Troubled picture of club described

City attorneys and police officers spent seven hours Monday presenting testimony to state regulators about a trifecta of troubles that surround the controversial downtown bar Last Call.

The trifecta: guns, gangs and drugs.

City leaders hammered on those three themes as part of a hearing in front of the Alcohol Beverage Control division’s director, who will decide whether to renew the state drinking license of Last Call, 729 N.H.

“A huge number of the patrons are gang members,” said Sgt. Max Miller, who has frequently patrolled the area around the bar for the Lawrence Police Department. “That is the problem in my book.”

But an attorney for Last Call and its owner, Dennis Steffes, said the city hasn’t made a significant number of arrests inside the bar, is wrongly holding Steffes responsible for activities that happen outside of the bar and dislikes the club because it plays hip-hop music.

“The evidence will show that this isn’t about how Last Call is run, but it is about the patrons of Last Call,” attorney Dan Owen said. “What you are being asked to do is very, very dangerous because you are being asked to not renew a license of an establishment not because of what happens there but because of who goes there.”

Undercover results

City attorneys presented two police officers from the Mission Police Department who agreed to work undercover in the Lawrence bar scene this summer. Those officers said they frequently saw evidence of marijuana smoking inside the club and saw club patrons regularly “throwing gang signs.”

Officer Anthony Morgan of the Mission Police Department said he had never seen drug use so prevalent in any bar. He described a scene of “Bloods,” a prominent gang, sitting next to the dance floor in plain sight of Last Call security personnel “throwing up their signs and smoking marijuana.”

“Basically it is Bloods on the lower level and Crips on the upper level,” said Morgan, who said he was trained to recognize gang clothing and gang signs.

Morgan also told of a seeing a patron – about four feet from a club security official – hollow out a cigar, fill it with marijuana and begin smoking it. He also said a man who appeared to be a bartender at the club went into the restroom and began snorting a white powder through a straw.

But Owen questioned whether crimes had actually taken place because there are no police reports showing that any of those individuals seen by the undercover agent ever were arrested or charged with a crime.

Sgt. Dan Ward of the Lawrence Police Department said that is not for a lack of effort on the part of local authorities. Instead, he said the management of Last Call has not been cooperative. He said on several occasions when uniformed police officers enter the bar, management staff of the establishment rush to the bathrooms and a VIP room to alert patrons that police are in the building.

The undercover officers weren’t used to make the arrest because they didn’t have proper backup immediately at hand, and the force did not want to risk blowing its cover.

Armor-piercing firepower

City attorneys also presented several photos of weapons found in vehicles in the parking lots immediately adjacent to Last Call. Among the more powerful weapons found were a pistol version of the AR-15 or M16 military assault rifle. A Ruger Mini-14 rifle also was found. It was equipped to handle a bayonet and was found with a rotary clip that held 50 to 100 rounds of high-grade ammunition.

When probed to describe how powerful the weapon was, Sgt. Miller was asked whether the police department’s ballistic body armor would stop the ammunition found in the weapon.

“No,” Miller said. “No, it wouldn’t.”

But Owen said the city hadn’t done enough to show those guns were linked to Last Call patrons, was holding Steffes responsible for matters he doesn’t have jurisdiction to control and failed to recognize the significant security measures Steffes has put in place.

Steffes has at least a dozen security personnel at the club – some of them armed – and has four security cameras inside the club. Patrons also go through a pat-down and pass through a metal detector.

“They run the tightest ship in terms of security of any bar in town,” Owen said.

Owen also said security had been improved since a May 2006 incident where seven shots were fired inside the club. No one was injured in that incident, which has not yet been solved by Lawrence police. But several police officers testified about the scene following the incident and said the rush of about 500 people onto the street put several patrons at extreme risk of being trampled.

“There was a lot of screaming, and people were starting to force their way through the double doors of Last Call,” said officer Todd Polson, who was first on the scene. “It was total panic.”

Last Call’s defense

The hearing is scheduled to continue at 9:30 a.m. this morning at the Kansas Department of Revenue in Topeka. The city presented its case Monday. Steffes is scheduled to present his defense today.

Tom Groneman, director of the ABC, will make a ruling on whether to renew the drinking establishment license of Last Call in the days after the hearing. The bar can’t operate without the state license, although Steffes would have several opportunities to appeal the ABC decision.

The city is going through the state process because city leaders have no ability to simply pull the license from Last Call on their own.