Crime & Courts

Richland has a problem with violent crime at clubs. Who’s to blame and who can fix it?

Columbia strip club shut down by county

The Black Pearl club on Broad River road has been issued a Stop Work order and has been shut down
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The Black Pearl club on Broad River road has been issued a Stop Work order and has been shut down

As the 2019 New Year’s rang in and celebrations continued into the morning hours, five people’s revelries were cut short by gun shots.

At Faces Lounge on Decker Boulevard, a gunman opened fire about 6:30 a.m. on New Year’s Day, striking three women and two men, according to the Richland County Sheriff’s Department. The victims suffered non-life threatening injuries.

The shooting signaled that the violence that has plagued Richland County nightclubs for the last two years would continue into 2019.

Now three state lawmakers are taking action to try to curb the violence. But they propose different routes to get to that goal.

Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, the House minority leader, plans to introduce a bill that would impose new requirements for sheriff’s departments when dealing with nightclubs — a law that Rutherford said would make clubs safer and change unfair practices for closing down businesses.

Another Richland representative, Democrat Jimmy Bales, plans to introduce a separate bill that would empower sheriffs to act faster in dealing with “nuisance businesses.” A similar law is being proposed in the Senate by Richland Democrat Dick Harpootlian.

“It’s really a problem,” Bales said of shootings at bars.

While the specific legislative remedies will be debated, Bales fears that if nothing is done the consequence could be dire.

Months of violence

The Faces Lounge shooting was the ninth violent incident at a Richland County nightclub in 18 months, resulting in at least eight people being wounded and another four being killed, according to police reports.

The string of incidents began in July 2017 when two people were shot on separate days at a Broad River Road club known as Vault. Both people were shot after 2 a.m.

The next month a person was injured in a shooting at another Broad River Road club, Black Pearl, Lott said.

In September of that year, another person was shot at Vault on the same night that two opposing groups fired at each other outside a club in the Vista as it was closing, hitting seven bystanders the night before the USC-Kentucky football game at Williams Brice Stadium. Another person was shot at Vault in March 2018.

In October 2017 a woman was charged with murder after police said she ran over a man outside Mi Casita Night Club, a bar on Decker Boulevard.

Two men were shot and killed in the early morning hours of December 2017 at Black Pearl after an argument over strippers and money in which nearly 30 rounds were fired, Lott said. Later, the shooting was ruled self-defense.

The violence picked up again in December 2018. A man tried to run over an armed security guard at Kandy Land Go Go Bar on Percival Road, barely a mile from Faces Lounge. The guard shot the driver in the upper body and killed him, an autopsy showed. Authorities said the guard fired in self defense.

In May 2018 Richland County Sheriff’s Department put a stop work order on Mi Casita Night Club. Tracy Glantz

In the early morning hours of Saturday, another a man was found shot multiple times in the parking lot of Mi Casita.

Lott said that Vault, Mi Casita, Black Pearl and Kandy Land were operating as strip clubs against county ordinances, and moved to have the clubs shuttered. Black Pearl didn’t have a business license, Lott also said. Black Pearl and Vault were closed. Mi Casita shut down for a time and is now back open under new management and legally operating, according to the manager. As of the middle of last week a Richland County Sheriff’s Department spokesperson indicated they were unaware that Mi Casita was opened again. The Jan. 26 shooting brought the bar back to the sheriff’s department’s attention.

Kandy Land remains open but without the ability to sell alcohol, the manager said. Faces Lounge temporarily closed on its own.

While Lott took steps to close those four nightclubs, he has complained about the lengthy process his department must follow to close businesses that have become nuisances as compared to the City of Columbia police chief, who has the power to close a business after a major incident or if the business is a nuisance.

“The county ordinances just don’t have any teeth,” Lott said in December 2017. “We don’t have an effective mechanism at this time” for closing places.

Bales’ legislation would make it easier for the sheriff to close those bars.

But Rutherford and at least two operators of businesses that were closed said they’re frustrated because the sheriff’s department won’t work with them to curb the violence.

One problem, two bills

Rutherford was in a nightclub in Atlanta a couple years back when he noticed the business had law enforcement in the parking lot providing security at closing time.

After the series of shootings and homicides at Richland County nightclubs, Rutherford remembered the police presence at the Atlanta club.

He met James Randolph, the manager of Faces Lounge and Kandy Land, and said he might have a solution for the problems Randolph said he was having with the sheriff’s department. Randolph is former manager of Mi Casita.

Randolph said he had tried for a couple years to work with the sheriff’s department to prevent incidents at his clubs. He’s requested that off-duty officers be allowed to provide security in the parking lots.

“They’ve offered very little aid,” Randolph said.

He’s also worked with county zoning and licensing to make sure his clubs complied with county ordinances. Randolph said he believes certain business ordinances are too vague, and he keeps being told that Kandy Land is out of compliance and acting as an illegal strip club. That’s not true, Randolph said.

“There’s no clarifications and they use that (the strip club label) as a weapon and tool to manipulate the public opinion,” Randolph said. “It’s really hypocrisy at the end of the day.”

