Beach shootings send 3 to hospital, 2 to jail
Gang violence erupted on Coquina Beach on Easter, sending three people with gunshot wounds to the hospital and two men to jail on multiple charges.
The victims, all of them brothers from Arcadia, are Jose Estrada, 20, Salvador Estrada, 27, and a 17-year-old identified by Bradenton Beach police as F.E. They were listed in stable condition at Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg on Monday morning.
The suspects in the shooting are Rene Vasquez-Mendoza, 22, and Santiago Delagado Jr., both of Plant City.
Vasquez-Mendoza is charged with three counts of attempted first-degree murder, carrying a concealed firearm, improper exhibition of a firearm and discharge of a firearm in public.
Delagado is charged with carrying a concealed firearm, improper exhibition of a firearm and discharge of a firearm in public.
"We believe it is gang-related," said Lenard Diaz, a detective sergeant with the Bradenton Beach Police Department. Diaz said Salvador Estrada has tattoos suggesting a connection to SUR 13 and "our shooter, he is gang-affiliated."
About 40 law enforcement officers were at Coquina Beach when the six or seven gunshots were fired at 4:22 p.m. April 8.
Diaz said the officers were on the beach, with a visible presence, because of a history of gang activity at Coquina on Easter and a suspicion that there might be retaliation for a gang-related killing in March. In that incident, a 23-year-old man was shot to death, allegedly by a teenage member of SUR 13.
"We were given information that there might be retaliation for a past shooting, a shooting a couple of weeks ago," Diaz said. "So we had an abundance of tactical units in place."
The team policing Coquina on Easter included officers with the Bradenton Beach Police Department, Manatee County Sheriff's Office and members of a multi-agency gang task force.
"The day was going smoothly," Diaz said.
The calm ended in the late afternoon, as the beach began clearing out and the shots were fired.
"It was a really nice day at the beach and then it was just wild," said beachgoer Herbert Sloan, of Milwaukee. "I didn't hear gunshots and I didn't see any blood, but there was this panic up and down the beach."
The Estrada brothers were shot in the chest and each taken by a Bayflite Air Medical Transport helicopter to Bayfront, where Diaz interviewed them briefly on Sunday night.
When the shooting took place, officers were within 100 yards and quickly corralled the area, Diaz said.
Witnesses helped police identify two suspects, who were taken into custody, questioned and eventually arrested and charged.
Authorities, who cleared the beach of people and combed the area for evidence, also recovered two handguns and drugs.
Police stopped and searched a vehicle that was traveling northbound on Gulf Drive in Bradenton Beach, but then determined the occupants were not involved in the shooting incident.
As a sheriff's deputy searched the vehicle, motorists caught in the traffic jam caused by the shooting and the investigation afterward tried to gather details of the incident.
Motorists traveling northbound on Gulf shouted to motorists in delayed traffic headed southbound.
"It's a hip-hop thing," one man shouted to another.
"A gunfight," another man hollered.
At the intersection of Cortez Road and Gulf Drive, the report had been widely distorted to a gunfight between two helicopters.
As more accurate details of the incident became available, area residents began to ponder the safety of their beaches and call for action - the solutions including permanent beach security and charging for beach access.
"There's got to be a way to keep guns off our beaches," said Piper Ward, of Longboat Key, who took a walk under the pines at Coquina on Monday morning. "I don't know how you go about it but there's got to be a way."
Diaz, estimating that hundreds of people affiliated with gangs were at Coquina on Sunday, said for now, "Easter out here on the beaches is not safe for any family."
Diaz said authorities will continue to investigate the incident and encouraged anyone with information to contact the Bradenton Beach Police Department, which has taken the lead on the investigation, at 778-6311.