Siesta Seen

Crime concerns continue, with spring break reported as one of busiest ever; Sheriff’s Office investigates firing of gunshots near the Beach Club; reader erroneously claims state law allows electric bicycles on county beaches; correction provided on report about suspicious Hollywood Boulevard death; FPL finally offers explanation about traffic tie-ups on Higel in early March; and county seeking reimbursement for driver’s damage to Village streetlight

The Siesta Public Beach parking lot has plenty of cars in it during a February evening in 2019, just after sunset. File photo

As evidenced by comments during the May 10 Neighborhood Workshop regarding the proposed redevelopment of Siesta Key Beach Resort and Suites, a number of island residents remain concerned about crime. (See the related article in this issue.)

Earlier that same day, The Sarasota News Leader spoke with Sgt. Arik Smith, leader of the Sheriff’s Office substation, regarding recent incidents on the island, including a shooting just after 11:30 p.m. on May 7 in the parking lot of Siesta Public Beach. (See that related story in this issue, as well.)

Smith explained that the Sheriff’s Office had been working with the Sarasota County Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources (PRNR) staff and the county commissioners about closing the parking lot earlier at night.

He added that the Sheriff’s Office also had broached the idea of installing gates that could be locked to keep people out of the lot after hours.

The closing time officially is midnight, Smith said. However, the Sheriff’s Office staff would like to see that lowered to 10 p.m., he added.

“It’s an ongoing process” was how he described the conversations that had been taking place.

When the News Leader spoke with county Media Relations Officer Drew Winchester, he confirmed that it would be up to the County Commission to make a decision about adjusting the closing time.

Barricades are up at an entrance to the Siesta Public Beach parking lot in the early-morning hours of March 19, 2020. County Administrator Jonathan Lewis had ordered the county-operated beaches closed to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Image courtesy Sarasota County

In regard to crime in general on the Key, Smith told the News Leader that he and the other officers who are assigned to the island believe that a number of the snowbirds who normally would have headed back North after Easter have chosen to stay longer this year. Moreover, he said, visitors keep coming to Siesta.

Even county Health Officer Chuck Henry has referenced the “extended spring break period” in updates to the County Commission about the status of COVID-19 transmissions in the county.

“I think we had one of the busiest spring breaks in the last five years, in regard to calls for service,” Smith said. Those calls do not necessarily involve crimes, he pointed out. For example, he noted, if an individual finds an abandoned vehicle or property a person accidentally left in a restaurant, the individual will call the Sheriff’s Office. Calls for service, Smith said, can be about “anything and everything.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis has made a number of public comments about the fact that Florida has been open for some time, as the pandemic continues, while some states still have restrictions in place.

During his May 6 report to members of the Siesta Key Association (SKA), Smith said, “March and April were extremely busy for us.”

“When you have such a high-density area for tourism,” Smith told the News Leader this week, it is inevitable that more incidents will occur. Not only do some people on vacation feel they should be able to do whatever they want, regardless of regulations, he said, other people will come to the area to prey on the large crowds of visitors.

“They feel like they can find easy targets,” he told the SKA members on May 6.

Every month, during his reports on island crime statistics to SKA members, Smith warns that everyone should remember to keep vehicle and residential doors locked. “That single act can deter so many crimes,” he stressed on May 6.

During April, he reported, the Sheriff’s Office investigated five vehicle burglaries and three auto thefts. All of them, Smith pointed out, “involved unlocked vehicles.”

Sgt. Arik Smith. File photo

Then he repeated his admonition to the members once more: “Lock your cars.”

In fact, he continued, he had learned recently that his own mother was not locking her car at night. He programmed her cell phone to sound an alarm at 8:30 p.m., to remind her to take that step if she had not done so already.

People also should not take valuables to the beach, but if they do, Smith reminds the public, they should make certain they store those items out of sight in their vehicles.

In years past, deputies on Siesta have described to this reporter situations in which they found vehicle doors open in the beach parking lot; the deputies promptly closed the doors. Apparently, the drivers and passengers were so eager to get their gear together to head to the shore that they forgot their vehicles were still open.

Substation leaders also have talked in the past about the fact that many visitors feel Siesta is such a safe environment that precautions against thefts are not necessary.

“I think, for the most part,” Smith told the News Leader, “[crime] stays fairly level.”

Smith did provide the News Leader a copy of a report he asked the Sheriff’s Office’s staff to prepare at the request of the Siesta Key Condominium Council. That report dealt primarily with residential and vehicle burglaries in 2019 and 2020.

The data show that the number of residential burglaries on the Key was down 46% from 2019 to 2020. The figure for vehicle burglaries was up 3%, year-over-year. Still, the total number of the latter incidents was 41 in 2020, compared to 40 in 2019, the chart notes.

This chart shows the trend in residential burglaries month-to-month in 2019 and 2020. Image courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

In regard to crimes at the beach park: A separate chart shows that the number of battery cases climbed from eight in 2019 to 22 in 2020, a 175% uptick. Robberies doubled — from one in 2019 to two in 2020. Theft cases increased 75% — from 16 in 2019 to 28 in 2020.

