Myrtle Beach Police Chief says dedicated emergency lane likely returning next Memorial Day

As Grand Strand leaders, police and attorneys continue brainstorming solutions following a violent Memorial Day weekend, Myrtle Beach Police Chief Warren Gall said he’s certain the city will include the return of a dedicated emergency lane on Ocean Boulevard.

“The traffic pattern and the emergency lane that we did away with we’re going to have to reinstate because it’s necessary,” he said. “In some form or fashion it’s coming back. It’ll make us more visible and it’ll allow first responders to get up and down the road and get to those calls which we weren’t able to do.”

Eight confirmed shootings, including one May 24 that left three people dead, in Myrtle Beach during Memorial Day prompted the formation of two task forces, plans to redirect accommodations tax funds from tourism promotion to beefed up law enforcement and calls to end the rally by community members and the governor.

Myrtle Beach police have said the triple fatal shooting at the Bermuda Sands Resort on First Avenue North may have been the result of possible gang activity. Gall said that is still undetermined, but has been said because of who was shot.

“We’re not into the investigation far enough to be able to pinpoint the cause of that or the involvement of that,” he said. “That’s been said and that’s based upon our victims and their histories and who they’ve been hanging with.”

Jamie Williams, 28, of Ladson, and Devonte Dantzler, 21, of Summerville, died on the scene. Sandy Gaddis Barnwell, 22, of Summerville, was pronounced dead later at Grand Strand Regional Medical Center. A fourth person, Keith Williams of Lincolnville, was injured in the shooting. Seven others were injured by gunfire that weekend.

Gall said he’s confident the victims and the unidentified shooter are connected to Bikefest.

“Bikefest creates the atmosphere that draws the bad element to the Myrtle Beach area,” he said. “Other events go on. We do have some bad elements that come, no question about it … But compressed into a three- or four-day weekend, the Bikefest draws crowds that can do anything and everything they want to, or think they can, in an atmosphere of anonymity.”

He pointed at the first three weeks of June when high school kids make the trek to Myrtle Beach and sometimes get in trouble.

“My opinion, being here for the years I’ve been here, that atmosphere draws that criminal element to Myrtle Beach. I feel these violent acts … wouldn’t have occurred in the frequency that they occurred had it not been for the large crowd that Bikefest attracts.”

Gov. Nikki Haley called for the end of the annual event hosted by Atlantic Beach, but ending Bikefest, which has been held since the early 1980s, is not something Atlantic Beach officials plan to consider, because it’s the town’s money-maker and a tradition.

“There are hundreds of thousands of festival goers who obey the laws, enjoy Bikefest, respect others respect the laws,” said Atlantic Beach Mayor Jake Evans said. “And I would hate us to just turn those people away for the percentage who are not abiding by the laws. ... This Bikefest means more to us as a tradition just as much as it is the money.”

That leaves Gall working to prepare his department for next year’s event.

“We certainly are looking at some of the things that we did that we need to tighten up on and fix and readdress,” Gall said. “Everything’s on the table. That’s kind of the marching orders . Don’t discount any possibility.”

He said lessons have already been learned, including the need for the dedicated emergency lane on Ocean Boulevard.

Myrtle Beach City Councilman Randal Wallace said the lane, which was last used three or four years ago, should help.

“I can’t help but think for a lot of reasons it would help,” Wallace said. “It would get their ability to move around the boulevard back. That was a problem. Just their ability to get on the scene. We had emergency vehicles that couldn’t get on scene and that, I think, is pretty important.”

Wallace said the city stopped using the lane because the crowds had diminished to the point where it wasn’t necessary.

More officers may also be coming to the Grand Strand to help police large crowds next yea. The Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce is working with state and local officials to amend state law to allow accommodations taxes to pay for more law enforcement.

Gall said that would help, but it takes more than simply adding people.

“We have to have the support for it as well,” he said. “We can’t just bring in officers and say ‘OK, here’s 300, 400, 500 more officers, have at it.’”

Gall said those officers need to be fed, housed and equipped with radios.

Déjà vu

In some ways, the violent weekend it’s like déjà vu, Gall said.

“The violence is similar to what happened several years ago when we had the young man shot and killed in the parking lot,” he said. “A completely tragic unnecessary event that triggered all the emotion. [People said] ‘We’ve got to get rid of this event, we’ve got to quiet it down.”

