I’m as guilty as anyone of affectionately using words to paint a Rockwellian portrait of Vero Beach as a nostalgic, “Leave It To Beaver”-like community, sheltered from many of the societal ills that plague other cities and towns in Florida and across America.
For years, in both columns and conversations, I’ve colorfully described my adopted home as a “seaside slice of heaven” and “beachfront patch of paradise,” even “Mayberry by the Sea.”
I’ve referred to our surroundings as “quaint” and “tranquil,” often citing and celebrating our “small-town charm” and “sense of community” and “hometown pride.”
Now, though, I’m starting to wonder if I’m being a bit naïve, continuing to cling to fond memories of the Vero of yesteryear and choosing to believe that this place is still special, still different, still a haven from the violent crime we see in neighboring counties.
It was the deadly road-rage shooting two weeks ago at the intersection of State Road 60 and 53rd Avenue that jarred my senses and forced me to take a hard look at how our community has changed.
“Road rage isn’t uncommon here, but for a road-rage incident to end in a shooting death, the way this one did, is very unusual here – especially for it to happen on a busy roadway, in the early evening, in front of a lot of people,” said Bruce Colton, the longtime state attorney for the four-county region that includes Indian River.
“We’re seeing things in places we’re not used to seeing them, where you don’t expect them to happen,” he added. “We’re also seeing more things that are grabbing the public’s attention now.”
He ought to know: In addition to being the area’s top law enforcement officer, Colton has lived on the Treasure Coast since the 1970s, making his home in Vero Beach for the past 34 years.
So he’s fully aware of the string of violent crimes that dates back to the murder of Brian Simpson, who was shot to death in November 2011, when he entered his island home while a burglary was in progress.
The list includes:
– The murder of Moorings resident and Sebastian River Medical Center nurse Diana Duve, whom police and prosecutors say was strangled to death by her former boyfriend. Her body was found in the trunk of her car in a Melbourne Publix in June 2014.
– The murder of Connecticut bicyclist Kevin Adorno, who was stabbed to death by a homeless man outside a McDonald’s restaurant on U.S. 1 in September 2014.
– The murder of Cynthia Betts, who was shot to death by her husband – he told sheriff’s deputies he killed her because she nagged him too much and took money out of their joint bank account – in November 2015. Her body was found wrapped in a carpet in the laundry room.
– The shooting of sheriff’s deputy Chris Lester shot during a traffic stop on U.S. 1 in Gifford in December 2015. He survived the incident.
– The foiling of a murder-for-hire plot in December 2016, when sheriff’s deputies received a tip that a father and son had devised an elaborate scheme to kill a 73-year-old woman by injecting her with a deadly dose of insulin. The woman was the mother and grandmother of the two suspects.
– The drive-by shooting death of off-duty deputy Garry Chambliss, who was standing near the road near his cousin’s home in February when he was struck by a bullet and collapsed in the driveway. He was not the intended target.
– The shooting of The Grove co-owner Andy Capak, who was seriously wounded in March, when he was gunned down during a scuffle outside his bar in front of several witnesses on 14th Avenue, the main downtown thoroughfare.
Eight months later, Dennis Hicks was shot to death during the aforementioned road-rage confrontation, which occurred at 7 p.m. on a Thursday on one of Vero Beach’s busiest corridors, where a vehicle not targeted by the shooter was hit by four of the rounds.
A 3-year-old boy was a passenger in that car, but Assistant State Attorney Steve Gosnell, the prosecutor assigned to the case, determined that there was no probable cause to charge the shooter, Timothy Daniel Sartori, a Skydive Sebastian instructor who told deputies he fired in self-defense after Hicks threatened him.
“If that child had been shot,” Sheriff Deryl Loar said, “we’d be looking at a manslaughter charge.”
And we’d be looking at another tragedy, another violent death, another screaming-headline episode that we expect to find in Miami or Fort Lauderdale, or even in Fort Pierce and Port St. Lucie.
But not here.
The chronology above, however, doesn’t lie: These troubling incidents are happening here, and they seem to be happening more often.
Is it simply a sign of the times? An inevitable byproduct of the county’s population growth since the end of the Great Recession? The expected result of Vero Beach appearing on many of social media’s “best places” lists, which have prompted a significant influx of people from outside the community?
“We are seeing more of these types of crimes than we used to, and I’m sure all of those things are contributing factors, but I wouldn’t say it’s a wave or a trend,” Loar said. “It’s not like we’re seeing these incidents on a regular basis. It’s something we see sporadically.”
Colton agreed, saying violent crimes – and particularly murders – aren’t new to Vero Beach, where decades ago serial killer and rapist David Gore was responsible for a series of attacks that were as gruesome as they were deadly.
“We’ve had horrible murders in Vero in the past,” Colton said. “Those things happen from time to time, and they happen pretty much everywhere. The difference now is that we’re seeing some things we rarely see or haven’t seen before.”
For example: When Lester was shot two years ago, he became the first deputy to be struck by gunfire while working in this county in nearly three decades.
Colton also mentioned the stabbing of the bicyclist, the shooting outside The Grove and the road-rage incident that escalated into gunplay – as much for where and when they happened as the lethal nature of the violence involved.
“I don’t think we’re Mayberry anymore, but we’re not a big-town crime community, either,” Colton said. “We’re somewhere in between. I don’t know that we’re actually seeing more violent crime here, but we’re starting to see crimes, particularly violent crimes, we’re not used to seeing.
“Still, I wouldn’t say we’ve lost that small-town charm and tranquility,” he added. “Vero Beach is still a wonderful community that is a relatively safe place to live. It’s just not a place where nothing happens anymore.”
Times change, and places do, too.
Even this place.
Vero Beach today isn’t the Vero Beach of 1980, when I arrived to launch my newspaper career and found a small, seasonal, sleepy and mostly safe community known for citrus, spring training and snowbirds.
Back then, a local shooting or stabbing was front-page news. A local murder made headlines for weeks. Such crimes, however, were few and far between.
When I returned to town in 2002, after 20 years away, Vero Beach was bigger and better – still noticeably seasonal, but, because of the growth in population and the addition of more restaurants and retail businesses, a more appealing place for year-round residents.
If there was a violent crime problem, I didn’t notice.
But I do now.
Let’s be honest: The Vero Beach community has had a rough 2017, with the senseless Chambliss shooting, the brazen gunplay outside The Grove and the shocking road-rage killing on State Road 60.
There’s no way to not notice.
Maybe, though, we’re just having a bad year. Maybe Colton is correct when he says these things happen everywhere and that it’s unrealistic to expect any community to be immune from violent crime. Maybe 2018 will be better.
I’d like to believe that. I’d like to believe Vero Beach, despite the growth and traffic and crime we’ve seen recently, is still our Mayberry by the Sea. I’d like to believe this town hasn’t lost its innocence.
But I’m not so sure.
Too many people are getting shot.