MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - Myrtle Beach's reputation is under fire after a deadly Memorial Day weekend. So, how did things get so out of control so quickly? We asked some the area's top cops.
The sights of streets being blocked off by massive crowds, the sounds of gunfire, and the images of SWAT teams entering hotel rooms were broadcast to the world last week, and were enough to rattle the reputation of one of the nation's top family destinations. How was Myrtle Beach allowed to turn so lawless, so deadly, so quickly?
"We had EMS personnel from Horry County that were shot at," said County Council Chairman Mark Lazarus at last week's city council meeting. "We had our trucks that were shot at. We had them harassed when they were trying to give safety and save lives of people. We had 1,100, almost 1,200 EMS calls just to the Horry County line."
Since the Bikefest shootings, hotels and motels along the famous boulevard have been fielding cancellations, and Chamber of Commerce employees have been working the phone overtime to calm the nerves of would-be visitors to a tourist destination that is famous for being family-friendly
That same city council meeting brought out many of the motel and business owners most impacted by the weekend violence.
"Where were you all?" asked one hotel owner. "I'm sorry, you all should have been out there right beside them cleaning it. You guys have created this problem."
"I've never wanted to leave Myrtle Beach, ever, being born and raised here," said another. "I've always wanted to have a business here. And now, I can't wait to get out of Myrtle Beach."
One homeowner who lives right off Ocean Boulevard wants the Bikefest events canceled in the future.
"And also respectfully Mr. Mayor, where were you this weekend? I challenge any of you to come and stand on that boulevard and be threatened the way I was threatened," the homeowner said.
The Mayor says he was out there Memorial Day weekend, assessing the trouble for himself. So too was Myrtle Beach police chief, Warren Gall. As Top Cop, we wanted to sit down with the chief to talk about what his officers were doing and what will be different next time. His response: NO! The chief doesn't do on-camera interviews for two reasons: he doesn't want it to be about him, and he doesn't have to prove to anyone that he and his officers are doing their job.
The chief did agree to sit down with no cameras and no microphones, and he did talk bluntly about the trouble on Memorial Day weekend. For those who question whether Bikefest is to blame for the killings, the chief did not mince words:
"Hell yes," he said. "The murders are directly related to Bikefest. No Bikefest and there would not have been three murders on Ocean Boulevard, period. No one can argue that."
After the violence, at least one officer told WMBF News reporters they were concerned that no contingency was in place if the Bikefest event did get out of hand. Chief Gall says that's not completely true.
"We do have contingency plans," Gall insisted. "We have a mass arrest plan. We have a civil disorder plan. This, he told me, was a spontaneous crime scene and neither of those contingency plans was necessary."
Public safety during Bikefest is not just a Myrtle Beach Police responsibility. The county sheriff and county police chief are stakeholders as well. Chief Deputy Paul Bulter patrolled Bikefest for two decades. He admits it's a numbers game when it comes to prioritizing which crimes will get attention: open containers, public indecency, urinating, defecating in public cannot be number one on the list when officers are outnumbered 100 to one.
When asked if he felt it was fair putting deputies into that kind of situation without what many have said was adequate back-up, he responded:
"I don't know if fair is the correct word, but it's the expectation," Butler said. "It's what we do. It's why we take on that duty. It's why we wear the badge. It's not because we always have the advantage. It's not because we have all the answers. It's actually because we're willing to get into the middle of the fight until we get it right, we'll keep each other safe and everyone around us safe and hope at the end, the ends justify the means."
Chief Warren Gall says his officers broke a few records during Bikefest this year, including the number of loaded guns his officers seized: 27 in all.
One local motel owner insists the situation is now more than any police department can handle. "We have no police presence," the owner said. "None, unless you've called them. And for the last three years, the police don't come and stand behind you."
Angry motel owners wasted no time venting their frustrations to City Council last week. Yet, it's these same motel owners and others working and living along Ocean Boulevard who are part of the problem, according to Gall. While many have legitimate complaints, many others are guilty of allowing the free-for-all, perhaps out of fear, perhaps out of fear of losing money.
Gall says, "We are having a tough time getting the entire community to come together on this issue. Everyone is excited right now. But in a couple weeks, nobody wants to worry about it anymore."
Is the only answer doing away with Bikefest altogether? It's no secret most law enforcement agencies across the Grand Strand would like to see that. The Governor has even joined in that call. The problem is, none of the Top Cops we spoke with have any idea how to legally shut it down, at least not in a way that wouldn't add accusations of racism to the already-tarnished reputation of our tourist-dependent economy.
Chief Gall is hoping to hold a law enforcement summit in the fall, with the idea of attracting half a dozen local law enforcement agencies and the Justice Department to give their input into how to better control Bikefest crowds. At the same time, he says Myrtle Beach police will implement several crowd control measures that, over the last few years, proved unnecessary, including one way only traffic and emergency lanes the entire length of Ocean Boulevard.