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End of the Road

Nassau County beach hit-and-runs reignite debate

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For many years, beachgoers and vehicles successfully avoided collision on Amelia Island’s coastal sands, where they are allowed to comingle in designated locales. This spring, the number of beach ‘safety days’ tumbled in alarming succession. Not one but two sunbathers, both women, were seriously injured by vehicles that drove over them, then took off. The first incident occurred in April; the second, fewer than 30 days later, in May.

The driver who struck a 53-year-old visitor from Akron, Ohio at the city of Fernandina Beach’s Sadler Road beach access on May 21 was quickly located and arrested after several people who witnessed the incident reported the vehicle description and license plate to police. The woman, whose name authorities withheld in the initial announcement under a request for privacy, was treated at UF Health Jacksonville for broken ribs and a blood clot in her chest.

The driver who ran over 38-year-old Amanda Gonzalez, of St. Marys, Georgia, on April 24 continues to elude investigators. The hit-and-run unfolded at Peters Point Beachfront Park, on the south end of the island. The beach is in unincorporated Nassau County, where the sheriff’s office handles law enforcement.

The traffic report documents one eyewitness, Kevin O’Connor of Fernandina Beach, who reported seeing a Jeep run over the woman’s legs. But as O’Connor later told Folio Weekly in a June 4 phone interview, he didn’t think she was hurt until emergency responders swarmed the beach two minutes later, running to her aid. According to O’Connor, the Jeep rolled “slowly” over Gonzalez and “slowly [drove] away.” He was surprised that she didn’t scream in pain. “I was 20 feet away but she didn’t react, so I didn’t react,” he explained. “I feel bad I didn’t do anything.” Gonzalez was taken to Baptist Nassau for injuries to both legs. The sheriff has asked anyone with information to contact the Nassau County Sheriff’s Office at 904-225-5174.

Jacksonville attorney John M. Phillips, who represents Gonzalez and—with five cases statewide in recent years—has become a go-to litigator for beach traffic injuries, called on county and city officials to impose a moratorium on beach driving until they can ensure the safety of sunbathers and beachgoers. “I want it to be reasonably safe and monitored, because it’s neither,” he told Folio Weekly in a May 14 interview—one week before the second woman was hit. “In an ideal world, I would like to see cars parked in parking lots and people play on beaches.”

The day after the second hit-and-run, Phillips contacted county and city commissioners again, maintaining they have done “nothing” to enhance safety despite his notice of “a dangerous condition.” His May 22 email read, “You ignored our warning. Another life will be forever changed by the crushing weight of a vehicle on top of a woman’s body. You continue to choose the unsafe approach as the default instead of protecting people (and protected wildlife) while you determine how to proceed. This has to stop.”

To date, vehicles are still rolling on the sand, but there have been changes. On May 7, the Fernandina Beach City Commission eliminated overnight beach parking from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. And on May 24, ahead of the Memorial Day holiday weekend, police installed an attendant shed at the Sadler Road beach access, allowing park rangers and lifeguards to distribute a new brochure with parking map, tip sheet and beach regulations. The message politely requests beachgoers to “consider” sunbathing and participating in beach activities outside the vehicle parking area. The effort marked the first time that authorities have actively advised visitors about certain regulations: the 5 mph speed limit, a ban on glass containers and alcohol, dog-leashing requirements and restricted areas (15 feet from dunes, five feet from active turtle nests).

Next month, City Commissioner Len Kreger plans to introduce an ordinance to eliminate all beach parking. He understands it will be a controversial proposal. “This is a safety issue,” he told Folio Weekly by phone on June 4. “It’s time.”

In Nassau County, Sheriff Bill Leeper has increased beach patrols for the summer season. School resource officers were assigned to cover the beach at the close of the academic year, and a dedicated Peters Point patrol will monitor the reckless driving that, the sheriff noted evasively in a June 1 email, “some say is occurring.”

According to Leeper, people have been driving on local beaches for more than 50 years and last year, despite “thousands” of county residents and visitors driving on the sand, authorities received 15 calls for reckless driving. “People speed and drive recklessly on our highways, which injure and kill people every year, but there is no outrage to close the roads,” he argued. In the lengthy message, the sheriff assured he was concerned about the hit-and-run victims; still, he was critical of claims that law enforcement is “ignoring” safety conditions, calling them “misinformed.”

According to the sheriff, there is proof in numbers. He cited a 20 percent drop in beach-related 911 calls between 2017 and 2018 (from 177 to 141), despite the increasing crowds which, he claimed, have caused a 467 percent rise in general investigation calls during the same time period (from 170 to 964). The sheriff recently proposed additional, dedicated patrols at all beaches. County commissioners must decide if they want to spend the money: $1 million for 12-hour coverage and $2 million for 24-hour coverage. The cost includes four deputies and one supervisor for each shift, plus their equipment.

