BAR'S TIES TO MARANA A SORDID, SHAMEFUL AFFAIR - The Explorer: Import

BAR'S TIES TO MARANA A SORDID, SHAMEFUL AFFAIR

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Posted: Wednesday, January 16, 2002 12:00 am | Updated: 7:46 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

Closing had nothing to do with ending violence or protecting the citizens of Marana, it was simple economics. The license is worth a fortune. Closing is just a way to forestall losing it.

Though the bar owners' greedy motives were inexcusable, they were at least understandable.

Understanding why the town of Marana so dearly supported the bar over the last five years, despite its violent reputation, is difficult.

Leaders of the town of Marana, specifically the town's police chief, have gone out of their way to help keep the bar in business, despite the fighting, shooting and dying that has gone on their since 1997.

The town had a chance in 2000 to drastically alter the bar's operation and curb the violence that spilled from the club almost nightly. It chose instead to resolutely stand behind the bar and its owners.

After 23-year-old Westyn Lee Hamilton died at the hands of the bar's bouncers Jan. 2, 2000, the state's liquor department, which regulates the state's liquor industry and has the power to grant or revoke liquor licenses, began an investigation of the bar that centered around the instances of violence occurring there.

In June of that year, Police Chief David Smith and Marana Mayor Bobby Sutton Jr. sent letters to the liquor department in support of the bar.

In the previous two years more than 600 people had been arrested at the bar on charges ranging from aggravated assault to possession of narcotics, one person was killed by bouncers, another person had been nearly killed by bouncers, one person had been shot by Marana police after brandishing a gun at patrons, and dozens of people had been hurt in fights.

Yet Smith, who is charged with the ultimate responsibility for protecting the people of Marana, wrote to the liquor agency, "I am writing this letter because of my belief that revocation of the liquor license of the New West/Gotham in Marana is not necessary. The safety of the public and their clientele is not at risk."

Even more astonishing was the letter written by Sutton, who, as the top political leader of the town, is similarly charged with health and welfare of its citizens. Yet Sutton dismissed the violence and deaths at the bar as mere media hype.

"The high profile that the New West/Gotham has taken on recently as a result of some isolated incidents receiving media attention does not diminish the many charitable contributions that Kirby Bond and Dana Dellheim have made to community organizations and individuals," Sutton wrote.

The liquor department slapped the bar's hand, suspending its license for one week and demanding the payment of a $12,500 fine.

Just 15 months after Sutton and Smith wrote their letters to the liquor department, Sutton would write a letter to the town's attorney demanding the town take action against the nightclub after a man was wounded by gunfire during a wild shootout among ejected patrons involving at least five guns, including an assault rifle. A few months earlier another man had been murdered in a different shootout at the bar, and the fights and drug and alcohol arrests had resumed almost immediately after the bar reopened after its license suspension.

"I have previously expressed my concerns to you about the safety of patrons at the club, as well as the safety of our police officers who have to respond to the club to restore peace and order … I can think of no enterprise less consistent with the values and morals of the community," Sutton wrote.

Apparently, according to Sutton, there is a high threshold for the number of people who must be killed, shot, beaten up, or arrested before those actions become inconsistent with the town's "values and morals."

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about the town's relationship with the New West/Gotham was the off-duty work performed for the bar by the town's police officers.

Orchestrated by Smith in 1997, Marana police officers spent two and a half years moonlighting as bar security and were paid as much as $250,000 over that period. By Jan. 2, 2000, when Hamilton was killed, nearly every Marana police officer had been paid by the bar to work as security there, including, shockingly, Smith.

Yet Smith never attempted to call in another police agency to investigate Hamilton's death at the hands of his fellow employees, the bar's bouncers.

As a result of the department's obvious conflict in investigating Hamilton's death, as well as Smith's actions during the investigation, the question of whether Hamilton's death was accidental or purposeful will forever hang over the case (see story page 13).

To their credit, many Marana police officers hated working for the bar, but were required to by Smith. Several even wrote a report detailing the egregious conflict of interest the work at the bar posed for the department and asked that it be ended.

But Smith dismissed the report, and his officers' concerns, and continued the off-duty work.

The off-duty work only ended when the town council insisted after an off-duty Marana police officer was injured at the bar during an arrest in October 1999. The injury alarmed the town's liability insurance carrier and faced with having to incur substantial medical costs if another officer was injured working there, the council decided the work should cease. Smith continued to scheme to allow himself and his officers to work off duty at the bar, and was briefly allowed to do so, but only for teen nights when alcohol was not served. The bar stopped requesting the officers a few months later.

This whole sordid affair involving the off-duty work and its impact on the investigation of the death of Westyn Hamilton, the greed, the hypocrisy and the double talk by the bar's owners and the town's leaders is simply revolting.

The bar's owners should be ashamed of themselves. The Marana Town Council members, particularly Mayor Bobby Sutton Jr., should be ashamed of themselves.

But above all, David Smith should be ashamed of himself. He, more than anyone, could have cracked down on the bar to protect the people of Marana and the people coming to his town to visit the nightclub.

Instead he chose to become a bar employee. Moreover, he allowed nearly his entire police force to work there as well which damaged department morale, tarnished the image of its officers and drove a wedge of distrust and animosity between him and many of his key officers who were opposed to the work.

He was seemingly more interested in protecting the interests of the New West/Gotham than protecting the people of Marana. He was seemingly more interested in making sure the bar and its employees were exonerated for the death of Westyn Hamilton than trying to find out what really happened on the morning of Jan. 2, 2000.

His leadership of the Marana Police Department has been unprofessional, dishonorable and shameful.

Shame on you David Smith. Shame on you.

© 2014 The Explorer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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