Friday, September 03, 2010

City of St. Louis Battles Lure Nightclub

From "ST. LOUIS • A downtown nightclub goes on trial today, its liquor license, and existence, at risk.

Residents have complained that the patrons of Lure, in the heart of the city's downtown bar and loft district, fight in their streets, dump beer bottles on their sidewalks and bleed in their buildings.

City Hall, aiming to protect the safety of residents and the image of a growing downtown, is working to shut the bar down.

Club officials, however, have maintained that Lure has had no liquor violations, such as underage drinking. Their club, they repeatedly insist, is being targeted unfairly.

But a review of city liquor commission documents suggests otherwise. The file on Lure and its earlier incarnations — roughly 6 inches thick — shows at least eight liquor commission violations, including one incident where the bar, named Lucky's at that point, served Bud Light to three teens, garnering a city suspension.

And those are far from the first violations leveled at Lure owners or managers.

Over the last eight years, the daughters and sons of Marlene and Matthew "Mikey" Trupiano — a reputed mobster who went to prison in the mid-1990s for gambling — have owned or helped open a portion of at least six nightclubs in the region, including Lure, according to an analysis of state and city files.

Since 2002, five of those bars have been charged with a combined total of more than 50 state or local violations in about 25 separate incidents.

Some of the charges were administrative: The bars were twice cited for not correctly posting their liquor licenses, and, on a few occasions, didn't tell the city that they had hired new employees, as required by law.

But most were not. Fights broke out. Patrons threw bottles. One grabbed a bat from her car. One bar printed and distributed illegal advertisements. And the bars were collectively charged with at least 40 complaints related to underage drinking.

Still, Nick Trupiano, a manager at Lure and brother of Aprille Trupiano, who owns the club, pointed out that the club, under its new name, has not had any liquor violations.

Certainly, he said, his family's bars have had some incidents. "Fights? Yes. Beefs with landlords? What clubs haven't?" he said. "We have this history because we want to keep doing business in the city."

But, he said, Lure has handled recent troubles well and has worked hard to appease downtown neighbors and City Hall. Yet none of that seems to have worked, he said.

"Now they're digging down," Trupiano said of Lure's opponents. "Trying to find everything."

'The Problem Child'

By late July, the city was targeting three downtown nightclubs, not just Lure. Residents had complained about each, and police visits were stacking up.

Three shootings had spurred City Hall action. One came last December, about two blocks from Jim Edmonds' 15 Steakhouse and Club on Locust Street. Another round of shots was fired early one Friday in June, about two blocks from Lure. And then, in July, two teens and a young man were shot about two blocks from the Sugar Lounge, a popular Washington Avenue club.

The city had already sent out nuisance letters to each club, citing them for "disturbances and other unruly behavior."

But after the July shooting, Jeff Rainford, Mayor Francis Slay's chief of staff, met with police officials.

The city had been working for years to clean up downtown St. Louis, attract businesses, and transform desolate streets into family-friendly neighborhoods.

"If we had these troubles 10 years ago, it's probable nobody would have noticed," Rainford said at the time. "However, having said that, it's our job, and we are taking it very seriously, to keep the place safe for everyone."

The city liquor commissioner wrote up citations for each club.

Owners at 15 and Sugar worked with city public safety officials and bought themselves more time to fix the problems. They agreed, according to city staff, to consider such measures as added security and extra lighting. And both avoided the city citation, at least temporarily.

Lure officials, on the other hand, hired an attorney, former Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr., to defend them. They picked up a public relations consultant. And they made signs. "Downtown doesn't like black people," said one. —"'Jim Crow' is alive and well in downtown St. Louis," said another.

The city was targeting Lure, said Nick Trupiano, because of its "Red Hot Thursdays," a hip-hop music night that attracted a primarily black audience.

Besides, he said, he and his siblings have owned and run a lot of clubs. And they've never before been called out as "the problem child."

But the city has targeted a Trupiano club before.

demise of dolce

Liquor commission workers say they get few complaints about the vast majority of the city's 850 bars, restaurants and package liquor stores. "It's the few that cause the biggest problems," said Commissioner Bob Kraiberg.

The first version of Lucky's, at Laclede's Landing, was charged with its first underage drinking violation just months after it opened in late 2001. By the time it closed, in 2005, it had at least 14 underage sales or drinking violations.

The city suspended two other Trupiano clubs following underage drinking charges. And at one, the Bubble Room in Kirkwood, the state revoked the liquor license of Anthony Trupiano, Nick's brother, in 2006.

But it is the closure of Dolce, at 200 North Broadway downtown, that bears the closest resemblance to the issues at Lure.

Neighbors began grumbling about the chic new club early in 2008. Then, after 1 a.m. one April night that year, residents flagged down a police cruiser. A "large crowd was standing in front of the club yelling and screaming for no apparent reason," Officer Aundre Smith said in a police report.

A resident described the scene as 80 to 100 people, 12 policemen, a barking police dog, a police wagon and a helicopter overhead, shining a spotlight below, according to the city file.

Within the next few days, seven residents wrote letters to city Alderman Phyllis Young.

"When is enough enough?" asked resident Stacey Howlett. "I feel as if it is only a matter of time before something happens to me. I want to be a city dweller, but I simply don't feel safe in the city anymore."

Two months later, Anthony Trupiano, Dolce co-owner Rob Olsen — who also manages Lure — and another owner sent a letter to the city saying Dolce was closing.

Nick Trupiano said it's not fair to judge a club by the bad behavior of a few patrons. Nor is it fair, he said, for a community to listen to the complaints of what he says are just a few individuals.

The Trupianos will make their case at 10 a.m. today, at a liquor commission hearing in front of a judge in City Hall. They are anxious for it to be over.

"We did (expletive) $78 two Fridays ago! We're losing $10,000 a week, minimum," he said. "What bank do I go to get my reputation back?"

Meanwhile, authorities worry about what might happen if Lure stays open.

Early on Feb. 19, a Lure brawl spilled into the middle of Washington Avenue, where police found a woman beating another in the face with a "Rawlings Tino Martinez souvenir 'Big Stick' baseball bat" that she had gone to her car to get, according to the police report. Another woman was sitting by the side, "bleeding profusely" from her forehead.

Police Lt. Angela Coonce, in an e-mail sent to officers early that morning entitled "Club Lure Insanity," wrote that every available 4th District car responded, and estimated that four times the club's capacity was "crammed inside."

"There would have been no way we could have controlled the crowd tonight if more fights broke out," she concluded. "We were lucky."