Finally, the number of vehicle burglaries was up 50% — from four to six, year-over-year.

These are the other charts in the materials Sgt. Arik Smith recently provided to the Siesta Key Condominium Council. Image courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

As for the total number of calls for service on Siesta in April, Smith told the SKA members the figure was 556. Of those, 46, or about 8%, were what the FBI used to classify as “Part 1” crimes, which are incidents involving people or property. In a normal month, he added, those more serious crimes make up 6% to 8% of the calls for service.

Gunshots fired near the Beach Club

Another recent incident that has sparked a bit of talk on the Key included the firing of gunshots near the Beach Club, which is located at 5133 Ocean Blvd. in Siesta Village.

One SKA member asked about that during the May 6 meeting.

Kaitlyn R. Perez, the community affairs director for the Sheriff’s Office, provided the News Leader a copy of the report on that incident, at the News Leader’s request. The report itself notes that the incident is still under investigation.

The incident began about 12:55 a.m. on April 30, the report says. When a deputy arrived on the scene, the complainant — Christian Michael Evanoff, 18, of Sarasota — explained “that he and his friends were partying at the Beach Club,” the report adds. While they were leaving, it continues, he saw one of those friends being robbed.

Evanoff told the deputy that three Black males exited a silver compact sedan — possibly a Volvo — “and began beating up his friend” in the area of the Beach Club. One of the alleged assailants, who was wearing a gray hoodie and a black face mask, struck the friend in the eye with a firearm, the report says. Evanoff then observed the Black males taking the friend’s cell phone and Gucci hat, and one of the men pointed a small handgun in the air “and fired off several rounds” in the vicinity of the victim, the report adds.

(The report lists the value of that phone as $500, while the value of the hat was put at $50.)

People stroll past the Beach Club in Siesta Village on an evening in mid-May 2017. The Beach Club has been a popular destination for decades. File photo

When the deputy spoke with the victim, the report says, the victim corroborated Evanoff’s statement, adding “that he just wanted to return home.”

The deputy noted in the report that the 18-year-old victim “had visible injuries to his left eye and left side of nose …”

The victim said he was unable to call 911 because his phone had been taken from him, the report adds. He also did not want paramedics “to check him out,” the report says.

The victim was not identified in the report, it notes, because the victim opted in to Marsy’s Law, which is a state law that allows victims to protect themselves from being named in records released to the public.

The deputy then spoke with another witness who was not part of Evanoff’s group. That person, Eduardo Bover, 52, of Port Charlotte, who is an Uber driver, said he was parked in the vicinity of the incident, the report continues. He told the deputy that the people in Evanoff’s truck, which had stopped near the Black males’ parked silver sedan, “appeared to be provoking the suspects in [the] silver sedan to fight them. Eduardo advised that [he] observed four or five shots were fired in the air” by one of the Black males, and then he watched as Evanoff’s truck headed toward Ocean Boulevard.

He told the deputy that the sedan took off in the direction of the alleyway at the rear of the Beach Club.

The deputy also spoke with two other friends of Evanoff, the report notes. One said “he did not observe anything and only heard shots being fired outside.” The other told the deputy that he was attempting to help the victim “when he witnessed the suspect shooting into the air.”

“The victim … advised that he did not wish to pursue any charges against the unknown suspect and signed a waiver of prosecution,” the report says. The identity of the suspect remains unknown, the report adds, “pending further follow up.”

When the News Leader spoke on May 10 with Sgt. Arik Smith, the island substation leader, he explained, “There wasn’t a whole lot we could do,” since the victim did not want to press charges. “It was kind of disheartening.”

County rules on electric bikes prevail over state law

This is an electric Beryl bike. Image by Sebastiandoe5, via Wikimedia Commons

A reader recently contacted the News Leader about information in the April 9 Siesta Seen regarding electric bicycles being illegal on county beaches. The reader claimed the information was incorrect.

The report was based on comments Sgt. Arik Smith, the Sheriff’s Office substation leader on Siesta, provided to members of the Siesta Key Association (SKA) on April 1.

Smith said such bicycles are allowed only if people are pedaling them.

Two different county ordinances forbid the operation of motor vehicles on the beaches, Smith pointed out. He specifically cited Section 130-37 of the County Code.

The reader cited Florida Statute 324.021 to support his contention that Smith was wrong. That state law, the reader claimed, supersedes the county regulations.

Therefore, the News Leader contacted Kaitlyn R. Perez, community affairs director for the Sheriff’s Office.

In a May 7 email, Perez wrote that Smith was not incorrect in his report to the SKA members. However, she added, “[I]t appears your reader cited the incorrect statute. [Florida State Statute] FSS 324.021 pertains to minimum insurance required to operate an e-bike,” she emphasized.

In other words, she added, “You don’t need to contact Geico before you hit the streets on your new e-bike.”

