pastors have discussed being the official organizers of record for next year’s Crab Fest. But Jones added that he has reservations about trying to own a festival that has been around since he was in high school.