Ocean City is struggling with early-season trauma


OCEAN CITY -- One grisly murder. One shooting. One fatal 12-story fall. One 12-year-old killed by collapsing sand. One woman crushed by the Boardwalk tram when she tried to jump between cars. One fashion show that left psychological bruises all over town.

And it's only July 1.

Ocean City is struggling through a surge of accidents and violence that has city fathers scratching their heads and wondering when (and if) it's going to end.

Violent incidents so close together in this family resort have sparked statewide conversation. The most talk, shadowed by racial allegations, traces to an event sponsored by a black, Washington-based group that brought nearly 1,000 people to town last weekend.

Sha-Shee, a Washington-based group run by Sheila Gibson, sponsored a dance and a fashion show on June 23 and 24. The group booked 52 rooms at the Princess Royale Oceanfront Hotel & Conference Center at 91st Street and Coastal Highway and rented the city-owned Convention Center's ballroom for two nights.

What happened, primarily in and around the hotel, had talk radio in Baltimore buzzing all this week. It also was discussed at Tuesday's City Council work session.

The Princess Royale's manager, John Tremellen, would not accept a reporter's calls. But a memo given by the hotel to City Council members and police indicates that the hotel was unhappy with the Sha-Shee group.

The two-page memo describes a variety of incidents, including foul language, loud music, urination on restaurant windows where patrons were eating, three nude women on the beach, crack being smoked in rooms, prostitution and sales of condoms.

Ms. Gibson said yesterday she felt members of her group had been unfairly singled out because they were black.

"We put together activities and introduce people to different things," she said of her group, whose name means Gracious Beauty. "They're making it into something ugly, and it wasn't."

She said the hotel staff suddenly began checking all black guests the night of June 24 to see if they had room keys -- a procedure that was not followed for white visitors.

"They checked all the black people's ID, none of the white people's," she said. "It infuriated us."

Despite the hotel's extensive list of complaints, the manager told city council members that property damage was minimal, City Councilman Rick Meehan said, citing a figure of "about $1,500."

Moreover, no arrests were linked to the group for misbehavior in Ocean City. Three people were arrested on outstanding warrants from the Washington area during the weekend.

One arrest followed a minor traffic accident; another was called in by a bail bondsman who recognized a fugitive in the crowd and called police. Ocean City police officer Jay Hancock did not have details of the third arrest.

The group brought its own security to the Convention Center, said police and center officials, and only one problem was reported.

The June 23 dance went smoothly, said David Swift, the convention center's operations manager. A fashion show and party the night of June 24 had one fight in which one man was cut by another. The victim didn't cooperate with police, and no charges were filed.

"We have fights during the firemen's convention, the VFW convention. . . It's nothing for an ambulance to come up here," said Mr. Swift. Maintenance employee Albert Newton, who worked as a bartender for the June 24 event, said he saw no disturbance or violence during the seven hours he tended bar.

"It looked like a normal good time," Mr. Newton said.

Both men agreed that there had been no property damage, and the mess left in the event's wake was typical of any large gathering.

But some concern lingers in Ocean City, and elsewhere, that the event got out of hand.

"There were numerous disorderlies and large crowds" during the weekend, said police spokesman Barry Neeb.

"There was genuine concern for safety," said Councilman Jim Mathias, who is also a member of the police commission and the local volunteer Fire Department. He visited the Convention Center parking lot the night of June 24, he said, and saw trash, bottle rockets and a crowd.

As the father of a teen-age daughter, Mr. Mathias said he's found the violence of this summer particularly frightening. He and others expressed concern that Ocean City remains a safe place, one where families feel at ease.

"You won't find a town or city with a stronger commitment to public safety," Mr. Mathias said.

"One of the big ingredients for the success of Ocean City is that families come back year after year after year. I don't want that trend to be abandoned."

"I think we've been unfortunate," Councilman Meehan said yesterday. "For some reason, there have been strange occurrences. . . . With any group, there's going to be a few that cause a problem -- whether it's teen-agers or whatever."

"Ocean City traditionally has reflected what happens in the areas from which our visitors come," said Officer Hancock. "If they're going to do dope at home, they're going to do it here. I'd characterize a lot of Ocean City's problems as people having an excessively good time."

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