It’s that time of year again, when law enforcement officers working among the carousing crowds of Key West’s annual 10-day Fantasy Fest are told a zillion times: “Nice costume.”
Most of the tens of thousands of revelers dressed in elaborate costumes and/or covered in body paint who come each year to Key West’s biggest party are just looking for a good time. The cops say their job is to make sure the “controlled chaos” doesn’t get out of hand.
Despite the mix of many people, from many places, in a relatively small area, most fueled by alcohol and some with illegal drugs, Fantasy Fest has not been a recipe for disaster.
“We can count all the really violent incidents that happened during Fantasy Fest on one or two hands,” Key West Police Captain J.R. Torres said. “That’s pretty good considering all the people and all the alcohol.”
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Since the festival’s inception in 1979, the list of horrific crimes is relatively short. It includes: two murders, four attempted murders (two of them by the same person in a domestic situation) and a newborn left to die in a trashcan after its young mother gave birth in a bathroom stall.
36th Fantasy Fest
Torres says he is hopeful that list does not grow for this year’s 36th Fantasy Fest, themed Anime-ted Dreams and Adventures, which runs through Oct. 26. It’s his first as incident commander.
Law enforcement will be out in full force day and night to patrol the bacchanal that in the past has drawn crowds of 40,000-plus to the city of 25,000. It’s all hands — and paws and hoofs — on deck for Key West Police Department’s 100-sworn officers, K-9s and police horses: Paco, Chief and Crazy Love.
They are supplemented with officers from the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, Florida Highway Patrol, Orange County Sheriff’s Office, Webster Police Department, the state’s Alcoholic Beverages & Tobacco division and the federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms bureau. Undercover officers, special riot units and bomb squads with bomb-sniffing dogs also are on hand.
“We can’t tell you everything we are doing,” Torres said. “But we try to prepare for the worst if, God forbid, we need it.”
They will patrol by car, foot, bike, motorcycle and horse, hoping to de-escalate small problems before they turn into big ones.
“We go by the peaceful warrior philosophy,” Torres said. “And we practice verbal judo.”
For most incidents, the police would rather talk people into complying with laws and ordinances rather than slap on cuffs and take them to jail. In the past, the police have even provided T-shirts for topless women to cover up.
“But if they are doing a sex act, they get no warning,” said Rev. Steve Torrence, Key West Police Department’s community affairs officer who coordinates the multiagency effort.
One married couple from Virginia found that out the hard way in 2009, when they drew a large crowd on Greene Street while they were going at it. In the couple’s arrest report, for lewd and lascivious behavior, it said: “The man repeatedly said he was sorry, but they got caught up in the moment.”
Especially in large crowds, police horses are a big help, providing a high vantage point for the officer and taking up a lot of space to help with clearing streets. The Orange County Sheriff’s Office is bringing three of its own horses to help out Paco, Chief and Crazy Love, who are used to crowds.
One year at Fantasy Fest a horse helped save a man’s life. “The crowd was all around a man who was unconscious on the ground, blocking EMTs from getting through. The horse helped make a path to the man, so they could perform CPR,” Torrence said.
Many of the officers who work Fantasy Fest do so voluntarily, as an off-duty detail for extra pay. The Fantasy Fest organizers pick up the tab.
“It takes a lot of diplomacy,” said Monroe County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Becky Herrin, a deputy who has worked several Fantasy Fest details. “You don’t want to be confrontational.”
Officers say they enjoy the change of pace — and scenery.
Herrin recounted one memorable Fantasy Fest shift: “I was guarding a male strip show for 12 hours. I watched men take off their clothes and got paid for it. But that was a long time ago.”
Lt. Donnie Elomina, who coordinates the Fantasy Fest details for the sheriff’s office, said he warns his officers that they also can be in demand for tourist photographs.
“I warn my guys that everyone wants to take a picture with you, but you have to be careful,” Elomina said. “I tell them not to put their arms around people or let them put their arms around you, and not to put on beads. With the Internet, and technology, you don’t know where the pictures could end up.”
Breasts and body paint
To try to deal with the nudity problem, which is also part of the lure of Key West’s world-known event, the organizers and city created a “Fantasy Zone” that operates on the two busiest days, Oct. 24 and 25. This is where female breasts can be exposed if they are covered with body paint.
Over the years, there have been varying tolerance and crackdowns on nudity, which police say usually comes from the directives of the Key West City Commission. In 2000, it was a crackdown year and at least 60 people were arrested for nudity, according to newspaper accounts.
