Ed. Note: This is the second in our three-part series about the history of Spring Break in Panama City Beach.
Part 1: Wild times and crazy money: The history of the Spring Break Capital of the World
Part 3: Local leaders say Spring Break is the best it’s ever been
PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. (WMBB) — Visitors have fond memories of Spring Break.
Business owners can tell you a lot about the money they made over the years.
But if you ask a law enforcement officer about it, and they’ll tell you a war story.
Mayhem.Sheriff Tommy Ford
Sheriff Tommy Ford said Spring Break became overwhelming for the men and women asked to keep everyone safe.
The battle over Spring Break had been building for years as then-Sheriff Frank McKeithen, some local residents and others tried to convince the Panama City Beach City Council and the Bay County Commission to pass laws that would stop Spring Breakers from coming to town.
On the other side were business owners who had millions of dollars on the line and bar workers who could make a year’s salary— or more— in a single month.
“The worst aspect was supply and demand,” Jack Bishop, a beach business owner, said. “When you had 25,000 18 and 22-years-olds here, you had a tremendous demand. As the world changed for things like oxycodone, marijuana, even the heavy harder heroin, coke, you know. So that demand, if you had 25,000 kids here and only two percent of them were idiots, that’s still 500 kids. And then they drew a crowd to satisfy them. We had the laws on the books to control that, and we didn’t do that, and it got out of hand.”
It got out of hand in lots of ways, not just with drugs and guns. The MTV shows of the 1990s gave way to a new form of entertainment— Girls Gone Wild.
Joe Francis, the man who turned public nudity into a multi-million dollar business, also made headlines around the world when he came to Panama City Beach. And the city’s law enforcement leaders worked to convince him to stay out of town.
Francis was arrested on child abuse and prostitution charges and spent nearly a year in jail in 2008 until he plead guilty in the case.
“Oh, I was here when the ‘Girls Gone Wild’ guy was here,” Bishop recalled. “He offered me $40,000 for my upper deck one day. I kicked him out. I said, ‘The SWAT team will be here. What do I need you here for?'”
The problems were felt all over the place and in certain places more than others. An easement near Pineapple Willy’s and Club La Vela was cause for concern.
“That used to be called the ‘Spring Break Buffet,'” Bishop said. “Because all the kids would be coming back from the beach, were inebriated or sun stroked in the afternoon, and they did stupid things.”
Always outnumbered.Sheriff Tommy Ford
At night in parking lots and in the streets, it got so bad that law enforcement officers sometimes retreated in the face of hostile crowds.
“Always outnumbered but to a point where it was concerning,” Ford said. “They were not cop-friendly crowds.”
By 2013, law enforcement officers were seeing massive problems.
“We pulled 100 illegal guns off the street,” Ford recalled. “We went from a situation where you are talking about college Spring Breakers partying and doing the things they do, which creates an issue for law enforcement and resources and managing that type of crazy behavior but when you combine that with the criminals coming and bringing guns.”
Another problem: the massive spotlight brought on by the national media.
Each year, the latest designer drugs flooded the area, with names like herbal x, scoop, and bath salts. Tragedy also struck multiple times each month when Spring Breakers on scooters were killed in accidents, or died when they fell off balconies.
Fox News personality Sean Hannity made Spring Break a focal point of his show several times, and reporters from all over the world came to town each march in hopes of showing the wildest things they could find.
“It was an unnatural disaster of man-made proportions,” Ford said.
I told them this was going to happen.Former Sheriff Frank McKeithen
Spring Break began with bus tours to the sandy beaches, but it ended around 1 a.m. on March 28, 2015, in a hail of bullets.
David Jamichael Daniels shot seven people during a house party on the beach. Ford was one of the first people to arrive on scene.
“I’ve likened it to being in Afghanistan,” Ford said. “You know, we have 7 kids shot. Some of them had run out of the house. They were in the median, in the road, they were laying in the road. They were in the house. People were trying to frantically run from the scene and the shooter still at large.”
Shortly after the shooting, as their deputies and detectives worked to solve the crime and save lives, McKeithen and Ford got together to discuss the situation.
“He just kept saying, ‘I told them this was going to happen. I told them this was going to happen,'” Ford recalled. “And you know, I think we agreed at that point that that was going to be an inflection point for change.”
Daniels was convicted of the shooting in 2016. He was sentenced to seven life sentences. That same year brought the changes law enforcement leaders had been hoping for.
The Panama City Beach City Council passed strong laws that convinced most of the college Spring Breakers— and the criminal element that came with them— that they were no longer welcome.
By the time it ended, there was plenty of blame to go around.
“All of us. Especially the club owners. We should have been more proactive. We didn’t do enough,” Bishop said.
However, the end of college Spring Break did not mean the end of the good times in Panama City Beach.
“Our destination has long since moved past Spring Break,” Bishop said. “It will never be a college Spring Break here again.”