Wellington’s winter equestrian season annually brings people, parties and plenty of traffic — a dangerous mixture that the past few years has sparked enough concern for officials to take action against drunk driving and underage drinking.
Operation Wild Stallion, a crackdown by the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, already is underway. And prominent members of Wellington’s equestrian scene have come together to create a program to help their neighbors who have imbibed get home safely.
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“Get out on the road, speed, weave, you’re going to get pulled over,” Village Manager Paul Schofield said. “There won’t be any leniency for impaired drivers.”
The actions come in the wake of a fatal crash last month that killed two young adults. While no mention of alcohol is made in the law enforcement report on the crash, calls have come from throughout Wellington for officials to take action on drinking and driving.
Dana McWilliams, 19, of Connecticut was driving her 2013 Chevy Camaro “at a high rate of speed” on southbound South Shore Boulevard past Pierson Road about 11:30 p.m. Nov. 25 when she lost control, crossing the median and hitting several trees before coming to a stop, according to a sheriff’s office report. McWilliams and the front-seat passenger, 21-year-old Christian Kennedy of Iowa, were killed. Another passenger, 24-year-old Ireland native Elaine O’Halloran, was critically injured.
In the action plan created by Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office District 8 Sgt. Matthew DeJoy and distributed to the village council by Schofield, the purpose of Operation Wild Stallion is laid out: “Wellington’s equestrian season brings several law enforcement challenges,” it states. “One of the most visible is impaired driving.”
While the operation was spurred by an incident involving the equestrian community, PSBO spokeswoman Teri Barbera insists it is not specific to equestrians.
“Wellington’s population goes up quite a bit during the ‘season,’ hence more traffic, potential for more calls for service and more crime,” Barbera said.
Added Schofield: “It’s kind of sad that it takes a fatality to get you focused on some things. One of them is underage drinking and driving.”
More deputies on the roads during season
There will be an increased law enforcement presence on the main roads of Wellington’s Equestrian Preserve, including South Shore Boulevard, Wellington Trace, Lake Worth Road and Greenview Shores Boulevard.
“It’s not an out-of-control problem, but the whole point is before it gets out of control, let’s do something about,” Schofield said.
Undercover deputies also will go to events, bars and businesses around Wellington to check whether they are asked for identification when ordering alcohol.
“What we have seen is not so much that servers are serving underage people,” Schofield said. “But where you get to a large venue where there is a table full of people and wine or champagne is served … that’s where we’re more likely to see the underage drinking.”
Another uniquely Wellington issue: barn parties. Young people pack into a barn on a Saturday or Sunday night, drink and then go home. “There are those kinds of unsupervised things where we’re going to be out doing enforcement,” Schofield said.
Wellington Vice Mayor John McGovern called the tragic crash “a call to action for our community at every level,” adding that the entire community has to find a solution for the pervasive drinking and driving in Wellington during the holidays, the equestrian season and high school graduation season.
“Everybody has to be working together, and that means recognizing the problem, and then knowing what each group has to do to bring about the best and most effective solution,” he said.
One of the higher profile Wellington tragedies involving alcohol came in February 2010. Polo club founder John Goodman is currently serving a 16-year prison sentence for the crash that led to the drowning death of Scott Patrick Wilson.
According to investigators, Goodman’s blood alcohol content hours after the crash was 0.177 percent, more than twice the level at which Florida drivers are presumed impaired. Wilson, a 23-year-old recent University of Central Florida graduate, was on his way home to see his mother when Goodman ran a stop sign and slammed into Wilson’s car near the intersection of 120th Avenue and Lake Worth Road.
McGovern said he has called for Schofield to put together a round-table discussion with law enforcement and businesses that serve alcohol in Wellington. McGovern said re-examining hours of operation for establishments within the village could be on the table.
“When you’re looking at solutions, that’s not where you begin, but that can be where you end,” he said.
Operation Wild Stallion is the first step being taken by law enforcement and the village government, McGovern noted, adding that the equestrian community has come together to provide support and solutions of its own.
‘Celebrity bouncers’ will offer free rides
One idea is from Robert Dover, a former Olympian with four bronze medals who runs the Future Stars scholarship program to help up-and-coming equestrians come to Wellington to train.
Dover is working with fellow Wellington trainer Tom Wright to expand a car service launched by Wright in 2016 after the alcohol-related fatal crash that killed two other rising equestrians, 31-year-old Andres Rodriguez and 30-year-old Sophie Walker.
Rodriguez, 31, had a blood alcohol concentration of .126 when he lost control of his 1992 Porsche Roadster, crashing into a concrete pole on Sunnydale Drive near Polo Club Road around 3:25 a.m. in Palm Beach Polo Golf and Country Club. The crash also killed his passenger Sophie Walker, an accomplished junior and amateur rider.
Christian Kennedy had been one of Dover’s Future Stars.
The car service, called Get Home Safe, began in 2016 and “very quietly” provided 1,500 free rides home on Sunday nights for people in Wellington, Dover said.
“It’s time not to be quiet anymore,” said Dover, who remains a coach for the U.S. Olympic equestrian team. “It’s time to be loud. And with my job as coach of the Olympic team, loud is something I’m good at.”
This year’s service resumed Dec. 2 with some additions — Saturday night rides and “celebrity bouncers” who look for people about to leave a bar who “look a little sketchy,” Dover said. The bouncers wear orange shirts with neon green lettering that says, “Get Home Safe.” They offer free rides home in a donated limousine, while also offering to follow in the person’s vehicle.
Dover, whose turn as a bouncer came last weekend, enlisted Mayor Anne Gerwig and author and reality TV star Carson Kressley as the first two celebrity bouncers.
“What we’re trying to do is just shift the culture, but also make it something that people see as fun in a way,” Dover said. “It’s not something where we’re pointing our fingers at anybody … because I don’t think that’s helpful to call people out.”
Instead, Dover said, Get Home Safe is about “giving good options in the moment when people are making these choices of getting into their own car versus one of ours.
“I think that is valuable,” he said.
Schofield lauded Dover for taking action, and said he wished it had happened under different circumstances. “I wish there hadn’t been a tragedy involved,” he said.