Story Tools

Date of Issue: May 10, 2007

Mexican holiday celebrated peacefully at Coquina

Holiday at the beach
Two signs greet motorists arriving to Coquina Beach - a "No Alcohol" sign in English and Spanish and a longer list of rules.
Rivalry at Coquina Beach was limited to a game of beach volleyball May 5.
Law enforcement officers use open space near a bayside playground for a staging area on May 5. Dozens of law enforcement officers with the Manatee County Sheriff's Office and the Bradenton Beach Police Department patrolled Coquina Beach on the Cinco de Mayo holiday.

Early on Saturday at Coquina Beach there was a sense of anxiety, like Amity Island awaiting an attack - of a shooter, not a shark.

But the Cinco de Mayo holiday passed peacefully on the sun-splashed beach, with no reprisal of the violence that occurred on Easter, said authorities with the Manatee County Sheriff's Office and the Bradenton Beach Police Department.

"It is really just a beautiful day out here," said Sammy Reed of Longboat Key. "We came over when Beer Can got too crowded and it's just a perfect day on the beach - that's all."

Dozens of law enforcement officers were at the ready throughout the day, watching for more than the occasional dunking in the Gulf or errant Frisbee on the sand, watching for signs of gang activity.

The Coquina beat drew members of the Manatee County Sheriff's Office gang unit, mounted patrol and crowd-control team. The Bradenton Beach Police Department also increased its presence, assigning nine officers to the beach. And, occasionally, a patrol car from Longboat Key or Holmes Beach cruised Gulf Drive at the ready in the event of any gang violence like that of April 8.

That Sunday, gun shots allegedly fired by gang members punctured any perception that this Island paradise is perpetually peaceful.

Three brothers from Arcadia - Jose Estrada, 20, Salvador Estrada, 27, and a 17-year-old identified by Bradenton Beach police as F.E. - were shot on the beach, yards from police. They were taken by medical helicopter to Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg and have since been released. Authorities allege that they are connected to the Sur 13 street gang.

Authorities arrested two people in the April 8 shooting - Santiago Delgado Jr., 21, and Renee Vasquez-Mendoza, 22, both of Plant City. They are allegedly involved in the Norte 14 street gang.

Delgado, who is represented by public defender Phillip Paine, faces charges of carrying a concealed firearm, improper exhibition of a firearm and discharging a firearm. He is scheduled for an arraignment hearing on May 18.

Vasquez-Mendoza, represented by public defender Matthew Gish, faces the following charges: three counts of attempted first-degree murder, carrying a concealed firearm, improper exhibition of a firearm and discharge of a firearm in public. He is scheduled for an arraignment hearing on May 18 before Judge Janette Dunnigan.

Public officials responded to the shootings with calls for a heightened police presence at Coquina in Bradenton Beach and other county-operated facilities on the Island, particularly during the Cinco de Mayo weekend.

As a result, officers in cars patrolled Gulf Drive and the parking lots at Coquina and along the Leffis Key Baywalk. Officers on horseback rode up and down the beach and through the parking lots, sometimes waving at cheering children. Officers on all-terrain vehicles policed closer to the shore line. Even the new sheriff, Brad Steube, visited the beach.

"It's quite a presence," said Belinda Yates of Bradenton. "There are so many eyes I feel self-conscious. I'm glad I didn't wear my bikini."

She looked up as an officer on horseback passed by. "Pretty quiet?"

"Pretty quiet so far," he said.

Over the course of the day, authorities would make some routine traffic stops and there would be two arrests in the vicinity of the beach - one for a traffic violation and another on an outstanding warrant.

Beachgoers bounced in the water with buckets and skim boards, noodles and beach balls. Children built sand castles and dug pits. Adults bathed in the sun and lounged in the shade.

"We're looking for shark's teeth, said Kevin Kelly, 8, as he waded in the Gulf with brothers Devlin and Evan.

Nearby Edgar Rivera, 9, collected sand dollars to make a necklace for his mother. "It's for her on Mother's Day," he said.

Debby Kasak stretched on a towel near the concession stand, a Dean Koontz novel by her hand.

"I usually just go to the beach in Anna Maria, where I live," she said. "But I wanted to be here today to make a point. We don't need to be afraid of going to the beach. I think everything was blown way out of proportion and I'm a little disappointed with the way some people have reacted - with a lot of prejudice."

A television news helicopter flew overhead, close enough to cause night herons nesting in the pine trees to take flight.

In the shade of the trees, Lisa Guerriero and her three children celebrated Cinco de Mayo.

"This is a beautiful place for the family," said Guerriero, who lives in Palmetto. "We love it here. This is why we live here and I don't want to see it ruined by gangs or by the government."

Paul Hartley and wife Tammie of Pittsburgh also celebrated on the beach. They marked their second wedding anniversary with a picnic under the pines.

"We're staying at the Holiday Inn in Bradenton," Paul Hartley said. "Someone said, ‘Oh, you don't want to go the beach today.' But that's why we came here, so here we are. It's a lovely day. And I feel quite secure."