Baltimore's liquor board on Thursday revoked the license of a massive Southeast Baltimore dance club, citing incidents in which a patron was shot on the dance floor and the club's owner released pepper spray into a large crowd while riding on a golf cart.
The Voltage club, which billed itself as the city's largest, operated out of an old Greyhound bus terminal in the Baltimore Travel Plaza on O'Donnell Street. Voltage, which has been open for about 16 months, ran afoul of police and the liquor board on consecutive weekends in November and into December.
Owner Louis J. Principio III, whose family used to own the popular Hammerjacks club, said he paid for heavy security, which had the place mostly under control. He said he never would have expected such a reaction from the city.
Hammerjacks, the metal and big-hair club that his family ran for two decades, had problems that were "1,000 times worse," he said — recalling lawsuits, fights and crowds hanging around well after last call.
"Maybe I'm too old to be in the business," the 66-year-old wondered aloud at Thursday's liquor board hearing. He said he is at the club every night.
Liquor board chairman Stephan Fogleman said Principio's plea reminded him of a lyric from Morrissey, the lead singer of the rock band The Smiths: "Has the world changed, or have I changed?"
"Mr. Principio hasn't changed, but I think the standards of the community have changed," Fogleman said after the hearing.
Principio vowed to appeal, and Fogleman said the club can remain open — it just cannot serve alcohol. He pointed out that Principio testified that his club was less geared around alcohol than dancing and the chance to "meet members of the opposite sex."
In more than four hours of testimony heard last week, police officers told of large, "belligerent" crowds, with "men and women hitting each other, people kicking people in the head," Fogleman recounted.
In one of the incidents, police said, Principio drove around on a golf cart releasing pepper spray, incapacitating a uniformed police officer who had been called to the scene for crowd control. Principio blamed wind and said it was an accident.
"We can't wait for another month like November," Fogleman said.
The board rarely revokes liquor licenses. It hasn't happened since May 2013, when an Upper Fell's Point bar called "Club Confetti" lost its license. The license of another bar, La Raza Cantina at Eastern and East Avenues, was pulled in November 2012.
Melvin J. Kodensky, an attorney for Principio, noted a long list of shootings or murders that occurred in or around other clubs, which he said received only fines from the liquor board.
Principio said that in comparison to Hammerjacks, problems at Voltage were rare, and he cleared crowds out before 2 a.m, not just from the club but the parking lot.
Principio's family sold the Hammerjacks name and logo in 2010, and a group of investors is currently trying to revive the club near M&T Bank Stadium and the Horseshoe Casino.
After the liquor board decision, Principio declined to comment beyond a vow to appeal the decision.
The 12,000-square foot club opened in October 2012 in the location off Interstate 95, offering "College Night" Thursdays that drew an under-21 crowd, and "Club Life" parties on Saturdays.
Voltage featured three bars around a spacious dance area, and a cover as high as $15. Principio said he regularly packed 800 people into the club and had few incidents that his security couldn't stomp out.
A reviewer from The Baltimore Sun last April compared the club's security process to boarding an airplane, and Principio stressed that he believed he went above and beyond to keep the club safe.
Among those who testified to the club's problems were police officers who had responded to the club for disturbances, but other officers — who work secondary employment at the club — testified that it had sufficient security.
Fogleman said that in another incident, an officer was pepper sprayed on what was otherwise a "quiet night" at the club.
Principio said he had spent $350,000 during an unspecified time frame on security, including $110,000 for police outside and $100,000 on security inside the club.
"Who spends that kind of money?" Principio said.
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Principio said security staff used wands to check for weapons. He was at a loss to explain how someone had gotten a gun inside on Monday, Dec. 2, when a 24-year-old man was shot on the dance floor at 1:44 a.m. Police said Thursday that the case remains unsolved.
Principio surmised that the gun could have been smuggled in through a side door, which he said is now manned by a security guard.
Fogleman said that the successive weekend incidents showed a disturbing pattern. "Basically we're seeing weekend after weekend, there's going to be a fight," he said. In the instances involving pepper spray, he said the club hadn't just failed to avoid a disturbance, but had created one.
Joyce Adamski, president of the Southeastern Police District's citizen Police Community Relations Council, let out a "Yes!" when the license was revoked. She said she had regularly heard from residents of the area who complained of early-morning sirens and the police helicopter flying overhead.
"They just feel like they're held hostage with this situation," Adamski said of the club. Of the liquor board, she said, "I'm so thankful that they listened to the community."