Reading mayor announces plan to restrict access to the Pagoda and Mount Penn overlooks following assault of policeman by group of dirt bike riders (2024)

When Reading police learned through social media that a large group of dirt bike and ATV riders would be gathering in Reading on Saturday, they activated a plan that included assistance from the state police aviation unit.

Like many cities and even some suburban communities, Reading has been grappling with the problem of people illegally riding dirt bikes on public streets and ignoring traffic laws.

Many are riding stolen motorcycles, and loud music and unruly behaviors at these meetups — which sometimes involve those with cars — at the Mount Penn overlooks and the Pagoda landmark make it impossible for nearby residents to enjoy their own backyards on summer days.

And as feared, the gathering Saturday with an estimated 200 riders overwhelmed city police, who don’t even have that many officers in the department, much less on duty at a particular time.

Members of the city police department’s illegal dirt bike summer initiative were supported by the officers on regular patrol and a state police helicopter that kept surveillance on the group, but they were still significantly outnumbered, officials said.

At a City Hall press conference Monday with Police Chief Eli Vazquez on the heels of a city police officer being assaulted by several people while arresting a member of their group, Mayor Eddie Moran said it’s past time to take decisive action to deter these gatherings rather than simply reacting.

Calling the large gatherings a threat to public safety and quality of life, the mayor announced a plan to go forward with harsher access-restriction measures that have been discussed previously but never implemented.

The plan includes closing part of Skyline Drive and its overlooks on weekend nights and closing access to the Pagoda area for entire weekends while it’s closed for renovations.

Previous measures including installing gates at the Pagoda parking lot that would be locked at night and hiring private security guards to patrol the area and report problems to police have proved insufficient, Moran said.

Reading mayor announces plan to restrict access to the Pagoda and Mount Penn overlooks following assault of policeman by group of dirt bike riders (1)

“While I am reluctant to restrict access to the Pagoda and the overlooks on Skyline Drive for the law-abiding public, which is the majority, we must take action,” Moran said.

The mayor said officials are well beyond the preliminary stages of installing gates at either end of the overlook areas, between List Road on one end and Duryea Drive/Shearer Road on the other.

Reading mayor announces plan to restrict access to the Pagoda and Mount Penn overlooks following assault of policeman by group of dirt bike riders (2)

“Once installed, these gates will be closed from early evening to morning to prevent such gatherings,” he said.

Noise an issue

Moran said that tthough his home is a few miles from the Pagoda, the gatherings of mountainside revelers still disturb his peace.

“I try to enjoy a quiet evening in my backyard, and I hear the music,” he said. “I can only imagine what that disruption is doing to the neighbors that are closer than I am.”

Although the focus of the press conference was on the Pagoda and the Mount Penn overlooks, illegal riding of dirt bikes and other off-road vehicles on public streets occurs all over the city, officials said. There was even a complaint that dirt bikes were causing problems at FirstEnergy Stadium when the Fightin Phils were having games.

Police are addressing that problem by arresting riders and seizing the bikes, Vazquez said.

He asked the public for help.

Reading mayor announces plan to restrict access to the Pagoda and Mount Penn overlooks following assault of policeman by group of dirt bike riders (3)

“We need the intel,” he said, asking residents who know where dirt bikes are stored to call Reading police at 610-655-6116.

Make no mistake, Vazquez said, these groups of riders are dangerous, evidenced by Saturday’s events.

Many in Saturday’s group were from other Pennsylvania cities, including Bethlehem, Allentown and West Hazleton, as well as from New Jersey and New York, he said.

“They’re coming to our city to disturb our residents and cause havoc,” Vazquez said. “There’s no other purpose for them to come to our city at all.”

While just coming to Reading to gather in a public area isn’t by itself a crime, many are on stolen bikes and committing other crimes, and often ride recklessly, especially when being pursued by police, he said.

Officer assaulted

The assault on the police officer is illustrative.

According to investigators:

Officer Michael Balch was working as part of the dirt bike detail. He was on Duryea Drive when he heard police being dispatched for a noise complaint concerning a large gathering at the Pagoda.

He noticed a large group of parked vehicles blocking the road to the Pagoda. He even became blocked and was unable to pass through because of the large gathering of people and dirt bikes.

As he got out of his vehicle to try to clear the way, he saw a man later identified as Luis Melo-Castillo, 26, of Reading.

He approached the rider and grabbed him as he tried to leave. Melo-Castillo got off the opposite side of the bike and began to pull away from the officer.

Balch pulled Melo-Castillo to the ground and restrained him, but people in the crowd began grabbing the bike to try to remove it.

While trying to control the suspect, Balch grabbed the bike to keep it from being taken. That’s when people in the group tried to pull Melo-Castillo away from him.

The officer pushed one of the people trying to free the suspect. That male punched Balch three times in the face before walking away.

Melo-Castillo, meanwhile, continued to struggle with Balch. Video footage of part of the struggle has made its way onto social media and showed people throwing things at the officer.

About a dozen officers arrived and dispersed the crowd. Melo-Castillo was taken into custody. Melo-Castillo of the 900 block of Oley Street was free on $10,000 bail following arraignment before District Judge Michael Kauffman in Reading Central Court.

Melo-Castillo faces charges of resisting arrest, disorderly conduct and riding an off-road vehicle on a road within an urban municipality.

Investigators are reviewing body-cam footage and using other means to identify the male who punched Balch, Vazquez said.

Reading police won’t tolerate an assault on one of their officers, the chief said.

The mayor said that while Reading isn’t alone in having its peace and dignity ruined by swarms of dirt bike riders, that doesn’t make it any more acceptable.

“Our community’s reputation is on the line,” Moran said.

Reading mayor announces plan to restrict access to the Pagoda and Mount Penn overlooks following assault of policeman by group of dirt bike riders (2024)

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