James W. Mann came to BayWalk on Christmas evening with his family to check out the new Will Smith action movie I Am Legend.
But his plans for a quiet night out turned ugly when someone in a crowd of people leaving the outdoor shopping and entertainment complex fired seven gunshots into the air. People ran around the theater in fear, and Mann even saw one panicked woman collapse. He was so terrified that he fled out a back entrance with his family. They carefully made their way down side streets to get to their car.
"I don't ever plan on going there again," said Mann, 54, a semiretired truck driver who went to BayWalk with his wife, daughter and son-in-law.
On Thursday, Mayor Rick Baker, police Chief Chuck Harmon and a spokeswoman for the Sembler Co., which runs BayWalk, all stressed that the complex is safe.
Still, police plan to increase their presence at BayWalk for the next several weeks. And Harmon said the department would review its staffing in the area.
Next year, "we'll probably have more folks there than we did this year," the chief said.
The Christmas evening ruckus at BayWalk began late Tuesday, as hundreds of teenagers milled around outside the movie theaters. Many shows were sold out.
As the crowd grew and spilled outside the plaza, so did tensions. One man walked around challenging people to fight him. Someone else threw a wad of money into the air, causing a stampede. Around 11:03 p.m., a man was shot and wounded in a parking garage near BayWalk. No arrests were made in that case.
Police say that as they escorted unaccompanied juveniles out of BayWalk, which they regularly do to enforce a 10 p.m. curfew there, they didn't have any problems. But then someone in the departing crowd fired seven shots into the air around 11:10 p.m. People immediately scattered, and officers called for backup.
An officer also had to use pepper spray to break up a brawl of eight people, including several juvenile girls who were punching and kicking each other at Third Avenue N and First Street. The State Attorney's Office is deciding whether to prosecute three of the girls.
Police named only two adults who were arrested: Curtis Donaldson, 23, the man they said threw a wad of bills into the air, and Curtis D. Scott, 19, the man they said walked through the crowd offering to fight people.
It was the second large disturbance at BayWalk in three years. In January 2005, a series of brawls led to the arrests of 17 people, including seven juveniles, on charges ranging from disorderly conduct to battery on a law enforcement officer.
Partly because of the large crowd that descended on BayWalk last year, police had stepped up their security there this year. One officer estimated there were 600 people at BayWalk, though other estimates varied.
Six off-duty officers were working at Muvico as well as the roughly six on-duty officers who usually patrol the section of downtown that includes BayWalk.
BayWalk also had more security officers there, though a spokeswoman declined to specify an exact number.
More police arrived after officers called for help, though an exact number wasn't available Thursday. It took until around 1:30 a.m. for the crowd to completely disperse, police said.
"The crowd was anticipated and we did have additional officers there," assistant chief of police Dave DeKay said. "It's the biggest movie day of the year."
City Council member Bill Foster, who was at BayWalk that night, said that young people were openly smoking marijuana and that police were overwhelmed by the situation. He said he had written a memo to Baker and Harmon.
Baker said he couldn't comment on Foster's memo Thursday because he hadn't received it. Still, the mayor thinks BayWalk is a safe place, adding that he recently took his family there to see Alvin and the Chipmunks.
"The police handled it well," Baker said. "Like any situation, we'll do a review, and if we can learn from it, we'll learn from it."
Police logs show that officers were called to the Muvico theatre 72 times this year, largely for minor incidents like trespassing, a number police don't find alarming.
Harmon said a handful of people were responsible for the Christmas chaos: "You had a couple of people doing things they shouldn't have been doing."
Lisa Brock, a spokeswoman for the Sembler Co., said executive management met with tenants Thursday morning, and "the general consensus was that security was adequate and security is not the issue."
"We feel like we had a security plan that worked. We cleared the plaza," Brock said. "We feel like BayWalk is a safe place."
Several people interviewed at BayWalk on Thursday afternoon had mixed feelings about the response.
Maurine Young, 57, said the Christmas chaos probably won't dissuade her from going to any movies or restaurants at BayWalk. Though she was "quite surprised" that something like that could happen there.
"I was very shocked," she said. "Were they prepared? Maybe they weren't."
Fred Staley, 68, was more blunt. He knows that kids linger in BayWalk, and that has always made him reluctant to go to the plaza on weekends. The Christmas ruckus clinched his decision to go elsewhere to see a movie.
"I would never come here on a weekend night," he said. "Unless I was carrying my gun."
Abhi Raghunathan can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8472.
Taken into custody
Police arrested Curtis Donaldson, 23, on charges of violating probation, cocaine possession and disorderly conduct.
Police arrested Curtis D. Scott, 19, on a disorderly conduct charge.
Jessica N. Williams, 19, could face a disorderly conduct charge. Possible charges against her and two juveniles were forwarded to the State Attorney's Office.