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PANAMA CITY BEACH, Florida – It is known as the spring break capital of the world. But this year Panama City Beach is a target for criminals.
The city experienced a perilous weekend during which police seized 75 rifles and arrested more than 160 people.
The violence over the weekend keeps locals and visitors on their toes. It’s not your typical spring break — high school and college students enjoying the beach — that cause trouble. They are daring criminals who came to town with bad intentions.
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“Our police chief said it best — the last book most of these people read was ‘Cat in the Hat,'” said Panama City Beach Mayor Mark Sheldon.
Over the past seven years, Panama City Beach has worked hard to move away from the “Girls Gone Wild” days and now advertises itself as a “family-friendly” spring break destination.
In 2016, the city passed ordinances for the month of March banning alcohol on the beach and stopping the sale of alcohol after 2 a.m. to encourage revelers to go elsewhere. For the most part, it has worked to deter crime. But last weekend was different.
“Taking 75 guns off the streets in a weekend in Panama City Beach is unheard of,” Sheldon said. “This was in no way, shape or form, spring break.”
After weeks of violence in Miami, city officials believe those bad actors may have traveled to Florida’s panhandle.
“Some of the same criminals who came to our county this weekend were in Miami last weekend; we know the exact people,” Sheldon said. “These criminals travel from city to city so it’s not new to anyone. It’s just a bad bunch of people trying to be lawless in every community they can find.
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One person was injured in the gunfire on Sunday, shocking many in the community.
“It was unbelievable what happened,” said Rafael Wanderbrock, food and beverage director at Barefoot Restaurants. “Certainly, those people didn’t come here for vacation or pleasure.”
Springbreaker Mary McGee of the University of North Alabama feels like her vacation is under attack.
“I don’t see why you’d come up with anything here,” McGee said. “We’re just here to have fun. We’re not trying to be a part of that.”
Just 20 minutes from PCB you will find the smaller beach resorts such as Seaside and Rosemary Beach, known locally as 30A. The area is known for its quaint oceanfront communities frequented by several country music stars such as Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, and Garth Brooks.
Walton County Sheriff Michael Adkinson says his deputies are prepared if violence spills over into family-friendly communities.
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“This is an extremely safe place to be, but for those individuals who are considering a different kind of lifestyle, who want to come here and make this a ‘takeover destination’, we’re going to take that with a strong hand.”
Adkinson says delegates will not issue warnings or notices. Those who break the law go to jail and see a judge.
And for the criminals who fled Panama City this weekend, Mayor Sheldon says they didn’t escape the law.
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“If they think the crime is over just because they got home, it isn’t,” Sheldon said. “Our detectives are working nonstop to comb through every bit of video, and they’ll knock on their door and they’ll go to Bay County Jail.”
Unlike Miami, Panama City Beach has not yet had to impose a curfew. Sheldon says nothing is off the table and that the city will take all necessary measures if the weather gets out of hand.