Perez then noted, “The change to the statute does not alter the enforceability of the county’s ordinance, nor did the legislature intend it to. We know that because the legislature specifically addressed that issue in the bill’s legislative intent:

“The bill creates regulations governing the operation of e-bikes and provides that e-bikes and e-bike operators must be afforded all the rights and privileges, and be subject to all of the duties, of bicycles and bicycle operators. The bill authorizes e-bikes to operate where bicycles are allowed, including, but not limited to, streets, highways, roadways, shoulders, bicycle lanes, and bicycle or multiuse paths. However, local governments may regulate the operation of e-bikes on streets, highways, sidewalks, and sidewalk areas, and local governments and state agencies with jurisdiction over bicycle paths, multiuse paths, and trail networks may restrict or prohibit the operation of e-bikes on such paths and networks.”

During the May 6 SKA meeting, Director Margaret Jean Cannon told Sgt. Smith that she still was seeing a group of people on electric bikes heading each evening toward Beach Access 2, which is a popular sunset-watching spot.

She lives between Beach Accesses 9 and 10, she noted.

“There are smaller numbers,” Cannon added of the bicyclists, compared to the size of the groups before the April SKA meeting. However, she pointed out, the groups she sees are moving “at fast speeds.”

“It will be addressed,” Smith responded. “There will be a resolution,” he promised her. 

A correction

This week, Kaitlyn R. Perez, community affairs director for the Sheriff’s Office, pointed out an error in the News Leader’s April 23 article about the investigation into the death of a resident of Baywood Colony Garden Apartments on Hollywood Boulevard.

The victim’s name and other identifying information were redacted from the written report Perez provided the News Leader because the case is active and ongoing, Perez wrote in an email. The News Leader incorrectly attributed the redaction to Marsy’s Law.

This is one of the three buildings that comprise Bay Garden Colony Apartments on Hollywood Boulevard. This image is on several real estate websites. Image courtesy

Perez explained, “Marsy’s Law protects victims of crime and since we don’t yet technically know if this victim was ‘killed’ or died from natural causes, Marsy’s Law cannot be offered to his next of kin just yet.”

Even though the incident occurred at the Hollywood Boulevard location, the News Leader heard about it from Siesta residents who had read about it on the Nextdoor app.

Asked if any update on the case was available this week, Perez did tell the News Leader that the investigators advised her on May 12 that the District 12 Medical Examiner’s Office “has sent items to a specialist for further examination.” She added that that was all the information she had at that time.

A big traffic problem on the northern part of the Key

On March 11, Sarasota County staff announced on Facebook that the northbound lane of Higel Avenue was closed and all traffic was having to be routed through the southbound lane.

The reason: work by Florida Power & Light (FPL), staff noted.

“This is causing traffic delays on the island in both directions,” the county Facebook post pointed out, so motorists were being urged to use the Stickney Point Road access to the Key or avoid traveling to the island until further notice.

“The Florida Department of Transportation is working to resolve the issue and open the roadway in both directions,” the post added.

The northbound lane of Higel Avenue is blocked as an FPL crew works on a project on March 11. Image courtesy Sarasota County

It took the News Leader a while — three attempts — to get a response from FPL about what was going on that day. In the meantime, Lisa Cece, the special district coordinator for Sarasota County — who is the liaison to the Siesta Key Village Maintenance Corp. — told the News Leader that the work on Higel created a “huge backflow of traffic on the north end of the island …” She added, “I had to make a lot of calls before the FDOT sent an inspector to shut [the contractor] down.”

FPL, she noted, does not need a permit to work in the right of way.

A long line of vehicles can be seen heading north in the southbound lane of Higel Avenue. Image courtesy Sarasota County

When the News Leader finally heard this week from FPL, this was the explanation about the incident from spokesperson Marshall Hastings: “The lane closure on Higel Avenue was due to a crew working on a Storm Secure Underground Pilot Program project in Siesta Key. There were no additional lane closures after March 11. FPL completed two of the pilot projects in the area in April, replacing overhead power lines with more reliable underground lines for a total of 35 customers.”

The Sandal Factory incident

Lisa Cece, the special district coordinator for Sarasota County, also had information about another incident — this one in Siesta Village on April 21.

A vehicle knocked down the streetlight in front of the Sandal Factory that evening, she reported.

The store is located at 5232 Ocean Blvd.

The Sandal Factory has been open about three years. File photo

The Sheriff’s Office notified the county’s Traffic Operations Division, which came out to remove the pole, she added.

“The driver left the scene,” Cece wrote in her email to the News Leader, but witnesses had called the Sheriff’s Office. “One of them make a statement and must have taken a photo of the license plate [of the driver who did the damage],” she pointed out. As a result, she continued, the county’s Risk Management personnel were able to track down the driver of the vehicle, which was a rental.

“[W]e will be filing a claim for that damage and [the cost of the] replacement [of the streetlight],” Cece pointed out.

The new pole was installed on April 29, she wrote.