A couple from Alaska, painted as matching clowns, said at the time they played a cat-and-mouse game with the cops. They covered up when they saw police, and uncovered when they were gone.
That was the same year a man named Forest Williams was promoting “Voyeur Survivor,” a hedonistic twist on the popular TV show. He was bringing 10 men and 10 women to Fantasy Fest, charging Internet viewers to watch. Each day, one person was “voted off the island.”
Last year, on Fantasy Fest’s most attended and craziest day, the Saturday when the main event parade is held, there were only seven arrests. Charges included grand theft, trespassing, resisting without violence, battery and narcotics-related.
It’s the same number of arrests that were made in Key West six months earlier, on a random Saturday in April.
In 2001, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it became against the rules for people to have weapons such as toy guns or swords as part of their costumes. Even squirt guns were disallowed. Now, they are only acceptable if it’s obvious at a glance that they are fake.
It’s not all fun and games. There have been some serious crimes.
In 1980, Gary Haas of Big Pine Key was arrested for stabbing a Miami man with a bayonet that was part of a costume. Police found Haas hiding in combat fatigues at the Monster Bar on Front Street.
In 1984, a Key West landscaper ran into his ex-girlfriend and her grown son at a bar on Duval Street during Fantasy Fest. He stabbed both in their heads with a 4-inch rusty switchblade. Jose Rodriguez received 50 years in prison for attempted murder.
In 2009, two groups of young men bumped into each other in the wee hours of the morning. A fight broke out, which led to Nicholas Ferro of Hollywood stabbing to death Marques Butler, 23, a former star football player for Key West High.
Ferro claimed he was just trying to help his friend and the stabbing was an accident. But after one hung jury, a second jury convicted him of second-degree murder, and he was sentenced to 28 years in state prison.
Two years later, two Key West residents got into a fight at a locals bar called Don’s Place around 4 a.m. and an hour or so later one of them was dead.
Jonathan Alvarado was found lying in blood on a nearby street. Peter Hedvall was convicted of killing him using wire from the wings of Alvarado’s Fantasy Fest fairy costume and a 20-pound rock. Alvarado’s blood was found on Hedvall’s motorcycle boots and white costume.
The most haunting case, Baby Jane Doe, happened on Halloween Night during the 2004 Fantasy Fest. A woman believed to be in her early 20s and called either Sonia or Samantha delivered a premature baby in the bathroom of the Hilton Resort and Marina, now the Westin.
She left the breathing newborn in the trashcan, with its umbilical cord and placenta still attached. Hours later, a housekeeper made the horrifying find. The baby was dead. The mother and her two companions left the hotel without a trace. After more than 400 investigative man-hours, the case still remains a mystery.
Thankfully, most of the incidents police deal with during Fantasy Fest are minor. Some are even comical.
In 1996, three men decided to light a joint, and they huddled behind some bushes next to a building. They had no clue it was Old City Hall, which police were using as a Fantasy Fest command post. The smoke wafted through the air conditioning vents and soon the men were arrested for possession of marijuana.
Another guy thought he could get away with smoking a joint in a porta-potty. He, too, was arrested.
One time, a drunken 48-year-old computer programmer from Pennsylvania pulled a fire alarm and bashed a door with a fire extinguisher at a luxury condo during a 5 a.m. rampage. He claimed he was seeking help to escape an angry mob, which was proven to exist only in his mind.
“We get a lot of reports for things being stolen, when the person really just got drunk and left it behind,” Torres said.
That was the case of a Michigan woman who reported the theft of her black chaps. They weren’t stolen; she left them behind after a night of drinking at the Bourbon Street Pub. They contained $200 and her driver’s license.
Police weren’t tolerant when it came to the parents who went out on the town and left their two young kids alone at a hotel, after promising to take them to the parade. Or to the 50-year-old father who allowed his 16-year-old son to drink four Long Island Ice Teas. Or to the woman who decided to pour a beer on an officer since somebody else had poured a beer on her.
“We’re ready for everyone to come,” Torres said. “I just hope everything goes smoothly on my first watch.”
If you go
What: 36th Fantasy Fest, a 10-day festival with sexual themes, primarily for adults
Where: Key West
When: Through Oct. 26
Main event: 3Wishes.com Fantasy Fest Parade, 7 p.m., Oct. 25. Route runs mostly along Duval Street.
Other events: Kinky Couples Party, Sloppy Joes 31st Toga Party, Masquerade March, Rum Barrels 8th Annual Pirate Bash
Cost: Most events are free
Lodging: Many hotels and resorts are already sold out. Book before you go.
More info: FantasyFest.com