Spring Break beach patrol
Editor’s note: For seven hours on Saturday, March 13, South Jetty reporter Dan Parker rode with Port Aransas police officers patrolling the beach during the Spring Break holiday that drew thousands of people to Port Aransas. Most revelers behaved themselves, but some drank themselves to unconsciousness, and others got into fights. One got a ticket for spinning his wheels and spraying the fire chief’s truck with a plume of sand. Throw all that in with a police pursuit of a car load of accused fishing gear thieves and an encounter with a man wearing a gorilla suit, and it made for an interesting evening.
5 p.m. Lt. Darryl Johnson is driving an unmarked Dodge Ram down the beach near Mile Marker 22, where the Spring Break crowd is concentrated at its heaviest. Dozens of young people slowly cruise this part of the beach road, and hundreds more stand nearby in the sand, drinking beer, burning camp fires and blasting music from their car stereos.
“I’ve survived 22 Spring Breaks,” he says with a smile.
From Johnson’s perspective, the worst was the year a murder took place on the beach. A man named Gilbert Mendez killed another man in a gang-related dispute. Mendez ended up getting a long prison term.
Most Spring Breakers don’t cause problems, and the ones who do break laws mainly are guilty of low-level misdemeanor offenses like public intoxication, according to police. The last few Spring Breaks have been relatively calm, Johnson says.
“But that’s subject to change really quick,” he added. “Once the crowd gets that mob mentality, people will do things they ordinarily wouldn’t do.”
5:18 p.m. A young man standing on a sand dune tries to throw a football to a friend across the beach roadway, but the ball lands in the road, smack in front of Johnson’s moving truck. Johnson stops and speaks to the intended receiver.
“Hey, guy,” Johnson says. “Need to keep it out of the roadway, OK?”
The young man says, “Yes sir,” then yells at his friend on the dune. “You’re fired, Keith!”
5:31 p.m. Near Mile Marker 26, a beachgoer dressed in a gorilla costume jumps up and down, waving at passing vehicles. Johnson pulls over to let the newspaper reporter riding with him do a quick interview with the gorilla.
“I just thought it would be fun,” Hinojosa says. “You wouldn’t believe how many people have been stopping to pose for pictures with me.”
5:39 p.m. Johnson is driving near Mile Marker 24 when he spots a reckless driver less than 50 feet away. A young man driving a maroon Chevrolet Silverado is accelerating hard, causing his truck to fishtail back and forth on the road.
“He’s holding a beer in one hand, too,” Johnson says. The lieutenant turns around, drives up behind the Silverado and flips on the emergency lights that previously were hidden in his unmarked vehicle’s roofline.
The Silverado driver is a shirtless young man wearing a puka shell necklace. After giving him a good once-over and doing a computer check to make sure no arrest warrants exist, Johnson lets him go with a warning.
“You’re drinking, and you’re drawing attention to yourself with police everywhere around you,” Johnson says. “My suggestion to you is to just park it right here, or you’re going to spend the rest of Spring Break in jail.”
The young man thanks Johnson and promises to behave. The lieutenant goes back on patrol.
“If I can gain compliance without writing citations or making an arrest, that’s the ultimate goal,” Johnson says. “Sometimes, it’s good to let people know that not every experience they have with police isn’t going to be bad.”
6 p.m. Just north of Access Road 1A, two parachutists drop out of the sky, landing on the beach between the bollards and the water. One of the parachutists is Victor Mondragon, 20, of Corpus Christi. It’s the first time he ever has skydived.
“It was amazing, man!” he says, grinning a wide smile.
6:08 p.m. Near Mile Marker 10, Port Aransas Police Chief Scott Burroughs has pulled over a white Toyota Tundra pickup truck driven by a young man accused of purposely spinning his tries to throw sand high in the air.
It’s a popular Spring Breaker pastime, but illegal. And, in this case, much of the sand has landed on a vehicle that just happened to be a city-owned pickup truck driven by Scott Mack, chief of the Port Aransas Volunteer Fire Department.
Wearing a backward baseball cap, the Tundra driver silently leans against his truck and smokes a cigarette while Burroughs writes him a ticket accusing him of willful and wanton disregard for public safety, a Class C misdemeanor.
6:18 p.m. At Mile Marker 13, two Texas Parks and Wildlife Department officers stand watch over a red-haired young man who is so drunk that he can’t stand up. Handcuffed, he sits in the sand, nodding off and leaning against one officer’s legs for support. Soon, a constable’s deputy shows up, walks the breaker to a patrol car and takes him to jail.
6:27 p.m. A police officer puts out a radio call requesting help in the area of Access Road 1A. Johnson turns on his lights and siren and speeds to the scene. Perhaps 50 beachgoers have gathered to watch as police prepare to take an intoxicated, bikini-wearing young woman into custody.
The woman is lying face-down in the sand, complaining that one of her knees is hurt. Johnson and another officer help the young woman to her feet, and they carry her to a waiting patrol car that then whisks the prisoner away.
The entire scene is filmed by a man with an expensive-looking video camera. He is a professional photographer on assignment, filming police for a show called “Party Heat,” a “Cops”-like television show on the trutv cable station.
Several young women, friends of the arrested woman, are upset by the arrest and the attention it generated.
“They don’t need to be putting this on TV!” one says. “This is stupid!”
