It was the day before Christmas Eve, 2011.
The Flagler County Sheriff’s Office received a call from a group of children, their ages ranging from 11 to 14, who said they’d been attacked.
The call eventually escalated into a felony abuse trial against Gregory Lago, heard Wednesday before Judge Edward E. Hedstrom.
The kids said he attacked them unprovoked, grabbed one of them in a choke hold and tackled him in the shrubs. Lago said the group mocked his attire and surrounded him on their bikes, looking for a fight, but that he didn’t respond to their taunts.
After a one-day trial, a jury declared Lago not guilty.
The children's account
Each of the four children took the witness stand in turn Wednesday, the court’s bailiff lowering the stand’s microphone so they could reach it.
According to them, they’d been riding their bikes along the St. Joe walkway after spending time riding BMX bikes in Linear Park. They passed a stranger, who would later be known to them as Lago, who was walking along the trail in the opposite direction.
“Hey,” one of the children said as they passed, raising his hand in greeting, according to their testimonies.
At that point, the kids said, Lago got angry, yelling and swearing at them. The group rode away, toward the toll bridge on Palm Coast Parkway, where one of their mothers was supposed to be picking them up, they said.
When they got there, Lago was already there, they said. He charged them and grabbed one of them, a boy of 14, in a headlock, yanking him from his bike, they said.
At one point, the kids said they asked Lago how old he was.
“We’re just kids,” they said. “What are you doing?”
The children said Lago tackled the boy in the brush, and they wrestled briefly. He emerged with cuts and bruises and a split lip. Assistant State Attorney Ken Ulich showed the jury photos of the child’s injuries, which took about a month to heal.
The children claimed that Lago then picked up one of their bikes as if to steal it, laughed, put it down, and walked away.
When he left, they called the police, who responded, along with paramedics. The injured child declined to be taken to the hospital medical attention at the direction of his mother.
Lago’s story was different. He got up that day and ran errands before deciding to get some exercise, he said. He dressed in gym shorts, knee-high socks and soccer cleats, intending to play after jogging near his home.
He was walking along the Intracoastal Waterway beneath the toll bridge, when he met the group of kids on their bikes. As he passed, one of them made a disparaging remark about the way Lago was dressed, he said.
Lago said he stopped and asked them what the problem was, telling them they needed to grow up and learn to treat others with respect.
That’s when the kids came back, Lago said, forming a semi-circle in front of him and blocking his path.
“Come on, are we gonna do this or what?” Lago said one of the kids said to his friends, indicating, by Lago’s interpretation, that they were looking for trouble.
Lago said he backed away from the kids and continued his jog. There was no physical altercation, he said. Lago was stopped by officers shortly after.
Verdict: not guilty
Lago was tried for felony child abuse, a third-degree felony. The jury was given the option to convict Lago on a lesser charge of battery as well, but after deliberation, pronounced Lago guilty of no crime.
During his testimony, Lago said the nearest he ever got to Linear Park was the toll bridge, and that even if had been near the park, he wouldn’t have been able to outrun the children to intercept them at the bridge.
“They were saying that saw me at Linear Park and then I popped out of nowhere,” he said. “I don’t see how that would be possible. I’m on foot; they’re on their bicycles.”
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