Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Public safety

Owner, authorities have fought for years to keep trespassers off site of fatal April ATV wreck

BROOKSVILLE

Tommy Bronson's family has owned a large and beautiful tract of wooded property surrounding Whitehurst Pond in northwest Hernando County for more than three decades.

For nearly the entire time, Bronson has fought to keep people off of it — and lost.

The signs he posted to trees telling unwanted guests to "keep out" have been torn down again and again. The mounds of dirt blocking entrances have been bypassed. The fences he erected, cut.

On all-terrain vehicles and dirt bikes, behind the wheels of Jeeps and 4x4s, an army of motorized trespassers runs roughshod through the place year after year, turning the land into a cobweb of dirt paths and filling the air with dust and the sound of revving motors, shouting and gunshots.

"Everyone's concerned about what goes on out there," Bronson said.

It's just that no one — not Bronson, not the Hernando County Sheriff's Office — can seem to stop it.

Deputies come and chase people off, handing out trespassing warnings and county ordinance violations. They've performed plainclothes operations. Sent helicopter patrols. Made arrests.

Still, people return, drawn to the unruly trails.

Over roughly the past two years, the Sheriff's Office has received more than 200 calls from nearby residents about the property, making it one of the top nuisance areas in the county for illegal four-wheeling and dirt biking.

The Sheriff's Office has recorded 56 calls for trespassing on the property, 61 for reckless driving, 58 for noise disturbances and 12 for shots fired in the area.

Recently, it received another: death investigation.

• • •

It was about 4:30 p.m. April 6, during an afternoon of birthday festivities, when Jessica Oras jumped on a four-wheeler and called to her friend, Rachel Gernaat, to hop on the back.

Oras, 23, skirted the edge of the pond, telling Gernaat she was going to give it more gas.

Gernaat got a bad feeling, she later told the Tampa Bay Times.

Soon after, the pair hit a bump and both women were thrown from the vehicle. Oras succumbed to serious injuries and died. Gernaat, 19, was not injured.

It's not the first time Bronson's property has been the scene of a tragedy.

On a trail at the north end of the property, just off Melanie Avenue, a large wooden cross is planted in the ground, draped in colorful flowers and other tokens.

"Gone but not forgotten" is etched into the horizontal beam.

On Sept. 5, 2005, Brian Hawkins was found dead off a dirt path, next to a Yamaha 350 ATV. That evening, friends said, Hawkins was at a cookout at a nearby home on Moon Road. A few people decided to go out for a ride. An avid ATV rider and biker, Hawkins left by himself about 6:30 p.m. to "warm the vehicle up," according to a Sheriff's Office report.

About 30 minutes later, Hawkins still hadn't returned. His friends went looking for him and found him on the ground, his ATV crushing his head.

According to a deputy's report, it appeared as though Hawkins lost control of the vehicle and hit a dirt embankment.

The dangerous activity is not unique to Bronson's property.

Sheriff's Lt. William Power said these incidents easily could have happened at any of several locations across Hernando where there is a lot of ATV traffic.

"We've had a big issue with four-wheelers in this county," Power said.

• • •

In addition to the attempts Bronson, one of the largest property owners in the county, has made to restrict access to Whitehurst Pond, he has sought the help of law enforcement authorities.

Years ago, he gave the Sheriff's Office permission go onto his property and issue trespassing citations.

Recently, the Sheriff's Office has had some success.

Calls for service to Whitehurst Pond are down so far this year, possibly the result of new enforcement efforts.

In the waning days of 2013, deputies undertook a multi-day operation at the location, handing out 57 trespass warnings, issuing seven arrest warrants and making two arrests on the property.

And they pledged to do more operations of this type in the future, educating people about riding or driving on private property.

It's not immediately obvious that the land is private. "No trespassing" signs can be difficult to spot or nonexistent.

Paul Boudreaux, who teaches property law at Stetson University College of Law, says a property owner's liability for what happens on his or her property depends on the case — there's no universal rule.

Owners are not automatically liable for people that are injured on their property. Conversely, just because someone is injured while trespassing does not automatically mean there is no liability.

Boudreaux said, most likely, an owner would be liable for an injury to a trespasser only if the owner acted recklessly, doing nothing while knowing a big risk exists on the property.

It would be up to a judge or jury to decide.

"If an owner knows that people are going on the property and it's only a matter of time before someone is injured, a judge or jury might find that an owner needs to do more," he said.

• • •

Bronson, 77, spins the steering wheel of a borrowed pickup through a narrow entrance onto his nearly 600 acres, which have long been tabbed for residential development.

The dirt road immediately gives way to a narrow but well-traveled path, marred on either side by litter.

The roads are bumpy, subject to quick drops and unpredictable turns. Branches hang low and scrape the top of the truck.

Even Bronson has trouble navigating the paths.

At one point, the pickup hits a dip and drops suddenly, shooting a cup of lukewarm coffee all over the cab.

"This can be a very dangerous, lethal place," he said.

Danny Valentine can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1432. Follow him on Twitter @HernandoTimes.

 
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