How a Dover pop-up party of 300-500 people went undetected until a deadly shooting
For most of Sunday evening at Schutte Park in Dover, the mood was jovial.
Some partygoers perched on top of cars, swaying from the roofs. Others smiled as they sipped from plastic cups, chatting with their friends. And as day gave way to night, others began dancing, cheered on by the large crowd surrounding them, according to videos circulating on social media depicting the scene.
But the party, which violated Gov. John Carney's coronavirus emergency order when it drew 300 to 500 people, turned tragic just before 9:30 p.m. when a shootout occurred between several people, killing one and injuring another.
Many of the attendees were Delaware State University students, according to police, including 20-year-old Devin Wright, who died after being shot in the head.
In videos posted to social media, a parking lot at the park was already filling with cars before 6 p.m. — a scene that would soon include a sound system playing music.
So how did a party that big start in broad daylight and rage for hours without attracting the attention of Dover police or anyone else, for that matter?
Dover Mayor Robin Christiansen said the park's location seemingly helped isolate the large gathering from the ears and eyes of both police and neighbors, even at a time when gatherings of that size are illegal across the state.
"Schutte Park basically has no neighbors who would call in and make complaints. It’s more than likely that a large crowd was able to gather there undetected," he said of the park, which is surrounded by a thicket of woods on one side with the large Procter & Gamble Dover Wipes Co. manufacturing center on the other.
With police and university officials especially on the look-out for big gatherings that break the state emergency order, the somewhat secluded party location could have been chosen in an attempt to avoid detection.
'Good vibes' gives way to gunfire
While the music and crowds didn't draw anyone's attention, the gunfire did.
Dover police said a 911 call was made at 9:39 p.m. reporting shots fired at the 71-acre park, which includes a playground and is home to Dover Little League.
When officers arrived, police found Wright with a gunshot wound to the head. He was shot during a shootout between "multiple suspects," according to Dover police, who are currently investigating what sparked the deadly gun battle.
Paramedics took Wright to Bayhealth Kent General Hospital, where he died. Another man, 22, was shot in the shoulder and hand and also treated at Bayhealth. He was not a Delaware State University student, the school said.
Though many of the attendees at the party were students, the event was not sanctioned by the university, police said.
One party-goer who posted videos from the party scene on social media told Delaware Online/The News Journal that attendees learned about the pop-up party through word of mouth and Instagram.
"It was good music, good vibes and energy. And a lot of dancing," he said, declining to give his name. "Most of the negative energy was near the entrance of the parking lot. I was located near the music so I can't speak on much."
Less than 15 hours after Wright died, a university-sanctioned campus prayer for Wright was held at the DSU Circle at noon on Monday, just as tributes to the student began appearing on social media.
In one, a smiling Wright dressed in a Kevin Durant Oklahoma City Thunder jersey is shown with angel wings under a banner that reads, "Rest In Heaven."
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In another, the lanky Wright is shown sitting on a balcony with that same big smile with a "sunrise" date of February 15, 2000 and "sunset" date of September 27, 2020.
Wright and the other victim, who has not been identified, were the 26th and 27th people shot this year in Dover, surpassing the total number of shooting victims in Delaware's capital city in all of 2019, according to Delaware Online/The News Journal's shooting database.
The uptick is being seen in other cities as well. Wilmington also has more shooting victims so far this year than in the last several years. And across the state, there have been more shootings so far this year — 234 — than all of 2019 (186) and 2018 (146).
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The effects of the pandemic, more guns on the street and social unrest over the summer are among the explanations given by officials and experts as reasons for the statewide surge in shootings.
Dover mayor 'saddened' and 'outraged' at double shooting
Like the students and others who gathered to pray for Wright, Christiansen lamented the loss of life.
“I’m saddened, and I’m outraged that another young person has lost their life in what seems to be [becoming] accepted by our society. It’s tragic, unconscionable and it’s totally unacceptable," he said. "There was so much potential in that young life that was lost. It’s a damn shame."
He said he is already working with City Manager Donna Mitchell on a plan to lock city parks at night and put them under surveillance.
"Once again, it's going to be an expenditure to the law-abiding citizens in Dover, but it's a necessary [one]," he said.
As for attempting to curb large-scale gatherings, which can quickly attract big crowds thanks to social media, Christiansen intends to talk to the leaders of the five universities and colleges that call Dover home to see what they can do to "come up with a game plan."
While he acknowledged the university cannot control the actions of students when they are off campus, a message of personal responsibility must be preached.
"These are adults who need to take some adult responsibility. Not only are they putting themselves at risk, but they’re putting others who are in the community at risk," he said. "[University officials] can certainly work with us to try and change the situation a little bit."
College parties during a pandemic
In the social media videos showing the party, some partygoers were wearing masks, but many did not.
Gov. John Carney's office did not have a comment on the illegal gathering when contacted Monday, referring media inquires to investigators. Carney's most recent modification to the state emergency order allows outdoor gatherings of up to 250 people.
Delaware State University spokesman Carlos Holmes said the "university community is profoundly saddened and troubled by tragic death of Devin Wright and the event surrounding his death."
He did not release any additional information about Wright.
Holmes would not comment about the gathering size amid the pandemic. It's not clear whether Delaware State University could sanction attendees for violating Carney's order.
That's what the University of Delaware threatened in late August after several students hosted a 75-person party at an off-campus home in Newark
The three hosts of that party were cited by Newark police for violating the city's ordinance restricting indoor gatherings to 12 people and outdoor gatherings to 20.
UD, which officially supports Newark's private gatherings ordinance, is now referring students who are cited for breaking the order to the Office of Student Conduct. The penalties include suspension or expulsion.