6:40 p.m. Johnson heads back to the police station. His shift ends at 7 p.m. While Port Aransas police normally work eight-hour shifts, Johnson and others during Spring Break are working 12-hour shifts, which puts more officers on the street.
8:15 p.m. In the booking area of the city jail, which lies in the same building as the police department, Officer Scott Grumbles is processing a handcuffed man who has been arrested on a public intoxication charge. The prisoner wears black shorts and a black tank top. On one shoulder are tattoos of a cross and a pair of praying hands.
Filling out a jail form, Grumbles asks the man a series of simple questions about his age, the spelling of his name and his address.
“What is your occupation?” Grumbles asks.
“Ace Bigalow, male gigolo,” the man says, smiling.
“You’re a gigolo?” Grumbles asks.
The man stops smiling. “Actually,” he says, “I install aquariums.”
After finishing up with the booking, Grumbles walks with Sgt. Brandon Riedel to the law enforcement complex’s garage, where a buffet of Mexican food is being served. More than 30 individuals, civic groups and businesses have donated food and drinks for buffets served every day of Spring Break at PAPD, the headquarters for a wide variety of police agencies during the week-long holiday.
Riedel and Grumbles are riding together tonight. Riedel is with the Port Lavaca Police Department. PAPD has hired officers from several other agencies to help out during the busy Spring Break period.
8:27 p.m. Moments after sitting down with plates full of carne guisada, Grumbles and Riedel hear car tires screeching nearby. They look up and, perhaps 200 feet away, a car with fishing rods sticking out of one window races past the police station on Avenue A. A PAPD patrol car speeds after the car.
Grumbles and Riedel drop their forks and run out of the garage. The pursued car makes a turn into a condominium complex parking lot next-door to the police station.
Grumbles and Riedel sprint to the parking lot, arriving just as other officers also are getting there. The three men who had been in the pursued car are gone, running off into the night.
Police on foot and in patrol cars search the neighborhood. Several officers climb over a fence to search a large yard full of construction equipment. The property is owned by Port Aransas Mayor Claude Brown.
One officer speaks on his radio. “Please notify the mayor that we’re searching his yard,” the officer tells a dispatcher.
The search turns up no suspects. Back at the condominium parking lot, PAPD Detective Mark Stokes says he chased the car because it matched a description police received about a vehicle involved in a theft of fishing gear from the area of Woody’s Sports Center.
Grumbles and Riedel walk back to the police station and ate their food, cold.
9:40 p.m. Grumbles and Reidel are patrolling an area of the beach that’s getting crowded.
“It’s bottlenecking really bad here at Pole 23,” Grumbles says on his radio. “I’m going to attempt to start pushing people back.”
Grumbles and Reidel stop their patrol truck and ask crowds of spring breakers to step back away from the beach roadway. Several are asked to start their cars and back further away from the road. Everyone generally is compliant.
10:20 p.m. Grumbles and Reidel pull over a truck in which two young men are sitting in the back of the vehicle, dangling their legs over the edge of a lowered tailgate.
It’s not illegal to sit in the back of a moving truck, but it’s a violation to dangle your legs out of a vehicle. Grumbles lets them go with a warning.
10:37 p.m. Grumbles and Reidel spot a young man staggering along the edge of the beach roadway. He’s wearing white pants and no shirt.
“There’s a drunk fool right there,” Grumbles says.
Grumbles leans out his truck window and speaks to the man’s friends.
“Y’all need to get him home, or he’s going to be arrested,” the officer says. “He’s very intoxicated.”
A girl in the group takes the tipsy young man by one arm and leads him away.
The officers go back on patrol. They pull over a truck with a headlight that’s out, then let the driver go after he adjusts the headlight and gets it working again.
11 p.m. Grumbles and Reidel spot the intoxicated young man with the white pants again. He’s walking unsteadily with some friends along the beach roadway.
Grumbles asks the man for his driver’s license, but he says he doesn’t have one. The officer asks the man several times for personal information, but he keeps giving them conflicting information on simple questions like his date of birth.
Finally, Grumbles says they’re going to have to arrest him.
“Just give me a chance, sir,” the man says.
“Why should we?” Grumbles says. “We already gave you a chance.”
The officers handcuff the man and take him to the city jail. Police later determine that the man actually was a 16-year-old boy trying to pass himself off as his older brother.
11:20 p.m. Sgt. Milton Zidek and Floresville Police Department Officer Eric Hutchison speed to Sharkey’s Beach Club, where a fight has been reported. When they arrive, one fighter has left the scene, and police are questioning the other man in the club parking lot.
The man appears drunk but uninjured, and police decide to let him go with his friends, as long as he’s not the one driving. The man pushes his luck, however, slurringly shouting at police that he hadn’t done anything wrong.
“We’re just having a good time!” the man yells.
With some effort, his friends make him get into their truck, and the party leaves.
11:45 p.m. Zidek and Hutchison are back on the beach, patrolling amidst the Spring Break crowd. Zidek shakes his head at the traffic that surrounds him.
“What is the joy of driving up and down the beach?” he says.
Zidek says he’s relieved to see that the breakers seem to be better behaved than last year, when there were gunshots at times on the beach.
“I hope I’m not jinxing myself here,” Zidek says, “but we haven’t had those kinds of problems this year, yet.”