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‘We Don’t Want Them Back’

Compact sport cars file along Atlantic Avenue Sept. 24

By Christopher South and Alec Hansen

WILDWOOD – Elected officials are under fire after residents have demanded an explanation for the violence and mayhem that descended on the Wildwoods Sept. 23 through 25.
As the blame gets passed around, there’s one message everyone can seem to agree on: it can’t happen again.
“We don’t want them back,” said Jimmy Johnson, owner of the Wildwood Crest motel, the Imperial 500.
The anger in the community follows a chaotic night Sept. 24 that left two visitors dead and another in critical condition. Police have made two arrests for the accidents that caused the casualties.

As the dust has settled in the wake of the H2oi event in Wildwood, residents and business owners have directed their ire at elected officials. Wildwood Mayor Pete Byron has defended himself, telling the public there was no way of knowing what form the so-called “pop-up rally” would take. 

For some in attendance at the Wildwood City Board of Commissioner’s meeting Sept. 28, that wasn’t good enough.

“We knew this was coming for a month,” resident Catina Blineberry said. “We heard the engines revving on Thursday. Why were you not pulling over these cars?”

Blineberry said she called the police the night of Sept. 22 as the event was beginning. The dispatcher told her she should talk to the city officials who issued the permit for the event.  

Mayor Pete Byron said there was no permit issued. He called it an unsanctioned event.

“Thursday night could have set the example. I wanted to tell Wildwood Police Chief Regalbuto to start impounding the cars before we have a disaster,” Blineberry insisted. 

Between Sept. 22 and 25, initial data shows the Wildwood police were hard at work; they issued 205 tickets and made about 350 traffic stops. That’s over two tickets an hour in a 1.6-square-mile city. 

An eye-popping 69 of the 205 summonses were written for reckless driving, a charge that can carry fines of $200 and up to 60 days in jail. Reckless driving is a charge based on “willful or wanton disregard” for the safety of others. 

Though the chaos was centered in Wildwood, the other island communities of Wildwood Crest and North Wildwood also dealt with the chaos of H2oi.

The North Wildwood Police Department made 150 traffic stops and issued 117 summonses over the same period. Leaders in North Wildwood went so far as to close the ACME parking lot in the city. They closed it after discovering on social media that it was the destination for a meet-up.

Wildwood Crest police made 102 stops and issued 61 violations.

While the police worked overtime to keep a handle on the mass of cars descending on the island, elected officials scrambled to respond to the worst of the chaos late Sept. 24.
Two high-profile crashes have drawn attention in the aftermath of the H2oi “pop-up rally” in Wildwood; it has taken time for the details of the night to become clear.
Wildwood police were called to Burk and Atlantic avenues Sept. 24 at about 9:36 p.m. for a multiple-vehicle crash. According to police, Gerald White, 37, of Pittsburgh was driving a 2003 Infiniti when he struck two pedestrians and then a 2014 Honda Civic. Police say White tried to flee the scene but was quickly apprehended. 
One pedestrian, Lindsay Weakland, 18, of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, died on the scene. 
The driver of the Civic, Timothy Ogden, 34, of Clifton, was airlifted to AtlantiCare Medical Center in Atlantic City, but soon died because of his injuries.
Initially, Cape May County Prosecutor Jeffrey H. Sutherland announced that White was charged with two counts of death by auto in the second degree, two counts of assault by auto in the third degree and one count each of eluding, leaving the scene of an accident and violations of laws to protect public safety. 
Sutherland announced upgraded charges Sept. 29. White is now charged with two counts of aggravated manslaughter with extreme indifference, as well as two counts of aggravated manslaughter with eluding police. All four newly announced counts are crimes in the first degree. He’s also charged with two counts of aggravated assault with serious bodily injury, and two counts of aggravated assault with fleeing from police. First-degree charges carry 10 to 20 years in prison, while second-degree charges carry five to 10 years behind bars.
According to NJ Advance Media, White has “reportedly had numerous other infractions, including a recent accident where he flipped a car.” White’s father said he had recently flipped a Pontiac while traveling 80 mph on the highway. 
In the other notable accident Sept. 24, Eryk Wnek, 22, of Linden, allegedly crashed his 2020 BMW into a golf cart driven by Erhan Bayram, 31, of Williamstown. Bayram was airlifted to the AtlantiCare Medical Center in Atlantic City where he remains in critical condition. 
Another adult passenger and four juvenile passengers were treated at the scene for non-life-threatening injuries. Wnek was charged with aggravated assault in the second degree and assault by auto in the third degree.
Both White and Wnek were lodged in the Cape May County Correctional Facility.
Though these men are behind bars, Sutherland has promised that more charges will follow. As law enforcement investigates the deadly night, the public has begun to discuss what could have been done to stop it and what can be done in the future.
Citizens at the Wildwood commissioner’s meeting Sept. 28 said the city should have had a plan to handle the large crowd of sport-compact car enthusiasts, who some in attendance labeled “young thugs.”

The police chief did say there was a plan in place to deal with the unsanctioned car rally, but there were few questions directed to Regalbuto. Most were directed at Byron as well as commissioners Steve Mikulski and Krista Fitzsimmons. 

One resident wanted to know what kind of pressure the commissioners have put on the governor and attorney general to allow the municipality to crack down on people who come to town and break the law. 

Another resident asked if the police department had the authority to impound the cars as they come into town. 

“No,” Regalbuto said.  

Ryan Troiano, a Wildwood firefighter, directed his anger at Trenton.

“You’ve got to take the handcuffs off the police and put them on the criminals,” Troiano said.   

Troiano was referring to what some have described as a lenient attitude toward lawbreakers from the state’s Democratic leadership. Those frustrations come from tighter restrictions placed on law enforcement in recent years.  

