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PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. — The disturbing allegation that a woman was gang-raped by college students on a packed beach last month now has residents questioning just how out of control this tourism mecca has become.
It also has officials asking: Is spring break broken — and what can be done to fix it?
"We have gone to an era now of total violence and animalistic conduct," said Wes Pittman, a Panama City Beach resident for almost 40 years.
Bay County Sheriff Frank McKeithen was so distressed by the alleged assault, which was caught on cellphone video during broad daylight, that he called it one of the most "sickening things" he had ever seen.
"Within 10 feet of where this is happening, there is hundreds, hundreds of people standing there watching, looking, seeing, hearing what's going on," McKeithen said at a news conference last week.
A third suspect was arrested Wednesday and charged with sexual assault by multiple perpetrators. The 19-year-old woman claims she might have been drugged by her attackers, according to police.
City officials acknowledge the need to stamp out crime in this Florida Panhandle vacation hot spot, where arrests between March 1 and April 15 totaled 1,091 — up from 324 during the same period last year, according to police data.
In another high-profile incident last month, seven young people — including students — were shot at a house party. A 22-year-old suspect was arrested on attempted murder charges.
The city has been using so-called mobile booking cages to temporarily roundup and detain suspects, many of whom are reportedly highly intoxicated.
As one potential solution to curbing bad behavior, alcohol on beaches is banned from March 1 to April 18, while bars are forced to close two hours earlier — at 2 a.m.
"We'll do what it takes to take the beach back and get it under control," said Panama City Beach Mayor Gayle Oberst.
But business owners admit that the 300,000 partiers who flood the area for spring break are prized because they spend millions of dollars, which keeps the local economy humming.
Last month's alleged gang-rape occurred behind the popular beach bar and dance club Spinnaker. Owner Sparky Sparkman, who does not believe the incident happened behind his business, acknowledges how heavily the community still needs this spring break business.
What if the revelers suddenly stayed away?
"I don't want to find out," Sparkman said, "and I don't think (other residents) want to find out either."
- Third Student Charged in Gang-Rape on Panama City, Florida, Beach
- 2 College Students Charged in Gang Rape on Florida Beach