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A cell phone rings in a St. Petersburg movie theater, prompting an incident in which two people are pepper-sprayed.
By TOM ZUCCO
Published July 27, 2004
ST. PETERSBURG - The house lights went down, the previews were shown and the opening credits to Catwoman began to play across the screen Saturday night at the Muvico theater at BayWalk.
That's when Warronnica Harris' cell phone rang.
"It was my mom calling me," Harris said. "It was a family emergency."
Harris said she lowered her voice so much that her mother couldn't hear her. A minute later, she said, a flashlight shone in her eyes.
What happened next is disputed. It involves pepper spray, the arrest of two people with no previous criminal record and cell phone use in a theater.
Police say Harris refused to end her cell phone conversation, started yelling at the St. Petersburg police officer who confronted her and refused to leave the theater. Authorities also say Harris' boyfriend, who was seated next to her, also refused to leave and threatened the officer.
Both were charged with disorderly conduct.
Harris, 23, and her boyfriend, Terrell "KC" Tolson, 25, tell a different story.
They say they didn't argue with Officer John Douglas, and that as they were leaving the theater, Douglas used pepper spray on them for no apparent reason, put them in handcuffs and arrested them.
The incident began when Douglas approached Harris in the darkened theater.
"He (Douglas) said, "All right, you want to talk on your cell phone, let's go right now.' " Harris said. "I said, "Okay, but we're going to get our money back.'
"We got up and left on our own. As we were heading down the hallway, he (Douglas) pushed me in the back a couple of times."
In the hallway that connects the theaters to the lobby, Harris and Tolson said Douglas used pepper spray, first on Tolson and seconds later on Harris.
"I asked him why he sprayed my boyfriend, and he sprayed me," Harris said. "He (Douglas) didn't say anything. We didn't even see him take the pepper spray out."
Harris dropped the soda cup she was carrying and fell to her knees.
A Gibbs High graduate, Harris said she is enrolled at St. Petersburg College and plans to enter nursing school. She said she also works full-time as a press operator.
"I talked to my mom for maybe a minute," she said. "And nobody around me complained or said anything. My mom could barely hear me. When I saw the officer coming up the stairs, I hung up on her."
Tolson said that as the couple was leaving, he asked why Douglas was removing them.
"The next thing I know," Tolson said, "he pepper-sprayed me. I didn't raise my hand and wasn't rude. Warronnica asked him why he did that, and he pepper-sprayed her."
Tolson said he plays football for Webber International University in Babson Park and is a junior majoring in sports management.
"I always carry my student ID with me," he said, "just in case something like this happens. ... I called my coach and told him what happened."
Garlynn Boyd, 38, was seated in the row in front of Harris and Tolson. The founder and CEO of the Lightning Bolt Youth Sports Academy in St. Petersburg, she had known Tolson as a youngster.
But she had gone to the theater alone and had run into him by accident.
Boyd said that periodically, as the credits rolled, Douglas stood off to the side and shined his flashlight into the packed audience.
"He'd walk up and say something, I couldn't hear what, and then he'd walk back to the wall," Boyd said. "He did it about six or seven times.
"Then he flashed his light toward me. I thought, "Why?' "
Boyd said she didn't hear a cell phone ring.
"He (Douglas) said to (Harris), "You're going to have to get out.' The woman asked why she was being asked to leave. He (Douglas) said, "Just get up.' Then KC said, "Why is she being asked to leave?' He (Douglas) said, "You're getting out, too.'
"When I went into the lobby, the young lady was on the ground screaming and hollering. KC was already handcuffed. I asked KC what was going on. He said he couldn't see, and asked me to wipe his eyes with his shirt.
"The cop (Douglas) was trying to put cuffs on the young lady. He was wrestling with her. Another officer was holding KC. I told the officers I had been in the theater and that they did absolutely nothing.
"If they were being rude or disrupting, I would've turned around and said something. But they weren't. KC is a great kid."
Marcia Gray, an accountant who lives in Tampa, had come to the theater with two of her sons to see The Bourne Supremacy. She had never been to BayWalk before. She was in the hallway, outside the restroom area when, she said, she saw Harris and Tolson approach, with Douglas behind them.
"The man turned and asked the officer why he was making them leave," Gray said, "and the cop just maced him in the face. They weren't yelling or touching him. The man bent over and the girl asked why he maced her boyfriend. Then the cop maced her, and she dropped her soda."
Gray, 49, was so close to the three that she said she also was affected by residual spray.
"I followed them outside, past the free speech protesters," she said. "The girl was crying, and the man was trying to wipe his face.
"I found another officer and gave him my statement, because these kids did nothing wrong. I have no emotional ties to the kids. I was just there."
Representatives from the St. Petersburg Police Department did not return repeated phone calls Monday.
But cell phone use during movies, concerts and other public events is an increasing problem. So much so that last year, New York City banned the used of mobile phones in any indoor theater, library, museum, gallery or concert hall.
"In my experience working with managers, that has become the main problem they have to deal with," said Jim Lee, director of marketing for Muvico, which has 12 locations, mostly in Florida. "We really try to educate the public by using slides, signs and announcements reminding guests not to use their cell phones."
In the event someone does, Lee said the normal procedure is to ask the person to turn off their phone. If they don't, they are asked to leave.
Lee declined to comment on the specifics of the BayWalk case.
"Ninety-five percent of people forget they have their phones on," Lee said. "When it rings, they rush to turn it off.
"It's a very small group of people who purposefully leave them on and then talk on them."
It is unclear whether race was a factor in the arrests. Harris and Tolson are black, Douglas is white.
"This could have happened to any kid, blue, black or green," said Boyd, who is black. "He (Douglas) was completely out of line."
[Last modified July 27, 2004, 01:00:27]