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August 10, 2012

Tragedy strikes Dancin’ as drunk driver kills 2 people

Cleveland--Dancin’ in the Streets was marred by what might be the starkest tragedy to hit the city’s LGBT and allied community when a drunk driver ran the barricades on July 29, injuring four people, two of whom later died.

Mitchell Andelmo, 27, died on July 30; 44-year-old Basil Bass passed away two days later. Andelmo’s girlfriend Constance Pokorny, 25, was listed in good condition last week at MetroHealth, after being admitted in critical condition, and Kevin Lett, 37, was released after being treated.

Police took Timothy Spock, 34, into custody and drove him to Lakewood Hospital to check his blood alcohol level. Spock has a history of charges of operating a vehicle while intoxicated and disorderly conduct.

He now faces charges of aggravated vehicular homicide, vehicular homicide and vehicular manslaughter. Other charges may be added, and he is being held under a $150,000 bond.

Spock was driving east on Clifton Blvd. at 7 pm and apparently did not notice the metal barricades across the road, or the tents and crowds of people behind those barricades.

Andelmo’s father Henry posted a heartbreaking Facebook status message on July 30 informing his friends that Mitchell had died, then a week later wrote, “This has been the worst week of my life. I said a final goodbye to my son and best friend. I loved him more than any person I have ever has been in my life. It was also the best week in my life. I found out that my son Mitch was loved by more people than anybody I have ever met. I want to thank you all for the love and support. Also you all filled the void in my heart that was ripped out of my chest. I love you all.”

The annual street festival benefits the AIDS Taskforce of Greater Cleveland. The day after the incident, Taskforce CEO Tracy Jones released a statement noting, “The events of yesterday are shocking and heartbreaking. Our hearts are with the victims and their families and loved ones. We will do whatever we can to show our support and to honor those impacted by this tragedy.”

A vigil was held on July 31 at Clifton Boulevard and West 117th Street, where Spock’s car crashed through. State Rep. Nickie Antonio, Cleveland city councilor Jay Westrook, Rev. Donald King, the pastor of Hope Lutheran Church, and Todd Saporito of Cleveland Pride and Flex all spoke to the assembled crowd. Friends and family also spoke.

A week later, those who were there are still understandably shaken, voices getting husky with tears as they remember that evening. Attorney Nancy Marcus heard the crash at about 7 pm and turned, only to have one of the victims land at her feet.

“I was looking at behind the food court to see who was at Twist, and I heard what sounded really like an explosion,” she said. “There were barricades flying in the air. The tent where my friend had been sitting, volunteering, taking donations at the entrance, that tent and the chair were flying in the air and I thought she was dead. Luckily, she had been taking a break.”

Then she saw someone flying toward her. “I could tell from the way he landed that it would take a miracle for him to live,” she remembered. “He was bleeding really extensively from the head, and I’d never seen a head wound like that.”

She tried to dial 911 on her cell phone, but her fingers were unable to hit the buttons out of shock, so she called out to the police who were there working security.

“I went to the candlelight vigil a couple of nights later, and it was a nice tribute and a lot of Mitch’s friends showed up. I found Basil’s family and loved ones,” she said. “I tried to offer comforting words, but I didn’t have the words at the time.”

“I’ve given a statement to the police about what I’d witnessed. At first I didn’t know if my statement was necessary because there were so many people who witnessed it, so many people going through PTSD,” she recalled. “I saw something that maybe our troops are prepared for when they go to war, maybe they’re trained to see that kind of violent death, but I wasn’t. It was just a horrible thing.”

Jones was also still horribly shaken. She was the first person to get to Andelmo, and she remembered, as she moved the hair out of his face and tried to check his pulse, that he just looked so young and small.

“I think he might have been helping out but he was not listed [as a volunteer],” she said. “Everyone was having such a good time. It was a beautiful day. It was on track to be one of the best Dancin’ in the Streets ever, and everyone was totally changed.”

Jones was faced with the daunting task of making a decision as to whether to keep Dancin’ open or send everyone home.

In the end, she did not want to send two thousand people heading home in their cars after they had been drinking, especially as the result of a drunk driver crashing through the gates. Dancin’ stayed open, giving people a chance to work through their emotions and get in a proper frame of mind to head home at the end of the night.

“We had to make some decisions that were really difficult. I just didn’t want to send 2,000 people who had just witnessed something horrific into cars,” she recalled. “We did the best we could.”

“We realized that there were a couple thousand people who we needed to take care of in the process of everything else that was going on and really wanting to take care of the victims but not wanting to create a more challenging situation,” Jones said.

Besides the human cost of the accident, it could not have come at a worse time, with the AIDS Taskforce moving into their new offices at 4700 Prospect Avenue that week.

“We’re very excited about the new location,” Jones said, noting that it was a “positive in the midst of a very challenging time.”

“It’s really hard to go through a tragedy like that and not be forever changed,” she continued, noting that the changeover was on schedule, but, “When you move to a new space, things just take time.”

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