It was a magical night in The Villages on Dec. 11, 2002.
That’s because an event known as the Winter Wonderland festival was in full swing, with lots of children running around playing in fake snow that had been trucked in for the annual event.
But as the celebration started to wind down, the unthinkable happened. Suddenly, with no warning, an SUV came roaring down the closed portion of Main Street in front of Spanish Springs Town Square and plowed into the crowd. The vehicle took out a Vendor’s Night tent and finally came to rest just a few feet away from the town square bar hut across the from the Rialto Theatre. In its path was death, destruction and rattled nerves like no one in the then-sleepy retirement community could have imagined.
The initial call-out to area fire departments in Lake, Sumter and Marion counties was eight dead and many more injured. But as it turned out, the incident actually left two dead and 17 others injured.
It all started shortly after 7:30 p.m. when new Villager Larry Alan Tomlinson and his wife, Rosalie, walked to their Jeep SUV parked on Main Street near what is now Ay! Jalisco Mexican restaurant. A medical crew was nearby tending to a patient and flashing red lights filled the air. The Tomlinsons, of Georgia, were moving into their new Villages home the next day so they prepared to head back to their hotel for a good night’s sleep.
But as Larry Tomlinson pulled out of his parking spot and headed toward the blocked off portion of Main Street, he suddenly had what was believed to be an epileptic seizure, which officials determined could have been caused by the flashing emergency lights.
Whatever the reason, Tomlinson punched the gas and his SUV crashed through the lightweight barricades, officials determined.
Robert “Bob” Dittmeyer, a special events worker, saw Tomlinson coming and quickly pushed a 7-year-old child out of the way of the fast-charging SUV. The 73-year-old Dittmeyer was then hit and killed as the SUV continued down the blocked-off street toward town square. Dittmeyer’s wife, Dottie, was home with bags packed waiting for him to return to their residence for a vacation that was supposed to start the following morning.
Tomlinson’s SUV then slammed into the curb at the end of Spanish Springs across from what is now Margarita Republic, formerly Café Ole. His vehicle destroyed a Vendor Night tent and then continued through the north side of town square, striking and killed 47-year-old Sue Feely, of Wisconsin, who was visiting The Villages to look at new homes.
As the crowd scattered, the SUV careened over some concrete curbing and slammed into a tree near the bar hut. Its landed in an area with plants beneath it and the vehicle’s wheels were off the ground and still spinning when several people attending the festival got to the vehicle in an effort to try and help Feely.
What happened next depends on who you speak with. Some say that Villagers and others angrily pulled the 54-year-old Tomlinson from his vehicle and started beating him before police arrived. Others say they roughly pulled him from the SUV because his foot was still on the accelerator and they were afraid the vehicle would continue on and slam into the bar hut. And at least one Villager said that one man walked up after a shaken and confused Tomlinson had been removed from the vehicle and quickly punched him in the face multiple times – a claim that had law enforcement searching for that person.
For the next several minutes, pandemonium took over Spanish Springs. Frightened festival attendees were frantically running around trying to make sure their family members were OK. Fire and emergency crews quickly came from The Villages and throughout the local area. And the Lady Lake Police force and Lake County Sheriff’s Office responded en masse.
The next day, trucks from every television network and cable news station imaginable lined town square. TV crews reported live on the story throughout the day as workers continued to clean up the area and attempt to return town square back to normal. And Villages lore has it that one TV news crew from an Orlando television station, under the belief that Tomlinson must have been drinking alcohol, even went so far as to drag a 2-for-1 drink sign outside Café Ole into the line of sight of their live shot.
In the days following the crash, a blood test proved that Tomlinson had no alcohol in his system. It was determined that he had most likely suffered an epileptic seizure – something that hadn’t happened since 1999 and his doctor had authorized him to drive. And 4½ months later, it was determined that no charges would be filed against Tomlinson for the vehicle accident.
Five days after the tragedy, Dottie Dittmeyer and her daughters – one of whom worked for The Villages Sale Office – held a very touching service for the patriarch of their family. A large crowd gathered at St. Timothy Catholic Church to remember Robert Dittmeyer and provide comfort to each other. And he was lauded as a hero who gave his life so a 7-year-old boy wouldn’t be killed or injured by Tomlinson’s hard-charging SUV.
In the days and months following the tragic December festival, much sturdier barricades were used to close off roadways during events. The goal was to completely prevent a similar situation from ever occurring again. And The Villages hasn’t held a Winter Wonderland festival since that fateful day.