Smoke wafted across the lake from tear gas as car alarms wailed and projectiles could be seen flying through the air over a crowd of thousands.
Summer in Penticton hasn’t been quite the same since.
“Absolutely,” agrees Jake Kimberley, who was mayor of Penticton that tumultuous July 28 summer evening 20 years ago when a riot broke out in the city.
Hot temperatures mixed with a surge of young people in town for Peachfest and the province sponsored Music 91 festival, featuring a big name performer at the time MC Hammer, brought a crush of people to the city.
“I remember it so well,” recalls Kimberley, who had been at the MC Hammer concert at King’s Park that evening with his family. “I went home and was in bed when I got a phone call. It was 12 minutes after midnight and it was the administrator saying you better come to the RCMP detachment, we got problems downtown.”
Huddled at the RCMP station, Kimberley, Insp. Trevor Thompsett, city staff, the fire chief and a few councillors were briefed on how a sea of people blanketed the downtown core where fights had broken out, windows were being smashed and looting had begun. It was on Kimberley’s shoulders to decide if the riot act was to be read.
“That declaration of course has to be read within the vicinity of the activity. I went down to the corner, which is now the City Centre block of Wade and Main, because that is as far as the inspector could get his car in. I had to open the window and use a bullhorn and the time I was reading the act I was being pounded with bottles, bricks and rocks. The car was getting pounded,” said Kimberley, who read the act at 12:41 a.m. “(Thompsett) said you got to wind the window down and he said ‘hurry up, hurry up,’ and ‘read it, read it let’s get out of here.’ It’s kind of moronic when you think about it. Drunken kids standing there and you are saying ‘in the name of the Queen.’ Bottles and rocks were been thrown at the car. Kids were kicking the car. Was I ever nervous.”
Meanwhile up the street a few blocks, Brad Haugli, six months on the job at his first posting at the Penticton RCMP detachment, was suited in riot gear with a single line of about 20 officers across Main Street.
“There we are, a few of us in a line with a huge mass of people at the other end,” said Haugli, who is now the Inspector at the Penticton detachment. “What I do remember is walking down Main Street looking at those people thinking geez, I sure hope they don’t rush us because we are definitely outnumbered.”
Haugli had been on bicycle patrol earlier that evening with Const. Rick Dellebuur, who is now a Sargeant in Penticton. Dellebuur said he was at King’s Park before the concert started monitoring the crowd and was told to take some officers downtown.
“We could tell things weren’t going good. It was just bubbling, with the amount of people and vehicles it was just hopping,” said Dellebuur. “We get out and it is wall-to-wall people downtown. If you had some troublemakers you couldn’t arrest them and take them away because you couldn’t get police cars down there. It was so jammed up.”
Technology at the time was nothing what it is today. RCMP who were at the MC Hammer concert were given special event radios, on a different frequency so not to interfere with the general duty members, making it difficult for the two units to communicate. The city and RCMP, based on previous years numbers, had expected the following B.C. Day weekend to bring in a crowd of 30,000 and had prepared to have riot squads and more police officers from around the province to bolster the Penticton detachment. They were not prepared for things to escalate the weekend before.
By around 10 p.m. Dellebuur and a group of six to eight officers were located near the downtown Tim Horton’s, standing with their backs against the wall watching the immense crowd begin to boil over.
“We are hearing things are starting to go crazy and they say on the radio they are going to get the tac troop ready. About this same time, people in the crowd start breaking off chunks of brick from the planter by the CIBC and they are lobbing it at us,” said Dellebuur.
As the tactical troop begin pushing the crowd down Main Street towards the beach, Dellebuur said some people started running, breaking windows as they went. The wave of people hit Lakeshore Drive. What is now apartment buildings, was an empty lot in 1991. A crowd gathered here and it is where Kimberley believes those who deliberately started fights to incite the crowd were stationed.
Jodie Gastel was 19 in the summer of ‘91 and working at the Peach concession along Lakeshore. Back then the concession stayed open late into the evening.
“It was busy out. Peachfest was happening and there was a concert going on down the way — which I remember being fairly upset about not being able to attend. It was MC Hammer and that doesn’t happen in Penticton,” said Gastel, who now lives in Victoria. “All of sudden there was this low rumble. If you can imagine what a stampede sounds like but in the distance. Then, a throng of people ran past us at the Peach. It was really loud and a lot of chaos it seemed like.”
Gastel looked at her younger co-worker and told him to call his mom to get picked up right away. She said they started cleaning and locked everything up.
“I felt bad when I left because one of our duties was cleaning the hot dog machine and I didn’t stay and clean it because it was a 15 to 20 minute job. I found out that after I left the Peach, about 10 minutes later the mob came back and started rolling it. I could have been in it,” said Gastel.
Tired from the two jobs she had been working that summer, Gastel went home and to bed not knowing the stampeding crowd was now walking around with boxes of ice cream treats and doling out Peach Fest T-shirts that had been looted from beach concessions and the Jubilee Pavilion. Much less did she know the iconic little Peach concession she worked at was getting rolled into Okanagan Lake by rioters. Or, that they rampaged downtown breaking windows and smashing decorative lamps along Lakeshore Drive while homeowners on that same strip provided police with water and snacks as they watched rioters urinate on their lawns.
“I remember this feeling of disbelief and I felt violated. This is my home, this is where I live,” said Gastel, with a tinge of anger still in her voice 20 years later. “I grew up in Penticton and for something like that to happen, it was just so foreign. I guess now one of my claims is that I was the very last person to ever set foot in the Peach featured in the movie My American Cousin.”
Kimberley stayed awake for 72 hours following his reading of the riot act. His first call from the press looking for an interview and information came from China. It was clear the riot was going to have an impact on the perception of Penticton and its tourism economy.
The following B.C. day long weekend was just as tense. Kimberley said a police helicopter took him up to the Coquihalla.
“As far as the eye could see there was lights. A stream of car lights coming all the way into the Valley and into Penticton,” he remembers.
But, with more RCMP in place and the decision to put roadblocks up at the entrance into town, they averted any major problems.
“It was scary that next weekend because they were coming in with axes and baseball bats with nails through them. It was horrific. It was all seized and stored in the RCMP detachment and the whole garage was full of weapons including bricks and rocks — boxes of them,” said Kimberley.
Dellebuur said out of the riot the idea of bringing CrimeStoppers emerged. Seized video and photos from the press helped identify some of the rioters. Images of people causing disturbances in the news also assisted in bringing charges forward.
“We were getting grandmother phoning in saying ‘hey, that was my grandson,’” said Dellebuur. “That really planted the seed for myself and Cpl. Larry Babcock for CrimeStoppers because we didn’t have that here yet. We realized the response we got by publicizing the people was something we could build on.”
The riot in 1991 brings a unique experience for Haugli, who started his career here and moved back when he was named Inspector last year.
“Things are much safer. It’s a way different environment here and obviously me as chief of police, I am extremely happy to see that,” said Haugli.
He is right, times have changed. In the summer of 1991, city council had only just passed a bylaw that forbid people from riding in the cargo areas of vehicles — the result of seeing a number of injuries in the emergency ward from drunk people falling out of the back of trucks. Local liquor stores would run out of beer, which they only sold in cans during the tourist season, and Kimberley recalled people crossing the border to Oroville to buy beer to sell at the local beaches for $40 a dozen.
A much sturdier Peach concession has been built since then. Today, mostly families dot the sandy beaches and tourists hunt down their next winery.
And, although it falls on different dates, Peach Festival, as the mayor assured the media and community in 1991, “stays intact.”