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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Blogs turn grief into rage
A New Jersey man is posting messages harshly critical of 5 young men killed in a car crash.
By LEONORA LAPETER, Times Staff Writer
Published February 2, 2008
A picture hangs from the marker for Josh D. Ammirato at the memorial site where he and four other boys died. The boys died after the 2008 BMW they were in crashed into a tree at Greystone Airport.
[Keri Wiginton | Times]
[Keri Wiginton | Times]
Tracey Trias looks at a picture on the marker for Josh D. Ammirato after the funeral service on Friday.
Florida Highway Patrol Coporal Mark S. Weber and Coporal Daniel A. Deweese, look over the remains of a burned, gray 2008 BMW at the end of Greystone Airstrip.
OCALA - The tree-splitting car crash that killed five young men driving down an airstrip next to John Travolta's house last week left this thoroughbred horse farm community stunned and anguished. Many here knew the dead, recent graduates of three different high schools, or knew someone who knew them.
Thousands visited the crash site, laying flowers against the gouged live oak where the 2008 BMW M5 smashed. Others attended candlelight vigils to remember Jacob James Casey, James Devon Hime, and Dustin J. Dawe, all 19, Isaac Rubin, 20, and Joshua D. Ammirato. At 18, he was the youngest.
But then the unexpected happened.
A New Jersey blogger wrote about the five young men: "Stupid dead boys," he typed. "Bumbling, fumbling, stumbling idiots."
He sent the blog to the grieving friends who had created memorials on their MySpace pages.
Within a day, the blog had made it around Ocala and the tiny towns that border it in Marion County.
Thousands read it; grief turned to rage.
To them, it was as if the memories of the young men had been hijacked Internet-style. Some felt helpless, others tried to fight back.
"This is uncharted territory," said Chris Watts, 27, a wrestling coach at North Marion High School in Citra who coached three of the dead. "And I'm at a loss."
* * *
The five young men had celebrated Dustin Dawe's 19th birthday that night. The Florida Highway Patrol originally said alcohol was involved but then backed off that assessment. Toxicology tests will tell. The report on the accident has not been released.
At 3:45 a.m. a week ago Saturday, the five college students snuck onto the private Greystone airstrip, which is part of Jumbolair Aviation Estates, an exclusive community just outside Ocala.
Ammirato was the driver of the $80,000 BMW, which belonged to his father. FHP investigators say he drove the car down to the end of the 1.5-mile runway, where it went airborne, sailing 200 feet squarely into a thick live oak. The car broke into several pieces. All five died immediately.
"I mean it's the most devastating type of event that I've ever encountered myself, and I think the town is in total mourning," said Jeremy Thayer, 54, owner of Jumbolair Aviation Estates and part owner of the airstrip. Rubin, who died in the accident, dated Thayer's 19-year-old daughter.
In the days that followed, there were revelations that several of the boys had numerous traffic violations. Ammirato, a health science major at the University of Central Florida, was cited four times in the past two years for speeding and driving with a suspended license.
On the day of his death, he logged on to a BMW M5 message board and asked how he could manually shift his car more smoothly at high speeds, according to wire reports.
Thayer summed up the view of many in this community: "They were all very, very nice young men. They were not juvenile delinquents. They were not bad kids. They just made bad decisions."
* * *
In the span of five days, Josh Torch, 19, has been to three funerals, four viewings and a handful of memorials and other ceremonies. He has carried caskets and sat solemnly for hours while his friends were remembered. He's watched their parents cry.
"It was pretty hard the first time, and now it's almost to the point where my body's just exhausted, just emotionally, and it's scary how okay it's becoming," he said.
Torch wrestled with the five young men in high school, fished with them on weekends.
The day he learned that his friends had died, he also saw the blog by Michael Crook. It was posted exactly 12 hours after the crash. The blogger had found My Space page tributes to the young men and sent them his blog. To date, that first post has been read almost 15,000 times, according to a counter on Crook's site.
Ocala shouldn't "mourn stupidity," he wrote.
Hundreds lashed back, posting responses on Crook's blog, leaving him angry messages.
He has responded with more blog postings, suggesting the five young men were "common criminals" they had minor infractions, mostly traffic violations. Crook's posts continue daily. He is up to about 15 of them.
Like many in this community of 1,000 thoroughbred farms, the postings make Torch mad. He is trying to seize back his friends' memories.
One night last week, Torch sat down at the computer and wrote Crook a letter.
"I can only begin to imagine what a feeling it is to become so infamous on an incident that has no concern to you and turn it into a day of your glory," he wrote.
He read his letter at a memorial before more than 1,000 people at Central Florida Community College. He also asked those assembled to sign a petition "that the real story of my friends needs to be heard by millions...I promise everyone that loved these young men that they were special, and that they lived a very special life."
Torch, class president at North Marion High School last year, isn't sure what he will do with all the signatures. Maybe write a book, make a documentary. But he and his friends have stopped reading Crook's posts.
"The worse way we can hurt this guy is to totally ignore him," said Travis Aldana, 19, another friend of the five who died. "What he wants is for us to go back and forth with him and to be totally honest, he has nothing to do with this."
* * *
The Ocala crash isn't Crook's only battle. It has gotten more hits than any of his other posts, but he also has been skewering a 15-year-old who fell through the skylight of an elementary school in New York and a college student who fell out of a parking garage in Atlantic City. Both died.
"What I do is find stories no one else would necessarily blog about," said Crook, 30, in a phone interview.
He is married to a woman he met at a dance at a Mormon church. He says he has a young daughter but that New York child protective services accused him and his wife of neglect for failing to give her medical care. He says he voluntarily signed her over to be adopted.
"Truthfully, my honest opinion is that I didn't want to be a parent," he wrote in an e-mail.
Of his blogging on Ocala, he claims he's not doing it just for attention. He said he hopes they take away a message.
"I admit my style comes across a little nasty," Crook said. "But what makes me write nastier is not the number of people coming on (the Web site) but the number defending them. They're lucky this happened on an airstrip. What if these kids had been on a street?"
This is one of Crook's recent Ocala posts: "This story is taking many twists and turns, and much like the other stories I cover on this blog, it is priceless amusement at the expense of others."
* * *
Torch says this is how people should remember his friends:
Ammirato, a University of Central Florida student, was always counting calories and wanted to be a body builder.
Casey, Dawes, Hime and Rubin attended Central Florida Community College together.
Casey loved football, baseball and the rodeo. He had a knack for making everyone feel like he was their best friend.
Dawes was called Smiley because he always had a smile. He was training to be a farrier with his Dad.
Hime was a graphic artist. But his interests often changed: one minute he wanted to be a tattoo artist, the next he wanted to be a photographer and the next he wanted to design clothes and start his own band.
Rubin wore his hair in dreadlocks and was independent. He wanted to be a firefighter and paramedic.
At North Marion High School, where three of the boys went to school, Crook's blog has been blocked from computers, said Watts, the wrestling coach.
"Regardless of what any of them did, the end result is the same," he said. "Five individuals died and five families are burying sons and the community lost five great individuals."
The accident spawned a new slogan at the school this week: "Live well, live wise, because you matter to others."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Times reporter Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 727-893-8640.