All the man wanted was a late night, three-egg omelet from Waffle House. He was standing in the Columbus restaurant’s parking lot last Saturday, waiting on his food.
“I heard two shots, and it was loud,” the witness, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation, told The Dispatch. “I thought it was firecrackers, but when I turned around everybody was laying on the ground. Then it was just a cluster of shots.”
The gunfire was directed at several men standing in the ditch east of the Waffle House, between the parking lot and the highway, the witness said. The shooter was on the other side of 45, near the La Quinta Inn. One of the rounds fired from that direction broke one of the windows at the restaurant.
“When the window busted out, I hit the ground,” the witness said. “That’s when I realized what was happening.”
Luckily, only one person was non-fatally hit as a reported 15 rounds flew through the air, but the incident was one in a string of violent crimes in that area going back for several years, including at least two murders. In 2021 a man was stabbed to death at the Waffle House, and in 2017 a man was slain at the Motel 6, which is immediately to the west of the restaurant.
In June over 50 rounds were fired in an altercation in the parking lot just across Waverly Ferry Road. The parking lot address is 1207 Highway 45 North, and it sits between Event Zona — a bowling alley — and Beaux Bridge seafood restaurant.
Multiple videos of late night altercations and large crowds in the immediate vicinity have been posted to social media.
24 hour party people
Police Chief Fred Shelton said 1207 Highway 45 North pulls in large groups of people who aren’t ready to go home on weekends.
“It’s usually Friday or Saturday night after the bars close,” he said. “People gather there in the parking lot. Usually it’s around 50 or so people hanging out. We haven’t counted, but it’s a lot of people. I think it’s one of the only places still open where you can get something to eat,” he said of Waffle House.
Sometimes the crowds spread to the adjacent Motel 6 parking lot, as well, he said.
“They close the inside (at the Waffle House) and you have to order at a window,” he said. “Some of the customers waiting for food hang out (at the motel parking lot), and some of them are just hanging out. The worst of it is across the street (in front of the bowling alley), not at the Waffle House or motel.”
Police are largely powerless to do anything about the people congregating, he said.
“City ordinances cover public property, on sidewalks and streets, not necessarily a private parking lot,” Shelton said. “Because it’s private property, they can hang out there and there’s not a lot the city can do about it.”
City ‘nervous’ about dispersing crowds
City Attorney Jeff Turnage said the city is between a rock and a hard place when it comes to dispersing crowds.
“If the property owner said they were trespassing, that would be different,” Turnage said. “But in the absence of that, I would be a little nervous about telling people to disperse.”
Loitering ordinances are tricky at the best of times, he said, because they impact the First Amendment right to freedom of association.
“Lots of loitering laws have been struck down,” he said. “…If they’re there duking it out, it would be different, but if they’re just hanging out, I would be real nervous about advising police they were free to arrest people. It’s difficult to draft in a way that (police) wouldn’t be able to arrest someone for just walking down the street and stopping to talk.”
Turnage said police have more leeway at locations where property owners have put up signs telling people to stay away.
“They would have to put up signs saying ‘no trespassing’ and then ask the police to enforce it,” he said.
The city is also limited on trying to crack down on offending areas via ordinance, as was done in the past. During Mayor Robert Smith’s administration, the city passed regulations imposing shorter operating hours for businesses deemed trouble spots.
Turnage said that wouldn’t fly in this case.
“That statute that allows us to regulate closing times deals with businesses that sell alcoholic beverages,” he said. “…The truth of the matter is that people are coming (to that area) from places where they consume alcohol when those places close, so I think it would be sort of unfair to punish Waffle House.”
Mayor Keith Gaskin agreed.
“We have to make sure that businesses don’t feel like they’re being targeted,” he said. “Some of these businesses that stay open late, their clientele shows up from somewhere else. We don’t want it to be us against them.”
Gaskin said he thought increased police visibility would help.
“One thing is to have officers have a presence there,” he said. “I’ve talked to the police and the sheriff’s department to try to find ways to anticipate those things happening. If we’ve got a big event and there are areas where people tend to congregate, then start patrolling through there. Visibility is helpful.”
Traditional means of deterring loitering aren’t what they once were, Turnage said.
“If there’s something we can do, I wish someone would enlighten me,” he said. “It used to be if you lit someplace well enough, it would deter congregating. Somebody told me the other day modern loiterers want it to be well-lighted so they can post on social media.”
Brian Jones is the local government reporter for Columbus and Lowndes County.