Folly Beach wrestles with new crime concerns; some residents, officials blame booze
FOLLY BEACH — Residents of this close-knit, laid-back island received shocking news of “serious problems” on the second page of their monthly newsletter:
Date-rape drugs in drinks. Dealers slinging crack cocaine and hallucinogenic “bath salts” at the beach. Systematic burglaries at vacation homes.
Mayor Tim Goodwin and Public Safety Chief Dennis Brown delivered the news in the July edition of “The Sandspur,” a Folly Beach Civic Club newsletter that every resident receives. The message warns people not to leave drinks unattended, to report suspicious activity and to join neighborhood crime-watch programs.
Some longtime residents worry that those small steps won’t help enough.
Mike Ferguson, who moved to Folly Beach 30 years ago, worries that the city promotes bad behavior with its seemingly endless calendar of festivals and its tolerance for drinking on the beach — albeit in cups, not glass bottles.
He compared the situation to “Jaws” and accused local officials of trying to keep the problem quiet to keep the tourists visiting.
“I had heard rumors, but there are always rumors on Folly Beach, and sometimes people have a political agenda,” Ferguson said. “When I got ‘The Sandspur’ and found out those rumors are apparently true, it was kind of a shock. It made me mad, really. It made me angry.”
Ferguson said the problem stems from Folly’s tolerance for booze. Welcoming visitors with coolers also invites trouble, he said.
“I think it’s time to stop the drinking on the beach,” Ferguson said. “I hate to say that, because I’ve always thought people are just having a good time, but it’s gone way beyond that. I hear people arguing over who should drive, and I can tell by their voices that none of them should be driving.”
Folly Beach Public Safety Sgt. James Couche said his fellow officers suspect that the island’s laid-back reputation brings in a mixed crowd. One-third of the city’s arrests involve alcohol.
“Folly Beach is getting to be a bit more popular,” Couche said. “It’s the only beach in the area where people can consume alcohol, so it attracts a lot of people just for that reason. It’s easy prey for opportunistic people.”
Couche said this beach season also has brought a rash of break-ins, particularly at rental houses during the transition period between tenants. The same goes for cars when residents and beach-goers leave valuables in plain view.
“They will bust the glass and run,” Couche said. “By the time you’re off the beach, they’ve already gone to Walmart and maxed out your credit cards.”
In terms of drugs, Couche said officers have little documentation about date-rape incidents outside of a tip about men who hang out in the island’s bars. Residents gave officers similar information about drug dealers who blend in with the beach crowd and the nightlife scene to hock crack and bath salts, Couche said.
Chris Marley, a Folly Beach resident of more than 20 years, heard chatter about the new crime trends. Confirmation in “The Sandspur” disappointed him but didn’t surprise him.
“Some people are saying, ‘Oh my God, what’s going on?’ Marley said. “But it’s opened a conversation that needed to be going on.”
Marley serves as one of the administrators of a Facebook group called “Follitics,” where residents can hash out problems with alcohol, litter and traffic on the island.
The message in “The Sandspur” only amplified a rallying cry from a group that wants to see Folly Beach join other Charleston area islands in banning drinking on the beach.
“It’s the people we seem to be drawing recently within the last few years because of changes in other islands,” Marley said. “Making those islands less accommodating is bringing that traffic to Folly Beach.”
Goodwin said he would support putting the alcohol issue to a vote, but he personally disagrees with banning booze on the beach.
“I don’t think no drinking on the beach is a fantasy to cure all ills,” the mayor said.
Instead, he said, residents should get involved in crime-watch programs for their neighborhoods and get to know public safety officers. Goodwin said a panel of residents interviews each new officer candidate before the department makes a hire.
The letter in “The Sandspur” aimed to raise awareness, not to cause more problems, according to the mayor.
“The intended message was ‘Hey, here are some things that are happening this year,’?” Goodwin said. “Yes, our policemen are dealing with more than a call for a drunk on the beach or someone with their dog off the leash.”
Reach Allyson Bird at 937-5594 or Twitter.com/ allysonjbird.