Shooting, battery incidents shake a community now seeking solutions
By John Morton
Two violent acts on Memorial Day on Siesta Key near and in the highly populated Village have both stunned and outraged residents here. The area that day saw large packs of teens in close proximity, estimated in the hundreds, where fighting led to severe outcomes including multiple gunshots.
“It’s unfortunate, but also 100% preventable. The community is very upset about this,” said Chris Brown, owner of several properties along Avenida Messina near where the shootings were reported to have occurred.
“It’s another example of the overuse and abuse of Siesta Key,” Brown said, noting that a subsequent discussion he with a local member of law enforcement had the official admit the scene was “a powder keg ready to blow.”
As a result of the attacks, the Siesta Key Association civic group voted June 2 to send a letter to Sarasota County Sheriff Kurt Hoffman to address the growing problem of large groups of teens gathering and often fighting at various beach accesses.
Catherine Luckner, the association’s president, called the incident a “seminal event” for the island.
The ugly details
The two unrelated but simultaneous events took place at about 4 p.m. between Beach Access 2 and Beach Access 3, one leading to a shooting in the Village that resulted a non-threatening injury to a female.
That suspect remains at large.
Authorities have told news outlets that the shooting suspect is described as an African-American teenager who is 6-feet, 2-inches tall with braided hair and wearing a white shirt and blue shorts.
One teenager arrested at the scene is not believed to have been the shooter but had a warrant.
The second incident involved a pistol-whipping assault during a fight that resulted in the arrest of an 18-year-old Palmetto man. After his attack, he threw his .22-caliber handgun in some bushes in the Village, where deputies retrieved it after a witness pointed it out.
As for the shooting, it involved several rounds being fired at possibly two different locations.
Here’s what authorities said in a May 30 evening press release:
“The Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office is currently investigating a shooting incident that occurred near Avenida Messina and Avenida Navarra on Siesta Key.
“Deputies responded just after 4 p.m. Monday for a report of a fight that began near Beach Access 3 involving possibly 10 or more juveniles. Several gunshots were heard, and one female victim was located and transported to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries. Additional possible gunshots were heard a short time later near Avenida Messina and Ocean Boulevard. However, no victims were located at the secondary location. The investigation is ongoing. However, deputies believe this incident is isolated and there is no danger to the public.
“Detectives are on scene following up on active leads and information to identify all subjects involved. Anyone with information about this incident is encouraged to contact our Criminal Investigations Section at (941) 861-4900 or provide an anonymous tip to Crime Stoppers at (941) 366-TIPS.”
The second incident involved a call to police at about 4:30 p.m. to Beach Access 3 where a group reported a fight where a juvenile was pistol-whipped an adult who tried to intervene and wrestle-away the gun was punched in the head.
Aaron Payton, who fled on foot down Avenida Messina, was later arrested when the juvenile victim contacted police to reveal the suspect’s identity.
Payton has been charged with aggravated battery with a deadly weapon, tampering with evidence and carrying a concealed weapon.
A terrifying scene
Kasey Gamble was alone at work at the Siesta Key Wine Bar in Davidson Plaza when she received a call from her brother who works’ nearby at Gilligan’s, warning her of the shots he had heard.
“I heard nothing, and all seemed calm when I looked outside,” Gamble said. “Then, all of a sudden I saw people running everywhere, hiding behind cars in our parking lot, and then I saw people running down the street with police chasing them.
“It was terrifying. You never know – was it a mass shooting taking place? That’s how it felt with all the chaos.”
Gamble said employees at other nearby establishments told her they had customers diving under tables at first and were then escorted into kitchens and even coolers. The Hub closed its hurricane shutters, as did other businesses, she said.
Melanie Dodge, owner of Siesta Key Wine Bar, decided to close her business for the night.
“I got over 50 calls from friends and Kasey right when it was happening,” Dodge said. “I told Kasey to turn off the lights and turn off the open sign, lock the door and head to the kitchen. I was OK with closing because I needed my staff to be safe, bottom line.
“Our friend from The Cottage came to check on us and make sure we were OK. We had a customer nearby and he came to the bar and escorted Kasey to her car. She was too scared to come back so I just told her to close-up for the night.”
When Gamble got home, she had what she described as a sleepless night.
“It took me a long time to calm down,” she said. “I couldn’t believe this happened in our little Village. This is a bad sign.”
Said Dodge, “I honestly think it’s being underplayed because we are a tourist spot. It’s too bad that this happened but I think there were just too many kids at the beach and not enough police presence on a holiday weekend.”
Added Luckner, “Many say it’s a ‘one-off’ incident, meaning unique, atypical for Siesta Key.
“However, it was an egregious departure from our holiday mindset.”
Part of an escalating cultural problem?
The violence occurred near Patriot’s Pier, home to a tribute on a day when war veterans are honored. Resident Mike Cosentino, who owns property at 10 Beach Rd. and facilitates the ceremonies, sees the large gatherings on a consistent basis, both near his property and elsewhere.
