GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Metro Grand Rapids police agencies vowed an “aggressive approach” to shut down dangerous “car meetups” after a woman was shot and killed at one early this week.
“This is more than kids doing burnouts. It’s more than kids showing off their cars,” Grand Rapids Police Department Chief Eric Winstrom said Thursday. “This is behavior which … has resulted in the murder of a 19-year-old girl. Absolutely inexcusable.”
“Alana probably thought she was just going to go to a meetup with some friends and to look at some cars. I know she had just recently purchased her first car,” Winstrom said. “I think her family deserves closure, they deserve to know what happened. And even if the person who pulled the trigger is too cowardly to come forward and take responsibility for what they did, there are dozens, there may be 100 people who have evidence that need to not be cowardly, do the right thing, come forward.”
He asked for anyone with video or photos of the meetup to send them to his investigators, who can be reached at 616.456.3400, or Silent Observer. Winstrom stressed that GRPD’s focus was finding the person who killed Vasquez.
“We know that there is evidence out there of Alana’s murder that will help us,” he said. “We’re not going to be looking backwards and looking to make arrests for reckless driving the night of Alana’s murder or arrests for open alcohol or other minor offenses. … Justice and closure for her family are more important than small violations.”
The chief said some members of the same group that hosted the meetup where Vasquez was shot also had a meetup nearby the previous night. He said his officers responded and arrested two people.
“I watched the body-worn camera from one of the arrests and the driver of the vehicle said to the officer, ‘Why are you picking on us? We’re not doing anything wrong.’ That driver had a fully loaded semi-automatic handgun on the back seat of their car,” Winstrom said. “I don’t know why you’re going to a car show with a fully loaded semi-automatic handgun on the back seat of your car. It was illegally possessed, too.”
The driver was charged with a felony, Winstrom said.
27 MEETUPS MAPPED SINCE MARCH
Standing with Kent County Sheriff Michelle LaJoye-Young, Walker Police Department Chief Keith Mankel and Michigan State Police Grand Rapids Post Commander 1st Lt. Matt Williams at a news conference at GRPD headquarters downtown, Winstrom said the agencies would be cooperating to crack down on car meetups, also called intersection takeovers.
“I’m happy that the law enforcement community here is unified in recognizing the need to respond to these events, which often feature firearms offenses, violence, disregard for the law and disregard for the well-being of others,” Winstrom said. “Not only will we be working together to take an aggressive approach to addressing this illegal activity, we will work together to identify the organizers of these events and hold them accountable, as well.”
He displayed a map listing 27 car and motorcycle meetup locations in metro Grand Rapids since March. Some places have been used more than once, Winstrom said, like the spot at Freeman and Hall where Vasquez was shot and some malls with big parking lots. The sheriff said her department has seen some problems at recreational areas when they are closed.
Winstrom said the meetups are organized on social media and that attendees often have video setups on their cars to record their exploits.
“Numerous car clubs in and around the area here in West Michigan meet at various businesses for social events, really, where attendees are there to admire each other’s vehicles in a mostly peacefully, certainly legal way. Unfortunately, some attendees arrange a follow-up location to conduct illegal and reckless driving, racing from location to location, blocking traffic, terrorizing pedestrians, travelers and residents,” the chief said.
Winstrom added that when he responded to one meetup in the Huff Park area, he saw between 50 and 100 cars leaving and lawn chairs set up dangerously close to where the cars were doing burnouts.
Walker’s police chief said other drivers may find themselves caught up among perhaps hundreds of vehicles participating in the meetups and the meetup drivers often break traffic laws.
“They blow traffic lights, they do wheelies on motorcycles…” Mankel said. “So anybody driving the road, they’re putting those people at risk.”
Sheriff LaJoye-Young said the participants are generally between the ages of 15 and their early 20s.
“The jeopardy that a young person who thinks they’re coming to a car race (and) are now in the middle of a gunfight … and don’t even have the tools to get away because they’ve ridden with somebody and those somebodies take off when there’s a problem,” she said.
She called on parents, young people and other community members who may be aware of a pending meetup to reach out to law enforcement agencies so they can step in.
Winstrom said officers would be looking to impound reckless drivers’ or unregistered cars, disable fleeing cars and arrest drivers and ticket meetup attendees for driving or vehicle violations “to hit them in the pocketbook.”
“Don’t expect to be able to attend one of these events and take part in one of these events and not have very strict scrutiny from the Grand Rapids Police Department and really everybody in the county here that’s on board,” Winstrom said.
He said his investigators have used social media to try to stop the meetups, make arrests and find organizers.
“I myself hand-delivered a cease-and-desist letter to one of these organizers who was on a regular basis bringing hundreds, if not thousands of motorcycles downtown,” Winstrom said. “I had a heart-to-heart with him and I said, ‘You might not be put in handcuffs today, but I guarantee if you block the entrance to Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital one more time, I will make sure that I find a reason to put handcuffs on you.'”
He said the city was also prepared to sue organizers.
Winstrom said other West Michigan counties have seen the same problem. Law enforcement around the country saw an uptick in the meetups during the height of the pandemic in 2020. He suggested lax enforcement of traffic law during the pandemic “changed the culture” of some drivers, leading them to drive dangerously and often armed “and clearly willing to use violence and deadly force.”
“We are long past the time that they can say, ‘I just wanted my friends to meet up. I didn’t know they were going to conduct this illegal activity,'” Winstrom said. “You know what’s going to happen, so there need to be consequences.”