County workshop on Crabfest coming

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By Lou Elliott Jones

The Williston Crabfest, an unorganized annual gathering in East Williston each April, is still getting attention because of the furor over a shooting that left one person dead and four wounded.

Discussion of the event, which some estimate attracted 10,000 people and shut down County Road 318 on April 27, came up during Tuesday’s regular morning meeting of the Levy County Commission.

Chair Ryan Bell of Chiefland (R-District 4) said the commission will hold a workshop at a future date to discuss the annual event and how to handle the crowds.

The discussion started with Commissioner Mike Joyner of Morriston (R-District 3) asking Sheriff Bobby McCallum how much security and the subsequent investigation costs were.

McCallum said the Sheriff’s Office has spent about $9,800 on security at the festival and $4,000 to $5,000 on the shooting investigation. He said investigators are having to travel out of town to take statements and obtain videos from the event. 

“I expect this will cost the Sheriff’s Office $20,000 when this is over,” McCallum said.

The sheriff also said that tally would not include the cost to the Levy County Department of Public Safety, which had emergency medical and fire crews at the event, the medical helicopter on hand which evacuated the shooting victim, Florida Highway Patrol, Williston Police Department and Marion County Sheriff’s deputies who also helped.

Commissioner Chad “Cracker” Johnson of Chiefland (R-District 2) said he wanted to commend and applaud the sheriff and Public Safety for their handling of the Crabfest.

“There is nothing they could have done to stop that (shooting), . . . regardless of what comments are out there,” Johnson said.

He said proof that the sheriff’s office was on its game was that “shortly after the music was cranked up it went on. That shows a level of confidence with the attendees.”

Joyner, a retired Levy County deputy who has worked at past Crabfests, said the question is “How in the hell can we keep these thugs from coming to our town?” Joyner said referring to the arrest of Devonte Ocasio, 19, of Reddick, who is charged with first-degree murder, a capital felony which carries a sentence of death or life imprisonment, and aggravated assault with intent to commit a felony. He is jailed on a $1.5 million bond.  He is accused of shooting  Barry Barney, 36, of Gainesville, who died while being airlifted to Shands Hospital in Gainesville.

McCallum said everyone involved in the shooting incident is from out of town. “The person who lost his life was not the intended victim.”

Commissioner John Meeks of Bronson (R-District 1) said he was with McCallum at the festival. “I saw what our deputies and police are up against,” Meeks said. “Until you are exactly there you cannot appreciate it. It was a volatile mob scene that could break loose. Our people are brave beyond words.”

Renate Cannon asked what could be done to prevent another Crabfest incident.

Bell indicated the challenge the commissioners face saying, “You have an event with no one organizing it. No one’s responsible for it. It’s a last minute gathering.”

Bell was the commissioner who led an effort last year to pass a special events ordinance which would regulate large gatherings. But the ordinance would only cover organized events where individuals or groups would take charge and be responsible for policing activities, food and beverage sales, and providing sanitation and security services. But the measure failed to gather support on the commission or in the county.

“This could easily happen anywhere,” Bell said of the shooting.

County Coordinator Fred Moody, referring to the shootings, “You can’t fix stupid.”

Moody said the Crabfest “is not an issue of permits. “ McCallum agreed with that position in his later comments. “The permitting process may not stop what occurred,” McCallum said.

“We have to reach out to the community,” Moody said.

McCallum said there were three neighborhood pastors who reached out and were involved in having their own events at the same time. One pastor, he said, had even hired an off-duty deputy for his church’s event.

 The fest, McCallum said, has changed from being just a neighborhood gathering. “It’s a money-maker now. The churches know that,” he said.