“It’s a roaming flash mob of kids,” he said. “They were gathering and fighting on Lido, at the (Siesta) public beach, Turtle Beach, and most of the accesses between the pier and the public beach. They’re constantly moving from place to place to avoid the deputies that are following them and attempting to get them to disperse.
“Like always it’s mostly good kids, but the larger the crowds the more likely there’s going to be a few bad apples among them.”
The large gatherings are a common theme of concern for island residents, and Siesta Key Association members said it hoped to potentially make the matter fall under code enforcement. They noted at their meeting that large gatherings on the beach typically require a permit. Even if nothing illegal is taking place, a code enforcement officer could intervene.
Cosentino believes a growing party culture on the Key is taking a toll.
“In neighboring Manatee County, alcohol is prohibited on beaches,” he said. “The ban is well-publicized and strictly enforced, especially with underage drinking. Sarasota allows alcohol on its beaches. While I have no problem with that, our beaches have become the place for teenagers to go. Mixing alcohol with large crowds of young people from rival high schools predictably leads to fights. That the fighting can lead to gun violence is disconcerting, but inevitable.
“Sheriff’s Office records reveal many such happenings on Siesta Key. Many agree that the problem is being exacerbated by the Siesta Key TV show … and the general morphing of our once quaint village into Bourbon Street.”
Cosentino, who is running for the Sarasota County Commission, also feels reversing the trend will be no easy task — especially with more tourist-based development on the way.
“Our deputies do a heck of a good job, but it’s going to be very difficult to get the toothpaste back into this particular tube,” he said. “Add the hotels and rooftop bars, and we’re going to really see things go to hell. God help us — the county commission certainly won’t.”
Brown agreed that the county leaders are turning a blind eye to the increasing stress on Siesta Key.
“It starts at the top and goes on down,” he said. “They continue to neglect their crown jewel. When will they learn? The Village is neglected, the beaches are neglected.”
As for the underage drinking on the beach, Brown said the teenagers “flaunt it in the face of deputies.”
He said law enforcement has little chance to make a dent in the problem with ID checks and subsequent arrests when they face huge, hostile crowds.
“I think the deputies on the beach that day were wise to not push it,” Brown said. “They were so outnumbered. I don’t blame them at all for what happened.”
Brown also said his source reported that deputies on site requested back-up prior to the outbreak of violence but were denied.
Douglas Johnson, director of public relations with the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office, disputes that.
“We show no record of any such request being made,” he said.
“We have an entire unit dedicated to Siesta Key, consisting of a sergeant and six deputies. In addition, our Patrol Bureau staffs the key with a deputy on all three shifts — days, evenings, and nights.
“As Memorial Day is one of the busiest days of the year on the key, we increased our staffing to 19 deputies. When the incident in the village occurred, we had 27 total personnel on the Key.”
Time to act
Tim Hensey, chairman of the Save Siesta Key group that is seeking incorporation due to what it considers poor decisions and neglect from county leaders, said the violent events on Memorial Day further point to why Siesta Key should become its own town.
“First of all, our Sheriff’s Office is to be commended,” Hensey said.
“Notwithstanding, bad people with bad intentions have the advantage. In discussion with Sheriff Hoffman, his office also plans to have increased patrols over the upcoming July 4th holiday.
“Not taking anything away from what I believe is an outstanding response from our sheriff’s department, if we are successful in incorporation efforts we will have the opportunity to have discussions with the sheriff about additional law enforcement strategies including, but not limited to, additional officers and security cameras that would be separately funded by the Town of Siesta Key.”
Rick Munroe, who owns a restaurant in the Village, also believes the violence should be a wake-up call in many ways.
“Siesta Key is the crown jewel of our region — there is no intelligent argument against that,” he said. “I would hope this incident will be a catalyst for county leadership to prioritize Siesta Key for once. Between the land-use issues; supporting the deputies with code enforcement; improving the roads, bike lanes and sidewalks; and simply prioritizing the Key in the county’s long-range planning and budgeting process.
“It’s time we get the ball rolling to preserve the identity of Siesta Key and prepare for the continued increase of visitors.”
Munroe also said it’s time to zero-in on those causing problems, saying “99.9% of the time, the kids who enjoy the beach are well-behaved and considerate. We have great kids in this community. We need to focus on the culprits here, the thugs who mob a peaceful setting and create a bad situation
“We know who they are, where they live, and how they get here. Let’s find ways to disrupt their intent.”
In the meantime, Luckner hopes some long-term measures can be the result, and calls on the community to play a role.
“Our goal, in conjunction with many Siesta Key groups, is to collaborate for prevention and intervention of any future incidents such as this one,” she said. “We ask our governmental staff, elected officials, law enforcement, and all who serve the public to help us generate methods, means and opportunity to evaluate the past Memorial Day incident and apply those understandings to our next holiday period.
“As citizens, we are ready to partner in this important work.”