Chelsea Club Crackdown

Chelsea Club Crackdown

Cops Deny Gay Bias in Bar/Drug Sweep

The New York City Police Department is going to considerable lengths to counter the perception that its March 31 raids on a gym and six Chelsea nightclubs and bars was an assault on the gay community.

“The five clubs that were closed and the two restrained by the NYPD’s Civil Enforcement Unit on Friday under the Nuisance Abatement Law brought to 1,006 the number of clubs, hotels, gambling establishments, and other locations closed by Civil Enforcement since January 2005,” wrote Paul J. Browne, the department’s chief spokesperson and a deputy commissioner, in an April 3 e-mail.

The seven businesses were closed, some only temporarily, after police purchased methamphetamine, ecstasy, or other drugs in them either from employees or from other patrons. The police department investigated the businesses for nine months.

Two of the six clubs closed on March 31—Splash, on West 17th Street, and the View, on Eighth Avenue—and Steel Gym, on West 23rd Street, serve a predominantly gay clientele. Avalon, on West 20th Street, hosts gay parties.

Implicit in Browne’s e-mail is the view that the police department is broadly targeting many clubs, bars, and other businesses. The roughly 1,000-word e-mail noted that “174 clubs were closed last year” and “46 so far this year” as the result of action by the police department’s Civil Enforcement Unit.

The Browne e-mail came in response to a query sent to the city’s Law Department, which has handled nuisance abatement cases against city sex clubs and bathhouses. Gay City News contacted the Law Department on the assumption that it was dealing with the seven current cases.

The Law Department forwarded the query to the police department and also sent its own e-mail that stated, “The NYPD believes that two, not all seven of the locations, primarily cater to a gay clientele, although an additional one of the locations does have events aimed at gay clients one night a week.”

Speaking prior to an April 5 meeting of Community Board 4, John Blair, a manager at Spirit, on West 27th Street, one of the shuttered clubs, said he does not believe the closings were motivated by anti-gay bias, but an overly aggressive police department.

Speaking to the board, Blair said, “When Captain Hughes came to speak to us… one of the striking things he brought up was he had to be adversarial. Our police department is not willing to communicate… They are going to be adversarial.”

Hughes is a senior officer in the 10th Precinct. Blair is a member of the community board and the owner of XL, a popular gay bar on West 16th Street in Chelsea.

Mike Petrillo, the community affairs officer at the 10th Precinct, defended the closings and the policing effort.

“Nightclubs are a big topic in Chelsea,” he said. Given community complaints and violations, the police had to act, Petrillo said. “We have to charge these locations.”

Robert S. Bookman, a partner at Pesetsky and Bookman, a law firm, and the counsel for the New York Nightlife Association, said this was part of the city’s ongoing crackdown on nightlife.

“I think it was not so much to shut down the bars and the gym,” said Bookman who also represents Speed, a club on West 39th Street. “This was really part of going after nightclub action… There has been an increase in tensions and an increase in anonymous 311 complaints. Police have to respond to those complaints.”

Given the prevalence of drug use in the wider society, its use in the clubs should not be a surprise, Bookman said.

“It ‘s a problem within society and it’s a problem within the gay community as well,” he said.

Two of the businesses—Speed and Steel Gym—were never closed. They were allowed to continue operating after agreeing to address the problems. Splash reopened on April 1, after a judge issued a stay on the police closing.

The other businesses—View, Avalon, Spirit, and Club Deep, on West 22nd Street—remain closed, though all of them, including Splash, were scheduled for hearings the week of April 3.

Seven people, either employees of the businesses or customers, are being prosecuted by the Office of Special Narcotics, a state agency that prosecutes drug felonies throughout the five boroughs.

Two Avalon bartenders, Emerick Twomey, 23, of 9707 Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn, and Vyacheslav Babekov, 23, of 142-10 Goober Avenue in Queens, are charged with criminal sale of a controlled substance.

Two Club Deep bartenders, Lester Tirado, 43, of 31-49 49th Street in Queens, and Juan Munoz, 28, of 337 East 148th Street, are charged with criminal sale of a controlled substance.

Another three men, Michail Shimonov, 20, of 64-14 Asquith Crescent in Queens, Jesus Santos, 28, of 169 Allen Street in Manhattan, and Marcus Grice, 26, of 136 W. 44th Street in Manhattan, are charged with criminal sale of a controlled substance.

The Browne email also noted that another three people who were snared in the club investigation, pointedly linking Friday’s action to the broader law enforcement efforts against meth sales and use. During the past several years, law enforement spokespeople have consistenly noted that crystal use in New York is heavily concentrated among gay men.

Justin Grauer, 25, of 167 East 111th Street, “was arrested in connection with this investigation,” Browne wrote. Grauer was indicted in March on federal charges for possessing crystal. When he was arrested, police found five pounds of meth in his apartment, a gun, and $200,000 in cash.

Indicted with Grauer was Michael Materasso, 23, also of 167 East 111th Street. At his arrest, he had “nine ounces of crystal methamphetamine, two loaded firearms, and $5,000 in cash,” Browne wrote. Both men are being held at the federal detention center in Brooklyn.

Another four people were indicted along with Grauer and Materasso, but they were not mentioned in the Browne e-mail. The press office for the U.S. Attorney denied that its prosecution of Grauer and Materasso was related to the club investigation.

Also noted by Browne was William Zamot, 37, of 125 64th Street in West New York, New Jersey, who allegedly sold meth “to both Avalon and Steel Gym… He sold fifty grams of crystal methamphetamine to an undercover detective.”

Zamot has a March 13 federal indictment in Puerto Rico for attempting to smuggle steroids into the U.S. from Venezuela, but no indictment in New York. He was being held in federal custody until he was released on April 3 after posting bail, so presumably the alleged meth sale happened prior to March 13.

The New York federal prosecutor’s press office claimed to be unaware of any federal case against Zamot, other than the Puerto Rico case, and said he was not being pursued in New York. “He’s not in our database,” a spokesperson said.

It is unclear how Browne’s e-mail and the federal prosecutor’s statement about Zamot’s link to this latest round of drug enforcement can be reconciled.