As State Police search for the dozens of dirt bike riders who violently attacked an 82-year-old Brookline man as he drove through the Fenway a week ago, the crime has reanimated a debate over how to combat urban dirt biking incidents where masses of people illegally ride off-road vehicles through city streets.
Typically, such group motorbike and ATV rides raise quality of life concerns — noise complaints, blocked traffic, tire-marked parks. But they can, albeit rarely, turn violent, as in the Fenway case.
According to the State Police, the man was driving on Boylston Street near Park Drive on Nov. 18 around 7:30 p.m. when he became enmeshed in a throng of 30 to 40 riders, mostly on dirt bikes. The group forced the man’s Buick onto the right side of the curb. Some began to smash the car’s windows. The driver, whose identity has not been released by police, tried to escape by driving onto Storrow Drive, but the riders continued to pursue him.
After he got stuck in traffic atop an off-ramp in Allston, the victim rolled down his window to ask nearby drivers for help. A male rider then punched him through the open window, police said, and one of the suspects threw a pipe through the Buick’s rear window.
It is not clear why the man was targeted. NewsCenter 5 reported he was on his way home after purchasing a turkey for Thanksgiving.
The man was able to drive to a nearby convenience store on Cambridge Street in Allston where he got out of his car and collapsed. First responders soon arrived and took him to St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Brighton for treatment of his injuries. He was discharged Wednesday.
State Police released a surveillance video that shows the bikers surrounding the Buick, as well as photos of the car’s windshield and rear window completely shattered.
“The investigation remains very active,” spokesman David Procopio said. “We are receiving tips and are grateful to those who have called us thus far. We continue to ask the public to contact us. We are confident that there are members of the public who know the identities of riders in this group.”
A spokesperson for Boston Mayor Michelle Wu called the attack “heartbreaking and appalling. There is no place for violence in our communities and we will work with the state to support this investigation.” However, she did not comment on any plans to address the simmering issue of off-road vehicles in streets and public parks.
Representative Russell E. Holmes, a Democrat who represents Dorchester, Mattapan, Hyde Park, and Jamaica Plain, has focused on the issue of illegal, dangerous, and threatening behavior by large groups of bikers and ATV riders for the past several months.
“We need to have this as one of the highest priorities in regards to what we’re going to do about our streets,” said Holmes. “They essentially take over the streets, are very aggressive, and essentially dare you to do something about their aggressiveness.”
Holmes said groups of illegal bikers were a chronic issue for residents around Franklin Park, Mattapan and North Dorchester, and Roxbury. Working with Boston police and city agencies, he said, lane restrictions were installed on parts of Cummins Highway and American Legion Highway, and periodic road closures have been conducted in Franklin Park.
The frequency of large groups of riders on those roads has declined in recent weeks, although Holmes said he often sees brief takeovers of Blue Hill Avenue, the major artery through that entire section of the city. He has also seen some of the groups riding in downtown Boston.
”It has died down substantially because we’ve been very busy and very insistent, diligent about . . . trying to stop it,” said Holmes. “I’ve seen it primarily in the heart of the Black community and up and down Blue Hill Avenue, that’s what bothering me the most.”
Holmes noted that the violent attack on the 82-year-old man started in the Fenway neighborhood and ended in Allston. “I did not realize they were moving into different neighborhoods,” he said. “That wasn’t my goal. I was just hoping to end it.”
Holmes said his constituents want stronger enforcement on the bike riders, whom he has been told are violating motor vehicle laws by riding on Boston streets. However, he said police commanders have told him that chases by law enforcement can cause more harm to neighborhoods when already reckless ATV drivers race to escape pursuing police.
ATVs are a major public safety concern in Providence, where the Globe reported that police have received 2,600 complaints about riders since January 2020. Early last year, dirt bikers beat up a father in front of his child and ran over his ankle because he told them not to ride in Neutaconkanut Park in Silver Lake. This August, dirt bikers dragged a woman out of her car after she honked at them at a stoplight on Smith Hill in Providence and punched her while her 8-year-old daughter sat inside the vehicle.
In what appears to show the high risks of a police pursuit, a Rhode Island man on an unregistered scooter veered onto a side street and crashed into a wall. An officer who was following the rider hit a stop sign, which in turn hit the rider’s helmet. The officer, Kyle Endres, was cleared in an investigation; the rider, 24-year-old Jhamal Gonsalves, is recovering from a head injury, and his family has filed a federal lawsuit against the police.
Police in Massachusetts have also found themselves in hot water in the past after pursuing riders.
A video posted to Twitter by a pedestrian in the fall of 2017 captured a Boston police cruiser hopping the curb and coming within feet of a pedestrian while in pursuit of a dirt biker near the Boston Public Library on Boylston Street.
In early 2018, a Massachusetts State Police trooper shot a 28-year-old ATV rider in the foot during a confrontation on I-93 South. The trooper said the man posed an “imminent danger,” but Suffolk County district attorney investigators argued that bullet holes in the ATV showed the vehicle was parallel to the trooper, not heading toward him.
Boston police Sergeant Detective Daniel Humphreys told the Globe in May that in 2020 police used a city ordinance to target off-road vehicles, which are prohibited on public ways and in city parks, he said. In recent years, the department has seized more than 300 vehicles without any chases and no use of force, instead targeting them while they are stationary. He said it’s not just youths who drive the vehicles and moreover, estimated that more than half the people riding off-road vehicles in Boston are not city residents.
City Councilor-at-Large Julia Mejia worked to connect some of the local riding community with other stakeholders this summer, and she attributes some of the resulting quiet in parts of the city to the realization by the riders of the disruption they were causing to the neighbors.
“My whole thing was making sure that those who were causing a commotion were engaged in the conversation so that they understood the impact,’' she said Wednesday. “This [the attack] situation is very different. A man was attacked.”