National News

'AN UPHILL BATTLE' AGAINST ILLEGAL CLUBS

Posted January 3, 2018 4:55 p.m. EST

The killing at dawn was eerily familiar, like so many other early-morning deaths.

Police received the call just before sunrise - shots fired at an after-hours club. One young man was dead.

That September morning, 26-year-old Alberth Sinisterr-Villegas was gunned down inside the Allure Lounge on Richmond Avenue. His death came months after a fatal Dec. 30 melee outside Club Life on Fannin Street and a shooting that injured two at Xplicit lounge in February.

None of the clubs should have been serving alcohol at the time - but they were, investigators say. And the results were deadly.

At least 50 people have been killed since 2010 in violent outbreaks at Houston-area clubs operating without liquor licenses or after hours at licensed clubs that were later closed, sued or fined for selling alcohol after 2 a.m., a Houston Chronicle investigation of police, court and state records found.

Dozens more have been wounded, robbed or assaulted as the clubs operated unfettered for months or years, their owners pulling in what county officials say are huge sums of cash at the expense of the surrounding community's safety.

Because of gaps in regulatory oversight, owners and landlords of unlicensed bars often face only minor punishments.

"It's a criminal enterprise," said Celena Vinson, a lawyer in the Harris County Attorney's public nuisance office. "They're just criminals playing with a system that kind of allows them to."

Since Jan. 1, County Attorney Vince Ryan's office has obtained restraining orders against 22 Houston clubs described in court documents as public nuisances and hubs for gang violence, drug trafficking, prostitution and sexual assault.

For neighbors living in fear of late-night brawls and random gunfire, the closures can't come soon enough.

Lines of people wait outside to get into the after-hours clubs, lured on social media by promises of "free trash can punch" and "Jell-O shots all night."

Property owners, however, may not know what's going on inside the clubs because of a "shell game" of management that transfers from one person to another, said Jason Fowell, who represents Ben Wah Property, the Club Life landlords who he said are not fighting efforts to shut down the unlicensed bar that county officials say is operating there.

"It's a terrible situation for the property owner," Fowell told the Chronicle.

Representatives for club management could not be reached for comment.

'Tons of money'

Houston, with its sprawling strip malls and lack of zoning laws, had for decades been a magnet for illegal nightclubs. And for decades, law enforcement had successfully worked to shut them down.

But the internet changed things.

"Social media has driven this after-hours phenomenon," said Assistant County Attorney Rosemarie Donnelly. "It is more prevalent for that reason."

Previously, club operators had to attract customers through word-of-mouth. Now, they simply use anonymous online aliases to build and then mobilize devoted, frequently underage party-goers to storefronts around the city, many of which are imperceptible to outsiders until the wee morning hours - or until tragedy strikes.

Chris Porter, a spokesman for the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, called unlicensed clubs "a big public safety concern." But there are limits to the agency's authority over them, he said.

It's impossible, he notes, to revoke or suspend a license that never existed in the first place. Instead, TABC takes what Porter called a "support and advisory role," sharing public complaints and permit records with local law enforcement. Police then conduct undercover sting operations before referring the cases to county attorneys' offices, which in turn pursue restraining orders to close the establishments.

Sgt. J. Robles, with the Houston Police Department's Vice Division, said the brazen way many unlicensed clubs advertise online has made it easier for his team to find them. But even successful sting operations can only do so much.

Restraining orders, meanwhile, are efficient for shutting down single locations. But in many cases, bar managers simply use the names of friends or family to open new storefronts, while landlords claim in court that they were unaware the clubs were unlicensed or selling alcohol after hours. In some cases, there isn't even a formal lease, making it even more difficult to prove landlords willfully violated the law.

"These are big locations," Vinson said. "They're making tons of money. They're profitable. How a landlord for these types of clubs, where murders are happening, isn't aware of what's going on - it's really hard to believe."

'Party with us tonight'

Even before the shooting at Allure Lounge in September, authorities were well-acquainted with the stretch of Richmond Avenue between Fondren and Gessner in southwest Houston.

