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'Padlock' law allows cops to close troublesome bars

The Black Hole Rock Club in Dundalk is closed, for now. The manager was arrested and charged with selling drugs to customers. Inspectors condemned the barnlike structure and slapped notices on all the doors: "This building is unsafe."

Baltimore County Police Chief James W. Johnson wants to go further — padlocking the doors to ensure that the club stays closed for up to one year.

The county's "padlock law" gives the police extraordinary power in certain cases to lock the doors of an establishment, though the tactic has not been used there in at least 15 years. It's a tool that the Baltimore City police commissioner has used to shutter troubled bars, liquor stores and motels.

Johnson also wants to padlock a bar in Essex where two people were stabbed in July, and a club in White Marsh where a man was fatally shot.

But the police chief said that the county's law, written three decades ago, is inadequate. To initiate proceedings, it requires two convictions on nuisance crimes such as loitering, prostitution or drug possession within 24 months.

He's conferring with county lawyers to determine whether the law could be applied to any or all of the three clubs he's targeting, or whether he should wait and ask the County Council to broaden the ordinance.

In both the city and the county, a public hearing — overseen by an administrative law judge — is required to determine whether a bar can be padlocked. But in contrast to the county's version, the city law allows the police commissioner to begin the process when two police reports on virtually any crime are written from a single establishment within two years. No convictions are necessary.

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said through a spokesman that he will wait for the police chief to brief him before deciding whether to push to make the ordinance read more like the city's.

"We're constantly looking for tactics and methods that can be taken," Johnson said of liquor establishments he feels run afoul of community and legal standards. "Most are operated in a very orderly manner with quality customers."

Of the Black Hole, he said, "Unfortunately, this place was not."

Police said in charging documents that a 15-month undercover investigation revealed "blatant use and distribution of narcotics," including hallucinogenic mushrooms. The court documents allege that there were an exclusive drug dealer and "runners" to make transactions, and that the manager got a cut of the proceeds.

In targeting the Black Hole, Johnson is taking on an established club that he knew as a young patrol sergeant in the 1980s as The Zu. "It always had a sordid reputation," he said. "It was always a hot spot. We had numerous calls there for fights and drug activity."

Former and current owners of the Black Hole lured nationally known performers with an eclectic audience, vast stage and intricate lighting sets.

With its windowless, black exterior, the two-story club towers like a dark fortress over neighboring bungalow-style homes and trimmed green lawns along German Hill and Woodwell roads. Its interior is described by the manager in documents as "beatnik" — a private room for performers is decorated with Led Zeppelin posters and has a bed, couch and TV so the talent can unwind.

Supporters of the Black Hole have mounted a ferocious defense in anonymous blog postings, though Elizabeth Ki Lee Walger, who was arrested in the Aug. 11 raid, said she had stopped going regularly because of the bar's deteriorating reputation.

"People went there to hang out and make new friends," said the 25-year-old Walger, who denied police accusations that she had drugs that night. "It used to be about a lifestyle. … It was about the music and the people. Then a lot of people stopped going because of what it turned into."

The manager arrested, 47-year-old Christopher Trikeriotis, is a disbarred attorney who, starting in 2001, spent 30 months in federal prison for bilking people out of millions in a mortgage fraud scheme.

Trikeriotis said Thursday that he did not want to comment on the recent raid and shutdown until a reporter reviewed surveillance tapes from inside the bar. He said they would show how police have unfairly targeted him.

Trikeriotis has accused officials before of conspiring to shut him down, and his defiant demeanor has drawn scolding at public meetings.

During a 2009 liquor board hearing that lasted seven hours over two days and fills 200 pages of transcripts in the thick Black Hole file, the chairman warned Trikeriotis, "If it is your desire to destroy your business, just keep doing what you're doing."

The board found the club guilty of several violations but fined the owner just $2,500, telling Trikeriotis that he should be pleased with the "lenient" sanctions. The owner appealed, and a judge sliced $1,000 off the fine.

A flier from what the bar advertised as a "Night of Mayhem" in January last year — a typed two-page, single-spaced anti-establishment manifesto — said at one point: "Because we do not subscribe to the archaic, prejudicial, non-Democratic and immoral ideals and beliefs of our government, systematic efforts were made to put us out of business."

The ad promoting the free, weekend-long party featuring more than a dozen bands warned that the event might be its last: "It may turn out that we won't be able to survive this fight."

Many localities around Maryland have padlock laws on the books, but the extreme measures are used mostly in urban areas. Washington's police chief recently closed a bar after a killing, and police in Prince George's County shut down seven bars in a single day in 2007.

While the laws in Baltimore City and Baltimore County appear to give police chiefs in both localities wide latitude, officials said they use padlocks only as a last resort. Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III padlocked his first establishment, Linden Bar & Liquors in Reservoir Hill, in 2008.

Since then, he's shuttered two other bars. A motel on Pulaski Highway volunteered to close, essentially padlocking itself, and separate owners of a bar, a carryout, a downtown nightclub and a motel avoided getting padlocked by negotiating new security plans with city police.

The owner of the Linden Bar challenged his padlocking in court, arguing that the law gives police too much power, mainly because the closures can be triggered by allegations, not convictions. A state appellate court did not rule on that challenge because the padlock order had expired by the time it got the case.

Linden's attorney, Peter A. Prevas, who represents many of the area's taverns, said the Baltimore County ordinance requiring convictions is more fair. He complained that under the city's law, "if anybody sneezes twice, they can close a bar."

The complaints that led to Trikeriotis' fines in 2009 involved allegations of underage drinking, lewd behavior by a topless dancer at a private birthday party and other infractions. Police had gone to the bar one night that year after paramedics were called to help a man who had passed out from drinking.

Police reports filed in subsequent months detail allegations of drug use and drug sales, loud music, fights in the parking lot and a general hostility toward officers.

The manager acknowledged that his relationship with police was contentious. "Do you really need to bring the entire precinct in for the 30th anonymous complaint?" he said during the liquor board hearing. "How many people are possibly urinating in the parking lot, and how many times?"

A liquor board member asked: "Do you allow in any way, shape or form the use of illegal drugs on your premises?"

Trikeriotis answered: "Absolutely not."

Shortly after that hearing, county police said they initiated an undercover drug investigation with officers posing as patrons.

More than 100 police officers raided the bar the night of Aug. 11. Police said in court documents that they found suspected prescription drugs and hallucinogens in the building. Police said they also found suspected drugs on the accused dealer, as well as marked bills totaling $50 that an undercover detective said he had used to pay for narcotics.

Trikeriotis' wife, Joyce, whose name is on the liquor license, was not charged in connection with the raid.

In all, seven people were arrested. Trikeriotis — who in the liquor board file describes his duties at the bar as manager, promoter, head of security and cook — and two others, including the suspected dealer, were charged with possession of drugs with intent to distribute. Four customers were charged with drug possession.

peter.hermann@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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