A fight in the parking lot outside a home on Third Avenue North in Myrtle Beach during Bikefest in 2008 started when a car with three girls tried to park in front of the building. The fight led to the shooting death of Coastal Carolina University student Corey Brooks.

That’s when Myrtle Beach last cracked down on the bike rallies, passing noise ordinances and a helmet law that was later overturned.

“We did some things … and eventually the numbers went down,” Gall said. “It quieted down and now were starting to build back up again.”

Gall said the reaction is a little different this time.

“I don’t think the last time it raised to this level of conversation of interest,” he said. “We’ll see in six weeks, seven weeks, six months whether they’re still encouraged and enthusiastic in following through in shutting this thing down and whether we’re able to do that.”

Whether the event shuts down or not, Wallace said officials said the party seen this year won’t be around in 2015.

“We’re not going to put up with the party atmosphere,” he said. “We’ve got to do something to curtail this feeling that they can come and do whatever they want here. We’re going to squash that one next year.”

Despite chatter in the community, Gall and Myrtle Beach Mayor John Rhodes insist there were no orders to stand down.

“There was no order given like that,” Rhodes said. “The order was given to use judgment and avoid inciting a riot.”

Gall said the department has never had such an order.

“I’ve heard that. I’ve heard it ‘til I’m blue in the face,” he said. “I’ve been on the command staff for 22 years. As a captain and as the chief I have never told anybody to stand down.”

Gall said he fields complaints about minor infractions being ignored by his officers, but said it only appears that way when police are tied up on other assignments like protecting crime scenes and directing traffic.

“It’s not ignoring, it’s prioritizing,” he said. “People don’t always understand that. They think because it’s going on in their face that the officer should jump out there and do [something].”

If an officer leaves the roadblock to write a ticket, Gall said nobody will be there to protect the scene.

“There’s no turn your back on this, turn your back on that,” he said. “If you’ve got a girl in a thong over here and you’ve got two guys fighting over there, you go take care of the guys fighting because the girl in the thong ain’t going to hurt anybody. It’s a violation of the law, but it ain’t going to hurt anybody.”

The shootings

There were eight confirmed shootings Memorial Day weekend, but the investigations are proving difficult because victims and witnesses aren’t cooperating, Gall said.

Police on Friday said no charges will be filed in the shooting that occurred late May 25 at the Wave Rider Resort where a brother and sister were injured. Myrtle Beach Police Capt. David Knipes said officers identified every witness and victim, but have refused to provide any details and some have denied a gun ever being in the room.

“Of the eight logged shootings we had, only three of them … happened in the street,” Gall said, adding that one shooting is too many. “Two of them were the results of fights, one of them, we have no idea what it was a result of. We have no evidence, no clues just two people that got wounded.”

Gall said the shooting on Eighth Avenue North where two people were injured by bullets but did not see anything, is a big concern.

“That to me is really troubling,” he said. “That somebody would just indiscriminately fire into a crowd or something.”

Gall said police believe the shooting at the Bermuda Sands on First Avenue was likely a continuation of a fight that occurred on the street.

Police were tending to a gunshot victim outside the hotel when they heard a gun fired inside.

“While they’re rendering aid to this guy, which is what we’re supposed to do, the shooter shot up there and officers heard it,” Gall said.

By the time officers reached the second floor, the shooter couldn’t be found.

“Where the shooter was when the officers arrived on scene in all that chaos, who knew,” Gall said. “Nobody was pointing fingers, nobody was saying ‘It was him, it was him.’

“If you listen to some of the video tape, some of the audio tape from people with their cellphones, the laughing, the joking … that’s the atmosphere that we faced. That’s the lack of assistance and the level of assistance that the officers faced. It’s not serious to anybody. It’s sad.”

Despite the challenges, Wallace and Gall both have confidence that positive changes will be made.

“I think we can all come to a solution we can agree on,” Wallace said of leaders across the Grand Strand, including Atlantic Beach. “We’ll come to something.”

Gall said he can only ask for patience.

“People want answers and people expect us to have immediate answers and we don’t,” he said. “It takes time. This event didn’t build up into what it was overnight and we have to evaluate and make decisions that are going to be good for the department, good for the community, good for all. And that can’t be through a knee-jerk reaction.

“I have confidence in my people. I have confidence in the support that we’re going to get. I think you’ll see a significant change next year for the better.”