Panama City Beach officials said Tuesday they were determined to see as many charges as possible against 161 people arrested over the weekend, including 78 people from Alabama.
“It’s not over with this group of people, I can promise you that,” Mayor Mark Sheldon said.
“Our system takes this very seriously,” Bay County Sheriff Tommy Ford said.
“The judge who had the first appearances after that made really good connections. And our attorney general is going to take a tough approach. They may be visitors to Panama City Beach much longer than they thought,” Ford added.
Sheldon and Ford were among officials who attended a press conference Monday after a weekend of chaos that included the vandalism of a Walmart and at least one shooting, with an Alabama man shot in the foot.
On Tuesday, speaking in separate interviews, they provided additional details.
Officials said they had started preparing for possible trouble weeks earlier, but had no way of knowing exactly what they were getting into.
“We saw an influx over the weekend of people who were just bad people, at the end of the day,” Sheldon said. “These are criminals who have come to our city to be lawless and cause mayhem. That was their goal, that’s what they wanted to do this weekend.
“Half of the arrests we made this weekend were people from Alabama,” he said. “Specifically, really, we’ve seen a lot of people from Montgomery and Birmingham coming in and creating trouble.”
Part of the problem, Ford said, “seemed to be coming from the 231 corridor, the Montgomery-Troy-Dothan area, and kind of gaining ground there… There are promoters who put on an event at a club from Panama City, it appeared to be a draw.
“They created their own event,” Sheldon said of the group. “This was not a city-announced event, this was not a city-approved event.”
Ford said it’s easy to understand people planning to converge on a specific weekend. It’s hard to predict how many people will show up or if they’ll be anarchy-prone.
Rather than a cohesive event with central planning and official leaders, such gatherings have more of a grassroots feel.
Promoters touting individual events such as club shows or pool parties could be “just trying to make money,” the sheriff said, and not necessarily breaking any laws. But others may have criminal ties and there may be a snowball effect.
It wasn’t a crowd of students arriving from long car drives, Sheldon said. It was a regional crowd. Some lived close enough not to even book rooms, he said.
“We thought the situation was going to be quite active, but we certainly didn’t expect to arrest 160 people and remove 75 guns from the streets,” Ford said.
Ford said he’s been working Spring Break for 30 years and has seen it “in all its glory, in all its glory.” It was something different, he said.
“In terms of the level of guns and violence, it was very bad, very dangerous,” he said.
“We didn’t expect to see so many weapons. And it wasn’t someone with a .38 Special in his belt, it was AR guns in a backpack, things like that.
“They’re not spring breakers,” Sheldon said.
“So I don’t want to equate it with spring break, because we’ve had a great spring break season here this year. It’s been phenomenal,” Sheldon added.
“These people are armed criminals,” he said. “It’s a very different mindset to someone who came to party a few years ago and drink on the beach. It’s not a beer drinking event in any way. It’s people who came here just to create a problem.
Although Sheldon could not provide details of the legal action against those arrested, he said authorities would make examples of them.
“There are a lot of people who are still detained, and we have worked with our prosecutor,” he said. “We are absolutely aiming for the maximum permitted infractions,” he said. He said a “laundry list” of charges included charges of firearms and drugs as well as lewd behavior.
Ford said he had seen bail set at $200,000 for some of the weapons charges, and that investigators would work to establish whether any of the confiscated weapons were stolen. He said he expected some of those arrested to face federal charges.
Ford said he was not ready to identify specific people as ringleaders. But “there were arrests of people we had identified as being involved in criminal activity and part of the hype to come here,” he said.
Investigators also combed through videos and other evidence to identify other suspects, Sheldon said. “They think they’re done, they’re going to knock on their door one of these days,” he said.
“It was an extremely dangerous situation,” he said. “People I saw had no respect for life or property or other people in general. So many guns, the type of behavior we witnessed was quite brutal.