A 17-year-old boy was injured when an unknown suspect opened fire downtown following a Thanksgiving party.
Downtown merchants stand a bit bloodied, but unbowed following a post-Thanksgiving drive-by shooting that left one injured and thousands of dollars in damage.
It started late Thanksgiving evening one block away from McCall park where, just one week later, the city would be holding one of it’s most popular events, the annual Lights of Love Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony.
The Plant City Police Department said it was “unknown as to (whether there were) any scheduled events” in the area Thanksgiving evening. However, witnesses from the surrounding neighborhood said trouble began after a fight broke out at what was supposed to be a late-Thanksgiving family gathering at the Downtown Banquet Hall on Dr. Martin Luther King Junior Boulevard. The hall’s manager, Mary Mendoza, said she believes the “family dinner” was a ruse to throw a party that turned dangerous.
“It looked like the tables and chairs weren’t even used. It was supposed to be a Thanksgiving dinner for family. Seems like it was more of a party,” Mendoza said. “I was told that an argument broke out inside the hall. They went outside with it and someone pulled a gun and started shooting.”
Witnesses said the fight spilled outside to Palmer Street into the parking lot next to Plant City’s historic train tracks and the Robert W. Willaford Railroad Museum. The altercation continued in the shadows of soon-to-be-lit holiday decorations, witnesses said.
According to a media release issued by PCPD Monday afternoon, an officer was patrolling near Collins Street just after midnight — one of several nightly patrols PCPD said it conducts near McCall Park to “provide deterrence of theft or vandalism” to the decorations — when he heard approximately eight shots fired from the direction of MLK Boulevard. PCPD said the officer responded, seeing a large group of people who dispersed as soon as police arrived.
Police said they found no signs of injury on the scene, but were notified of a gunshot victim with non-life threatening injuries at South Florida Baptist Hospital a short while later. The alleged victim, a 17-year-old boy, told police he was walking on Palmer Street when he was hit by shots fired from the back seat of a four-door sedan, believed to be a green or brown Nissan Altima.
Mendoza said she saw police near a shattered window of Ace Realty Advisors on Palmer Street, just across from the banquet hall, when she arrived at 1 a.m. to close down after the dinner was supposed to end. By that time there were no signs of the struggle from barely an hour before. She asked how the event went and was told by the renter everything had been fine. It wasn’t until the next day, she said, that the building’s owner asked if there was damage. It was then she found out she had been lied to and a shooting occurred. As of Tuesday, Mendoza said she is still wondering why she hasn’t received a call from the Police.
Although the Downtown Banquet Hall was unscathed, two Palmer Street businesses (and one mailbox) weren’t so lucky.
“We’re confident five (bullets) hit our building,” John Haney, president of Ace Realty, said. “Between the window, stucco and other work, we expect about four to five thousand dollars to fix it.”
Damaged stucco and red brick are visible on the building’s recently refurbished facade. One bullet passed through the custom made one-inch thick, double plate window, nicking a set of interior blinds and damaging an interior window frame. The spots where the five bullets hit are plain to see.
Before Thanksgiving, the rowdiest it got on the block was Tuesdays and Thursdays when the nearby Plant City Community Bingo was open, Judy Richard, who works next door to Ace at T. Clayton Jenkins Construction, said.
One bullet went through Jenkins’ door. It hit a photo of historic Plant City hanging on the north wall, ricocheted across a narrow hall and again once more before landing inside a door about 30 feet from where it entered.
“It’s pretty crazy when you think of how far (the bullet went),” Stella Davis, a Jenkins employee said. “And he certainly wasn’t standing right in front of the door when he did it.”
Despite the damage, Haney, Richard and Davis all said downtown Plant City is still a great place to do business. The Thanksgiving ruckus and ensuing shootout was an anomaly. Not once, Richard said, has she ever felt uncomfortable in the area. She still doesn’t.
On Tuesday morning Haney stood next to the boarded-up hole where his custom-made window used to be. He raised the blinds and looked happily across the street.
“Downtown, in our opinion, is a great place to be. It’s a great spot,” he said. “We’re just as excited to be here today as we were the day before this happened. I love this view, the Christmas lights, the park, the museum. We have, in our opinion, one of the best views, one of the most scenic in the city.”