PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. — Last year’s rape still haunts her.
“Someone was raped in a Porta-Potty. I’ve never forgotten that,” Bay County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Ruth Corley said about a sexual assault last year during spring break in Panama City Beach, Florida.
Three rapes were reported that night alone.
“We typically see an increase in reported sexual batteries [during spring break],” said Lt. Koren Colbert, who worked the bloody crime scene inside the portable bathroom. “I’m sure there are a lot more that are unreported.”
After the six-week party was over, the sheriff learned of five more reported rapes, bringing the 2007 to 2014 total to 42. In that seven-year stretch, the nation’s top spring break destination experienced a 61 percent increase in calls to the sheriff’s office. Illicit and risky behavior broadcast last year by Fox News created a public outcry for change.
As the beach town swells from a population of 12,000 to over 100,000 this year, government and business leaders remain divided on whether new city ordinances will help. But the trouble already has begun.
Police were summoned Saturday to a popular resort, where they found the body of 21-year-old tourist Coty Haywood of Perry, Florida. Foul play is not suspected.
Early Sunday, a call came in that a man had been shot in a parking lot. Local ABC affiliate WMBB reported that the victim had been taken to a hospital with injuries that were not considered life-threatening. As of Sunday evening, authorities were still looking for the shooter.
Mr. Haywood’s death and the Sunday shooting are more bad news as local businesses report lost revenue after the implementation of a law that limits alcohol sales.
To better manage spring break, the sheriff’s office is working with the Panama City Beach Police, the Florida Highway Patrol, Panama City Police, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office and Florida’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. A portable jail and a beach-based spring break court are being used to assist multiple government agencies. Social service groups and churches are stepping in.
Bay County Sheriff Frank McKeithen said the mammoth task of keeping hundreds of thousands safe during spring break has become even more complicated by an increase in drugs, guns, social media — and disrespect.
“That is not going to fix spring break,” Sheriff McKeithen said of the extra law enforcement, drug dogs, patrols and new ordinances. “My biggest concern now is that we are getting a different culture. We’re getting a culture of cop-haters and gun violence. That’s what scares me more than some drunk college kid.”
Sheriff McKeithen said synthetic drugs are a particular concern this year. Drug makers can simply alter the chemical compound of a banned drug and create a drug that has yet to be classified and banned. Drug dealers flock to the city to cash in on party-conscious crowds.
“Every year, something changes,” Sheriff McKeithen said. “We went from marijuana to pills to cocaine to crack to bath salts, to now we’re seeing heroin.
“We [seized] drugs this weekend that was sold [as] one drug and tested for two different drugs. Right now, we don’t know what it is, and people are sucking it up their nose and shooting it into their veins.”
The Internet also leads to concerns, thanks to escort service websites and social media.
“That could be a full-time job for five people sitting at a computer 24 hours a day,” Sheriff McKeithen said.
“We’re seeing more and more and more guns on the street,” Sheriff McKeithen said.
Complicating matters is that many of the gun-toting revelers now have permits. Mr. McKeithen questions the judgment of other sheriffs who issue them.
He made the comments near the 10th anniversary killing of Panama City Beach Police Sgt. Kevin Kight. On Easter Sunday, Kight was gunned down by a 22-year-old man vacationing from Wisconsin. The gunman, whom Kight pulled over for a traffic violation, turned out to be a gang member.
Trouble in paradise
On Friday, a 93-year-old man was beaten by a spring breaker who burglarized his home.
On Thursday, an explosive crash involving a van and two scooters sent two Mississippi vacationers to a hospital. One was in critical condition.
On March 9, Mississippi State star quarterback and Heisman hopeful Dakota Prescott and two of his teammates were beaten in an unprovoked attack.
“We don’t need this kind of advertisement,” Bay County Commissioner and businessman Mike Thomas said. “It gives us a bad image that I don’t think we deserve.”
Mr. Thomas pointed out that most of the 27-mile coastal area is family-friendly and safe during spring break, but a 3-mile area of town known as the “triangle,” where Mr. Prescott and his teammates were attacked, is known for rampant crime during the month and a half of spring break.
March is the third most profitable month for the city, generating about 30 percent of the area’s annual profits.
Panama City Beach Mayor Gayle Oberst said business owners informed the council that banning alcohol from the beach, where tens of thousands of revelers gather, would devastate business. Plus, Ms. Oberst said, she didn’t think the ban was fair to locals.
Wes Pittman, a local lawyer, was disappointed that the council did not ban alcohol on the beach during spring break.
“I think the ordinances have very few teeth,” said Mr. Pittman, who is representing property owners who are concerned about the effects negative publicity can have on real estate values.
Mr. Pittman said the City Council is largely influenced by hotel owners and several nightclub owners who generate millions of tax dollars throughout the year. If the city’s new ordinances fail to curb the chaos, he said, then a recall election will be in order.
When told of Mr. Pittman’s proposal, Ms. Oberst laughed. “I don’t think you’ve got anything to worry about,” she said.
Ms. Oberst and other spring break proponents are calling for patience and say the headlines do not accurately depict the party, which they say is composed mostly of fun-loving college students.
“Spring break is only four weeks out of our season, and it’s probably nothing more than you’d see on a college campus on a Friday and a Saturday night,” she said.