The sheriff has asked the public to be mindful at the beach. He has reminded motorists to drive “carefully, responsibly and obey the rules.” He has advised beachgoers to make sure they are “highly visible” and asked that parents to keep an eye on their children “at all times.”

Meanwhile, some locals are hostile to change. Earlier this year, the county formed a committee to assess beach ordinances and rethink vehicle access at Peters Point and American Beach. The monthly meetings brought out standing-room-only crowds, deeply divided on beach driving. Citizens took to the podium and urged members to ban beach driving in the name of personal safety—or maintain it for the sake of personal freedom. At the committee’s May 30 meeting, one man considered a beach ban an absurd idea, saying it’s like forcing him to have a vasectomy because his neighbor has too many kids.

The remark drew laughs and applause. But not everyone thinks beach driving is a laughing matter. Certainly not Gonzalez, who struggles to walk and to pay mounting medical bills. She wondered if the reaction would have been different, even compassionate, if she had been a child or senior citizen.

Gonzalez has become a target of social media trolls, who viciously accused her of being a “plant” for nefarious forces pushing to ban beach driving. According to this conspiracy theory, the victim staged the accident, fabricated the injuries and filed a false police report to turn public opinion. The messages troubled her so deeply that she withdrew from social media.

“The comments on Facebook were pretty intense,” she told Folio Weekly. “There were so many [negative comments] over such a long period of time that it, for real, started to affect me.” She didn’t know there was a community conflict over beach driving “until the day after I got run over.”

At the beach committee’s May 2 meeting, a woman announced that she was at the beach when Gonzalez reported being struck and did not believe the report was true because she wasn’t screaming. “If somebody had run over my legs,” she declared to loud applause (according to records from the clerk’s office), “I guarantee you, you would’ve heard some words out of me.”

Meanwhile, in his message to county leaders, Phillips said his client was being harassed and he would be “happy to set up a meeting or provide medical records so you can see the damage caused first-hand.”

O’Connor, the witness named in the traffic report, said he asked Gonzalez why she didn’t cry out or call for help. “She told me, ‘I’m a quiet person.’” He also remarked that a deputy had made an off-the-cuff comment at the scene, suggesting that condominium owners in the buildings overlooking the beach would use the hit-and-run to support a ban on beach driving in front of their high-end homes. “I don’t know about that; you can’t drive in front of the buildings anyway because it stops there, south of the Peters Point entrance,” he observed.

In a May 14 interview with Folio Weekly, Gonzalez said she had gone to the beach after work (she is an administrator at one of Fernandina Beach’s pulp mills) to meditate and pray; it’s how she calms her mind. She is married with a 13-year-old son. The family shares a busy household with relatives and their children, ages six and eight. “This was like the one hour that I carved for myself that day,” she explained. “That’s, like, my quiet time out there.”

Folio Weekly listened to Gonzalez’s 911 call. Her voice is surprisingly calm and clear when she tells the dispatcher that she has been hit by a vehicle and needs help. (This corroborates O’Connor’s statement that he watched her sit up and immediately pick up the phone after the Jeep traveled over her legs.) The cell connection drops, and Gonzales does not answer when the dispatcher calls her back. She eventually redials 911 and says she thinks she passed out. She asks if emergency responders can bring a blanket. “I’m freezing,” she says. She also tells the dispatcher—calmly—that she’s having “trouble catching my breath” and difficulty trying to stand. “I don’t think I’m that hurt. I’ve never seen my leg bruised like this. I can’t believe this has happened. Sh*t.”

Attorney Phillips played the calls for Folio Weekly on a laptop in the conference room of his Ortega office, where Gonzalez also sat with her wife, Isabel Gonzalez. She struggled under a cumbersome brace covering her right leg, above and below the knee. The meeting took place in May, a week before the second hit-and-run. The couple had just come from the doctor, who told them the bone, which emergency room personnel declared intact, was in fact fractured. “The orthopedist already said she will be dealing with this for the rest of her life,” said Isabel. “One of us being out of work affects us financially. We have bills we have to pay.” Gonzalez worries about her job. The doctor ordered her not to drive for at least six weeks, and nightmares interrupt her sleep.

Amanda and Isabel Gonzalez were disturbed that nobody on the beach offered help in the aftermath of a hit-and-run. (Amanda Gonzalez estimates that 40 to 50 people were in the vicinity.) They don’t understand why the driver didn’t stop and why that driver is still at large.

“Just by being a decent human being, shouldn’t you have checked in?” Gonzalez asked rhetorically.

Phillips said he is searching for information on the vehicle.

“If this is innocent, let’s make a claim on your insurance,” he said. “Let’s do this the right way. Let’s not make this a criminal case.”

Amanda Gonzalez concurs. “Oh, yeah, completely, especially if this was an accident,” she added. “I don’t want to see them go to jail or anything if it was an accident.”

Is she seeking an apology?

“That would be nice.”

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