Byron said the city has been in contact with officials in Ocean City, Maryland. He said he had a long discussion regarding what that city has done to correct the problem of pop-up rallies. Byron said Ocean City agreed to send copies of legislation passed by the Maryland state legislature to aid municipalities in combating the problem.  

Byron said he has spoken to State Sen. Michael Testa (R-1) regarding coming up with similar legislation in New Jersey. Testa and other Senate Republicans put out a press release Sept. 30 slamming Gov. Phil Murphy for failing to take action before the deadly event happened.

The GOP legislators pointed to a bill introduced in the wake of a pop-up event propelled by social media in Long Branch in the summer of 2021. They argue the legislation would have given officials in Cape May County sufficient tools to stop the chaos and prevent deaths.

Murphy said the pop-up events are dramatically different in character and argued it was unwise to paint them with a broad brush. 

“I don’t think there’s a one-size answer to this. I do know, close coordination amongst state, county and local authorities is part of the playbook every time,” Murphy told NJ Advance Media.
The city of Ocean City, Maryland dealt with the problems created by the H2oi event in years past, but there had never been any deaths. Though the majority of the impromptu event’s attendees came to Wildwood this year, some car enthusiasts still showed up in Maryland; police there have released the names of all 41 arrestsand associated charges from the 2022 iteration of the event. 
To crack down on the event, the Ocean City Police Department began writing tickets for 1 to 9 mph above the speed limit. When pulling drivers over for minor speed infractions, police would encounter drivers who were under the influence of alcohol, were driving on a suspended license, or who had outdated license plates or registrations. Police also would discover and arrest some for outstanding warrants, or with possession of drugs and weapons.
Some of the tickets in Ocean City were related to the creation of temporary Special Event Zones, a designation similar to construction zones where fines are enhanced. The special zone was in place for Sept. 20 through Sept. 25, 2022, in anticipation of the visitors. 
The special event zone established speed limits in the area and increased fines for violations such as skidding, spinning wheels and excess noise. The city police also collaborated with nearby towing companies to impose larger than normal fines and tow fees. One person in 2019 received a ticket with fines amounting to $1,700. 
Terry McGean, Ocean City’s Manager, spoke to the Herald Sept. 27 and said Ocean City worked for two years to get state legislation enacted to give the town the authority to take appropriate action related to the pop-up rallies. 
McGean said Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan formed a task force with members from the Ocean City Police Department, the Maryland State Police, the governor’s office, the Department of Transportation, law enforcement agencies from other counties and local citizens. He said they also had one of the H2oi promoters in one of the meetings. 
“Out of that task force, a few actions were taken. One of the first things was that we went to the state legislature,” McGean said. 
He said it took time to get the legislation in place, but in the first year the state allowed the creation of a special event zone, things improved.
“The second year, things toughened. Reckless driving was an arrestable offense and at the local level we significantly increased towing fines,” McGean said.
He said it was initially difficult to get towing companies involved. He said some of the modified cars require special equipment to tow them and not many companies wanted to invest the money. But the increased towing fees generated more interest from the towing companies. 
The city also drafted a law that created a system where businesses could sign up to allow the police to come onto their property during the event and enforce trespassing laws.
In Ocean City, 2020 was a bad year for the pop-up rallies. McGean said 2021 was better, but the cars still came. He said what they did not see so much were the crowds on the street.
“This year it was almost a non-event, but it was a hard lesson we had to learn,” he said. 
Echoing Byron’s defense of Wildwood’s response this year, McGean said “it’s very difficult to visualize what is going to happen.”
McGean said the H2oi event started out as “a bunch of guys in a car show.”
“It started out on a very small scale in 2012 or 2013. Then it kept getting bigger and bigger and finally got out of control. Around 2017, we decided enough was enough,” McGean said. 
Gary McGhee is the promoter of the Fall Classic Car Show, held each year in the shoulder season. He said his event was in no way linked to the H2oi crowd. 
“I am a car enthusiast, I like all kinds of cars, but that is not a car group. That was actual mayhem – they came here to tear the town up,” McGhee said. 
McGhee said he has been following the actions of the H2oi group for about a year and a half, and he said he warned the City of Wildwood and the police department that this group would show up in the Wildwoods and would be a problem.
“I don’t know what they did,” he said.  
The result, he said, was a very disrespectful – and obviously dangerous – group of people coming into town. McGhee said he heard about a local police officer placing a call to dispatch saying the crowd was throwing bottles and rocks at him. 
McGean said it got bad in Ocean City. People jumped on the roof of a police squad car there.
McGhee said those who were ticketed in the Wildwoods were driving around with the tickets on their dashboards – proudly displaying them as badges of dishonor.
Some participants, for their part, don’t want to be associated with the violence or law-breaking. One Instagram user said he attended the Get Low: Wildwood and Slammedenuff Wildwood events earlier this year. Both were sanctioned by the city.
He’s mad at the attendees of H2oi who he says wreaked havoc and may ruin next year’s official events.
Asking not to be identified for fear of backlash from fellow car enthusiasts, the man distinguished himself from those doing burn outs and donuts. 
“It sucks cause we’re not like them, they’re not real car enthusiasts, they’re kids with cars,” he said.
Locals may not be so willing to separate the good from the bad though.
Crest business owner Johnson said he and McGhee met with representatives of the Wildwoods Convention Center and told them the police should be notified at the first sign of trouble. This year, that wasn’t enough to prevent tragedy. 
“After Ocean City, we knew they were coming, but unfortunately, they came in such numbers and so fast that we couldn’t handle them. They showed no respect for officers – they really put a bad taste in everyone’s mouth,” Johnson said. “We don’t want them back.” 

Thoughts? Got a story about H2oi? Email csouth@cmcherald.com or call 609-886-8600 ext. 128. 

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