CLEARWATER — It was just another day on Clearwater Beach Thursday for Stephanie Ball and her 14-month-old son.
Until they heard the sirens.
Ball and her friend Emily Keene looked to their left and saw a black Jeep Cherokee barreling down the beach, followed by a swarm of Clearwater police cruisers.
"We saw them just flying down," Keene, 27, said.
The driver, whom police identified as 27-year-old Ryan Stiles, streamed the pursuit over Facebook Live, with the video showing him driving over beach chairs and drinking from a bottle of Canadian Mist whiskey. He made it all the way to Caladesi Island before he stopped, faced with a choice to continue into the water or surrender to police, Deputy Chief Donald Hall said at a news conference.
No one was injured. But Hall said police received calls that Stiles made a video saying he was going to ram into a Clearwater police cruiser and building.
"It could have been a lot worse today," Hall said.
Stiles streamed about five minutes of the chase on Facebook Live. In the video, he yelled expletives about the police cars chasing him, and sirens can be heard in the background.
"We're goin' die tonight," he says repeatedly, his eyes shifting from his phone to the windshield as he sped down the beach. Police could not estimate how fast he was going.
The Police Department received calls just before 4:30 p.m. from as far away as California bringing their attention to the threats, Hall said. Stiles started at U.S. 19 and Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard. Dispatchers kept in touch with the callers as they attempted to locate him. Meanwhile, police officials secured the front door of the main police station out of precaution.
"We had no idea what the individual's intentions were," Hall said.
Officers made first contact with him at S Myrtle Avenue and Court Street, then unsuccessfully tried to stop him about a block west. He continued over the Memorial Causeway onto the beach as officers followed and made it onto the sand at Papaya Street just north of the Hilton Clearwater Beach Resort & Spa.
Ball, seeing the Jeep, grabbed her son, Parker Daly, out of his playpen, which ended up about 5 feet away from the SUV as it blew by, the women, both from Tampa, said. The Jeep didn't hit them or any of their things, but it did plow over a vacant set of chairs and an umbrella about a block and a half down the beach.
"We were lucky we were awake and alert," Ball, 27, said.
Down the beach, a group of teenagers from Washington state in town for a national softball tournament swam in the gulf.
They heard a motor they thought was a Jet Ski getting too close. Then they turned and saw the car, said Ryen Mullaly, 17. They watched as the Jeep ran over the empty chairs, causing them to tumble through the air. They could see the driver was at the wheel with his phone out.
"It looked like he just had too much fun," said 18-year-old AyJay Mulholland.
Rocco and Tina Carbenia, too, were in the water when the Jeep went by, farther south by the Palm Pavilion restaurant. Tina Carbenia, 39, heard his motor before she heard the sirens.
"My first thought was that I hope there are no kids running across the beach," she said.
The couple was on vacation from Ohio and had left their 5- and 8-year-old sons behind. They'd been to Clearwater Beach about four years before, they said.
"We saw a fight last time," Rocco Carbenia, 38, said, "but we didn't see this."
Stiles has been charged with DUI, driving with a suspended license, reckless driving, fleeing and eluding, hit and run with property damage, felony criminal mischief and threatening a public servant, according to the Clearwater Police Department. Additional charges may be forthcoming from other agencies for his jaunt onto Caladesi Island.
Hall said Stiles has a criminal history but didn't know of specific charges.
A friend of Stiles, 26-year-old Sarah Lynn Wright, said he was trying to get out of a tough spot when she met him three months ago. So she offered him a room in the house she shares with her mother to give him a chance at a new start.
But on Thursday, he had come back from a visit with his public defender, who told him it was unlikely he was going to get offered probation from a previous charge he was facing for resisting arrest, Wright said.
"He got angry, packed his stuff and told his girlfriend he was going to drive to her house," Wright said, but he didn't have a license.
When she saw his Facebook Live video, she immediately called 911. She was the first call, and she stayed on the phone with the dispatcher as more calls from beachgoers came in, she said.
She said she thinks Stiles suffers from anger issues because he tends to deal with stress by drinking, but she thinks talking to the public defender may have thrown him over the edge. But she said she still didn't expect him to do something like this.
"It's not out of character for him to get angry and storm off," she said. "I feel like he couldn't handle the stress and that was it for him."
By Thursday evening, police had removed his car from the island. Racing against high tide, officers brought out a flatbed truck to haul it away.
But the video remained on his Facebook page, which Hall said will certainly be used as evidence.
"Going down in history, bro," Stiles said toward the end, before coming to a stop.
Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 893-8913 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @kathrynvarn.