Mystery game crosses into reality play
By TAMARA LUSH and RON MATUS
Police had received a 911 report of an armed kidnapping in progress. What Officer Gary Pruitt saw when he arrived was a man with a handgun in the waistband of his pants and eight people nearby. Pruitt reacted.
"Drop the gun! Get on the ground!" he yelled, as he pointed his Glock at the kidnapper.
The armed man slowly did as he was told. The officer pushed him to the pavement and handcuffed him.
The man's sunglasses shattered. A nasty gash opened on his forehead. Blood dripped on the asphalt.
The eight murder-mystery participants were thrilled. And shocked. Was it real?
At first, they thought it was all part of the live-action adventure game that costs $175 each to play. But police said it was no game.
"The gentleman arrested is very fortunate he wasn't shot," said Tampa police spokesman Joe Durkin. "It looked like an armed situation."
But when it was over, the man with the gun, actor Joe Kirane, 30, of Oldsmar, was arrested along with one of the paying participants. Both were arrested on charges of resisting arrest without violence, Durkin said. Police also handcuffed Ybor resident John Barrier after he walked from his home across the street to see what the fuss was about. He was later released.
As police swarmed the scene, questioning people, the participants were not sure what was part of the story and what wasn't, which is why no one stepped forward to tell officers about the role-playing.
"The lieutenant said, "Explain to me what's going on,' " said Kathy Mashburn from Elberta, Ala. She repeated the story line of the game: She was the shareholder of a biotech company run by corrupt scientists. She was infected with a deadly virus and had to find the antidote.
"He was just nodding," she said. "Then I said, "It's a great day,' " the password participants used among themselves. "And he looked at me funny."
"Then I said, "This is real, isn't it?' "
A St. Petersburg Times reporter, Tamara Lush, was a paying participant, planning to write a feature story about the adventure. Like the other participants, she was unaware of the adventure's plot or characters.
The owners of Medallion Adventures have staged hundreds of similar mysteries at bed and breakfasts, on ships, even on a train. Medallion is the Tampa-based company of actors that assembled Saturday's adventure. Their Web site promises, "This is no game."
Through teamwork and sleuthing, the participants are expected to solve the various mysteries.
Saturday morning, the participants were split into two groups. One group was dropped off at a parking lot behind the Fly Trap nightclub, near Seventh Avenue and 20th Street.
Then one of the characters -- the armed man -- pulled up in a white Toyota Camry. He searched frantically for something in the parking lot before disappearing into a building.
He soon reappeared with the gun -- really a starter's pistol that fires blanks -- in the back of another character.
Someone saw what was going on and called 911, police said.
Within minutes, eight to 10 police cars were on the scene.
Durkin said Officer Pruitt exercised "incredible restraint" in not firing.
Kirane was taken to the emergency room at Tampa General Hospital and then taken to jail.Participant Barbara Dion, 54, of Carrollwood was booked into jail. Bail was set at $500. Participants said Dion laughed when police requested information, and refused to give them her birthday.
"I think it's too real, no matter what," she said as she sat in the back of the police cruiser. "It's too serious for me."
It was not clear Saturday whether representatives of Medallion Adventures had notified Tampa city officials before staging the event. Durkin said Tampa police were not notified.
Keith Ferstl, one of the five co-partners of Medallion, said he was under the impression Kirane was the person who would have contacted the city. Kirane could not be reached Saturday, because he was in the hospital and then in jail.
"We really respect that the police did their job and did it right," said Ferstl. "We were concerned about Joe, and concerned that everyone was okay."
After lunch, the participants went back to the game, going to hotels and warehouses to look for clues. The actors rewrote the script after the arrests; from the back of the police car, a bloodied Kirane made suggestions on rewriting the story line.
The story of the mystery gone wrong reached Tampa Mayor Dick Greco.
"Anybody that is doing something like that should have gone directly to the police," said Greco. "It's most fortunate under the circumstances that something godawful didn't happen."
Greco said film production crews and other theatrical companies that use the city as a backdrop always contact the Police Department and City Hall for permits.
To his knowledge, Medallion Adventures did not do that.
"Somebody should have thought, "Hey, we need a permit for this,' " he said.
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Mary Jo Melone