Ryan's office had months earlier filed suits against two clubs in the 9300 block of Richmond Avenue. Both were the scenes of early-morning killings, including one in which a gunshot victim was found in a charred car down the road, police records show. The clubs also shared a parking lot with a daycare that opened at 6 a.m. - the same time many patrons were spilling out.

In the 9200 block, court records show that three clubs were operating at the time of Sinisterr-Villegas' death, including Allure Lounge. In the year before his death, Houston police responded to dozens of calls reporting violent crimes at the location, including a July 30 shooting that injured one person in the parking lot, police records show.

On Aug. 3, Houston vice officers conducted an undercover sting at one of the clubs, named ALAA, arresting a bartender and manager on charges they violated state liquor laws, court records show.

But that didn't stop drinks from flowing next door: Court records show that days later, another club, Blush Lounge, posted online advertisements bragging about being the only Houston establishment open during city-wide curfew hours for Hurricane Harvey.

Court records show that the property owner, Wonsong Investment Company, did not respond to multiple letters about the three clubs, including one that came a few days before Sinisterr-Villegas was killed.

Wonsong Investment Company did not respond to multiple calls for comment.

An attorney for Jose Ruiz, who according to court documents was the operator of Blush Lounge, said his client is being unfairly blamed for the actions of the two other clubs.

Houston attorney Jack Fuerst said Blush Lounge did not sell alcohol, and that any advertisements for alcohol there had been posted by rival clubs.

"It's a very vicious business," Fuerst said. "And there are other clubs in the area, and in order to ruin the other businesses, they put out fake fliers showing and telling that they're selling liquor."

'Free liquor all night'

Homeowners near the Dixie Warehouse in southeast Houston said they have complained for months about the club, which was temporarily shut down in October by a court order.

An undercover sting by Houston police on Oct. 20 found about 300 people inside the warehouse, many of them underage, with a juvenile tending the makeshift bar, according to court records.

Ryan's office won a restraining order against the club at 3365 Dixie Drive on Oct. 24 - eight days after police say a patron was robbed at gunpoint, 12 days after another person was shot and eight months after a 19-year-old was critically wounded by gunfire there, court records show.

Neighbors declined to speak publicly, fearing retaliation, but they point to the bullet-shattered windows at one house adjacent to the parking lot. Others tell of losing their internet and cable service after the telephone poles straddling the property were damaged by gunshots.

Online advertising made no secret of what the club was offering, according to the county attorney's office.

"Free liquor all night," read one online advertisement cited in court records.

"The coolest drinking party of the summer," read a separate online advertisement for the "#HTXDrunkFest" at the club in June, court records show.

People identified in court filings as owners or operators of Dixie Warehouse could not be reached for comment. Court documents do not list an attorney representing them.

A man whose phone number was listed on one advertisement and who said he was a promoter for the club, said no alcohol was sold there.

"Just water and soda," he said, when reached by phone.

Getting tough

Lawmakers have in recent years strengthened TABC's enforcement abilities, including a 2015 bill that allowed TABC to issue five-year bans on licenses for those who use another person's liquor permit.

"The Legislature has already given TABC the authority it needs to regulate businesses which hold a license to sell alcohol," said Porter, TABC spokesman.

But cracking down on unlicensed bars is more difficult, Porter and others said.

"It's a conundrum," said state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, noting as others have that the off-the-books nature of unlicensed clubs makes containing their spread extremely difficult.

"We'd have to set up a regulatory scheme," he said.

That'd be difficult, given the diversity of Houston and Texas. Coleman and others also suggested spreading out criminal or civil penalties to all parties involved in managing unlicensed clubs. That, too, would only do so much, given that many operate without any formal documents.

Vinson and Donnelly, meanwhile, suggested stronger civil penalties that would levy fines based on the number of days a club operated illegally.

Until then, they said, they will continue the fight - even if it sometimes feels like an uphill battle.

"It's a game," Vinson said. "And a lot of times it works in their favor."