After a bloody Memorial Day weekend left three people dead and seven wounded, Gov. Nikki Haley wants to end the annual Atlantic Beach Bikefest, which has drawn black bikers for decades to this tiny beachside community near Myrtle Beach.
But Mayor Jake Evans has no plans to end the event in a community that, during the days of segregation, was one of the only places on the South Carolina coast where blacks were welcome.
Bikefest attracts thousands to Atlantic Beach – a town of less than a square mile, three oceanfront blocks and about 350 residents – as well as to surrounding areas along the strip of coast known as the Grand Strand. Evans says there haven’t been problems in his town, but he is willing to discuss the need for more law enforcement in other areas during the weekend.
Eight confirmed shootings, including one on 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. Myrtle Beach police Chief Warren Gall said that is still undetermined. “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.”
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 festivalgoers who obey the laws, enjoy Bikefest, respect others, respect the laws,” 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.”