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If you believe the proprietors of many D.C. nightspots, their neighborhoods are crime-infested places that threaten the safety of innocent barflies and club-hoppers. Why, merely stepping outside the secure confines of their liquor-licensed safe houses exposes you to all sorts of horrible transgressions: robbery, assault, even murder.
Strange, then, that the clubs’ addresses are often the ones on the police reports.
Just six days after a deadly stabbing that took place, depending on whom you ask, either inside or outside the Northwest D.C. go-go hub Club U, authorities say a vicious slashing occurred at Latin Jazz Alley. Or, if you prefer, in Adams Morgan.
Around 2 a.m. on Feb. 19, 27-year-old Roberto Montalvo was struck, according to a Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) report, by an unknown suspect wielding an unknown weapon during a large brawl at the small salsa club on Columbia Road NW.
Police responding to the scene found the victim covered in blood but still standing amid an ongoing melee just outside the club’s entrance.
Montalvo, who was rushed to Washington Hospital Center’s trauma unit for treatment of “cuts to left side and elbow,” told police that he’d been stabbed inside Latin Jazz Alley—specifically, on the second floor, where the fight reportedly started.
The door to the club was locked when police arrived. But when MPD investigators were finally allowed to enter the premises and inquire about the assault, a manager tried to externalize the issue, telling them, according to the report, that “nothing happened inside of the club.” At the time, the report notes, she “was mopping up blood on the floor.”
“You could still see some blood on the floor, blood on the walls,” says Officer Andrew Zabavsky, one of the first responders. “Go into the bathroom, and there was blood in the bathroom. And she was trying to tell us that nothing happened in here. It all happened outside.”
A common response from club management. After all, it’s in every liquor-licensed venue’s best interest to put a little distance—preferably, a front door—between itself and any act of violence. Sooner or later, such an incident is bound to come before the District’s Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Board, which has been known, on occasion, to invoke its legal powers to suspend or revoke a venue’s license if it deems the place “an imminent danger to the health and safety of the public.”
And losing a license, if only temporarily, isn’t exactly good for business—even for a restaurant-licensed establishment such as Latin Jazz Alley. “In my experience, you can’t operate a sit-down food-service place in the District of Columbia without a liquor license,” says Andrew Kline, an attorney representing the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington.
So it should come as no surprise that licensees often get a bit defensive about where an alleged incident actually took place in relation to their businesses. If it happened at all, they’ll argue, it happened outside.
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Just ask Tom Tom owner Iraj Askarinam, whose Adams Morgan venue was the scene of another stabbing on Nov. 28, 2004. That night, 24-year-old Kyle Rodekohr was trying to leave the club after a verbal altercation with another patron. According to a report by the District’s Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA), he suddenly “felt someone punch him in the left side of his body.”
At least he thought he’d been punched—“until a friend stated that he was bleeding,” according to the report. As soon as he got outside, Rodekohr informed a bouncer that he’d been stabbed inside the club. But when ABRA investigator Richard Coward interviewed Askarinam about the incident two days later, the Tom Tom boss disputed the victim’s internal-injury claim.
Askarinam told the investigator that he was “aware of the allegation that someone was stabbed inside of his establishment,” according to Coward’s report, but was “not aware of any fights or altercations inside.” The owner further asserted that “he does not think the stabbing occurred inside,” noting, “‘Why would he come outside and tell the bouncer? Why didn’t he tell someone inside?’”
When licensees get dragged before the ABC Board, the outside defense is a popular strategy. It forces prosecutors from the D.C. Office of the Attorney General to prove that the alleged incident actually happened inside the establishment. And that’s not always so easy. The prosecution usually calls up police officers and local advisory neighborhood commissioners to offer verbal testimony. Physical or forensic evidence doesn’t figure in regulatory hearings such as the ABC Board’s—those goodies are being saved for the criminal trial.
In short, it’s the cops’ word against the club’s.
Take the case of Club U, which continues to face a prolonged liquor-license suspension—and possible revocation—following the Feb. 13 stabbing death of 31-year-old Terrence Brown.
Last week, MPD crime-scene investigator Kemper T. Agee testified to the ABC Board that he found bloodstains on the club’s walls shortly after Brown’s murder. He further testified that an eyewitness had told police that the victim was attacked on Club U’s dance floor and was then carried off by bouncers, who put him out of the club—specifically, by dumping the severely injured man in the exterior lobby, where police later found him.
Club U attorney David Wilmot disputed that testimony, pointing out that police offered no evidence beyond anecdotal allegations to back up their inside-the-club theory. Instead, Wilmot suggested, it’s the crime-ridden neighborhood outside the establishment that caused the violence.
And his witnesses offer their own anecdotal evidence on that point: “It’s a high-crime area,” stated Schelore Williams, board chair of the Development Corporation of Columbia Heights, the neighborhood just north of the club. “You go down V Street to 13th Street [NW]…you better hold on to your pocketbook.”
Attorney E. Douglass Ellis similarly emphasized the outside element when defending downtown D.C. tavern So Much More after seven patrons were stabbed there during a nasty cover-charge dispute back on May 12, 2004.
Last June, MPD Detective Antonio Duncan told the ABC Board about numerous bloodstains inside the club, including a trail of blood running the length of the tavern’s second floor. He also noticed a mop and a bucket of water, which prosecutors cited as evidence that the club was trying to clean up the crime scene. Detective William Riddle told the board he was “100 percent sure these stabbings took place inside.”
But Ellis argued that owners Deryck Alexander and Rose Knox had ejected the troublemakers and shut their club down long before any brawlers ever busted out pointed weapons. “The greatest violence,” Ellis said, “took place outside.”
The strategy paid off: After a short eight-day suspension, So Much More got its license back—but eventually ceased operations in the neighborhood blighted by Ollie’s Trolley and the Washington Post.
Like Ellis, Latin Jazz Alley owner Leyda Molina also splits hairs on the inside-outside issue. “I know the scuffle started inside the club,” says Molina, who awaits a date of her own with the ABC Board. But, she adds, “They wound up taking it outside.”—Chris Shott
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