Fla. cops seize 'small army' of firearms as spring break crowds devolve into chaos

The group “doesn’t represent spring breakers. These represent criminals,” said Panama City Police Chief Mark Smith


By Lawrence Specker
al.com
        
PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. — Florida law enforcement officials say they arrested 78 people from Alabama in Panama City Beach, Fla., over the weekend and confiscated 75 guns as spring break revelry devolved into chaos.

“What we saw this past weekend is absolutely unacceptable,” Panama City Beach Police Chief J.R. Talamantez said in a multi-agency press conference held late Monday morning. “The behavior of these pathetic cowards that came to our beach and committed these crimes, their actions will not be tolerated.”

The weekend apparently started on a rowdy note before coming to a head on Sunday afternoon, when a 21-year-old from Alabama was shot in the foot.

In a report aired before the shooting, Panama City-based ABC affiliate WMBB-TV reported that some beach roads had been shut down and some businesses had closed voluntarily, including a Walmart, due to gridlock and rowdy behavior. Interviewed at the time, Talamantez told the station that people were “acting a fool” but that there had been no violence and that he would not characterize any of the activity as a riot.

On Sunday, the Majestic Towers Beach Resort posted on Facebook that things had been “extremely eventful, to say the least.”

“Last night, due to large crowds along Front Beach Road and large crowds walking through the local Walmart, knocking items of the shelves and destroying Walmart property, the Panama City Beach Police shut down portions of Front Beach Road, between Hutchison Blvd and Richard Jackson Blvd for approximately two hours in order to control the crowds,” resort managers said in a post. “While Panama City Beach Police had over 100 officers on duty last night from agencies all around the area, there were thousands upon thousands of visitors. Thankfully there were not any incidents on Majestic property. However, there were large crowds walking on the sidewalks, and through traffic along Front Beach Road. Keep in mind these were not your typical Spring Break crowd. Up until this weekend we had large crowds of Spring Breakers, without incident.”

The uneasy status quo didn’t hold through Sunday. WJHG-TV, a Panama City-based NBC affiliate, reported that authorities had made some 161 arrests, including the 78 from Alabama. Talamantez and others said they had been braced for trouble for weeks or even months, related to a specific group of people allegedly motivated by a social media influencer.

On Sunday, he said, officers were flooding into a particular area because of reports the situation was getting out of hand. Something caused the crowd to run onto a nearby roadway, and while police were trying to restore order, the shooting occurred nearby. At least six people were arrested at the scene. The chief also referred to an incident in which people had caused “absolute destruction” inside a Walmart.

As Talamantez spoke, scores of pistols and rifles were laid out on a table before them.

“These guns were taken over a period of two days,” the chief said. “It could arm a small army. Semiautomatic weapons, long rifles, these are weapons brought to a resort destination. These are weapons brought to a beach.”

“This is an event that we’ve been planning for and gathering intelligence on for two or three weeks,” said Bay County Sheriff Tommy Ford, referring to a group or event called “Panamaniac.” “It allowed us to target the bad guys, and know where they were, and be there before they got there.”

Ford said law enforcement officials had been doing intelligence work for weeks. Over the weekend, they had used technology such as license plate readers and surveillance cameras to track people of interest, he said.

Online materials for an event titled “Panamaniac 2 Final Invasion” appear to target a predominantly Black audience. However, there also was an online site selling “Panamaniac VIP Cards” offering discounts on cover charges and other bonuses to visitors, and photos on that page showed a white, college-age crowd.

Attempts to reach local officials for clarification were not immediately successful.

Late Monday afternoon, the Bay County Sheriff’s Office released more information, saying that unspecified social media entities had promoted a “PCB Takeover.”

“During the weekend, 161 individuals were booked into the Bay County Jail by all law enforcement agencies. Of the 161 individuals booked into the Jail Facility, 78 were from Alabama. Over the weekend, the Bay County Sheriff’s Office responded to 859 calls for service, 548 of those calls were from the beach zones,” said the update. “The BCSO arrested 77 adults and 5 juveniles, a total of 82 arrests. A majority of these arrests were for illegal firearms charges. 75 firearms were seized by law enforcement.”

The update included more than 40 booking photos of those arrested, showing a racially mixed group.

Officials speaking at Monday’s press conference did not address race, though some commenters suggested it had been a factor in the crackdown.

Various officials said this was not a typical vacationing student crowd at all.

The group “doesn’t represent spring breakers. These represent criminals,” said Panama City Police Chief Mark Smith.

“This isn’t what we want coming to our city,” said Smith. “We want the spring breakers, we want the tourists. We don’t want this element. The element that brings this [a reference to the confiscated guns] is not the element that’s desired in our city. We are not going to be tolerant to it, we are not going to permit it.”

Several officials reference the fact that spring break in Panama City Beach was marred by lawlessness that made national headlines several years ago, and the city has tried to present a more family-friendly face since then.

“These are behaviors that we as a community have fought before and won and gone on to become a premier family destination,” said Ford.

“We will not tolerate bad behavior in Panama City Beach in any way, shape or form. If you want to come here and be a bad person, you picked the wrong place,” said Mayor Mark Sheldon. “This was not spring breakers. So trust me when I tell you, this is just a bad element of people who did this.”

Talamantez said “there was no framework in place” to gauge the way social media could amplify a developing situation.

“One post can go viral, one post can be a dud, it’s hard to gauge that,” he said. “What we saw today, or what we saw this weekend, was a social media influencer that had a lot of followers, a lot of people wanting to follow his nonsense.”

©2022 Advance Local Media LLC.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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