Rutherford approached the sheriff’s department on the business owner’s behalf, hoping he’d come away with an agreement to let the club pay for deputies to patrol the club’s parking lots. His proposal got nowhere, according to Rutherford. He believes the sheriff’s department would rather close down a business than work with it to ensure customers’ safety.

A bill he’ll be introducing would require the sheriff’s department to provide off-duty officers to businesses before the department shuts them down.

Jimmy Bales and Todd Rutherford.jpg
SC Rep. Jimmy Bales (left photo), D-Richland and Kershaw, and Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, will introduce bills in the 2019 session which try to address violence at clubs in Richland County Bales-AP Photo/Sean Rayford, Rutherford-The State/Kim Kim Foster-Tobin

“When we ask if we can be proactive … and pay for however many officers you or I deem necessary and (the sheriff’s department) says ‘no,’ it’s the public and lives that are going to be put in jeopardy,” Rutherford said. “That’s fine if (sheriffs’ departments) don’t want to do it, but you can’t move to shut them down” unless off-duty officers were provided.

Capt. Maria Yturria of the Richland sheriff’s department said it is willing to provide off-duty deputies to clubs as long as those businesses are licensed, legally operating and the number of officers is agreed upon. However, the sheriff’s department does not allow its officers to work off-duty hours at sexually oriented businesses even if they’re legal.

Rutherford said the sheriff’s department is treating nightclubs differently than other businesses. For example, just days after the shooting at Faces Lounge, another person was shot after an argument that started inside Little Gym, a child development center on Rosewood Drive, during a child’s birthday party. The argument carried out into the parking lot, where a man was shot and killed. The shooting was ruled self defense.

In that shooting, no one’s blaming Little Gym, Randolph said

“When something goes wrong at the club it becomes the establishment’s fault,” Randolph said. “It’s not the business that’s dangerous to the community.”

The blame doesn’t belong to the club, but to the individual who commits the crime, Randolph said.

When business is blamed, it stops owners and managers from calling police when they’re needed, making the county less safe, Randolph and Rutherford said.

In a November 2018 story, The State reported that the sheriff’s department said it gets more calls from Walmarts than any other location. In 2017 and 2018, a Waffle House on Broad River Road called out deputies 103 times, according to stats provided by the sheriff’s department. That’s more than the number of calls at Faces Lounge and Kandy Land combined.

Rutherford said RCSD isn’t talking about shutting down Walmarts or that Waffle House, “who aren’t willing to pay” for off-duty officers.

It seems like RCSD lets off corporations and targets “the mom and pops and small businesses and minority owned businesses,” Randolph said.

Armed robbery of a Waffle House on Broad River Road from March 22.

The sheriff’s department says it determines what businesses are nuisances based on if deputies find illegal activity. In many of the clubs the sheriff’s department has moved to close, the department said the businesses were unlicensed and acting as illegal strip clubs.

Businesses are responsible when they allow illegal activity, Yturria said. “Once it’s known that a particular business allows this, it then attracts criminal activity. … If they are doing nothing wrong they shouldn’t be worried about calling (the sheriff’s department). We have many businesses in Richland County that have been operating successfully for years.”

Businesses are held accountable for their illegal actions as well as individuals who commit crimes at clubs, Yturria said.

While Rutherford’s bill adds a requirement to sheriff’s departments, Bales’ bill would make it easier for them to close down businesses that are determined to be nuisances.

Currently, if a business in the county is found to be operating without a license or against the law, any penalties or fines are assessed by a magistrate court, where the process can be drawn out by re-schedulings and appeals.

It could take six months to a year for a nuisance business to be closed, according to Harpootlian, the Richland County senator who supports Bales’ bill. Their new law would make “a much more expeditious way to deal with the problem,” Harpootlian said.

“We have places in this county that are known nuisances,” Harpootlian said. “They have conduct which is illegal. Instead of having the sheriff going in there and making arrests, just allow them to go and shut it down.”

Who’s accountable?

Richland County Council member Jim Manning, who represents much of Decker Boulevard where three of the violent incidents unfolded, said business owners should take some blame for the violence.

“Say I have a business license and it says I can do this and I can’t do this, and I’m doing what I’m not allowed to do, then I’m ... an irresponsible business person,” Manning said.

The county is doing all it can between law enforcement, zoning and licensing to crack down on spots that break the law, Manning maintains. He’s working to make sure the county ordinances are as stringent as possible against businesses with irresponsible owners.

The State House could have another solution than passing bills, Manning said. Lawmakers could fund county government to the level that the constitution requires instead of skirting the rule each year and denying the counties millions, Manning said.

“I think we could sit down with the sheriff and say how do we use some of this (state) money for you to make sure businesses are doing right,” Manning said.

Doing right is what Randolph believes he’s doing, and though it feels like he’s being run out business, he’s going to keep challenging the sheriff, hoping one day that the lawman will work with him.

“I see a form of injustice being done, I feel an obligation to fight,” Randolph said. “It’s part of my nature. If I’m wrong then help me. I can see the error of my ways, but help me.”

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David Travis Bland won the South Carolina Press Association’s 2017 Judson Chapman Award for community journalism. As The State’s crime, police and public safety reporter, he strives to inform communities about crimes that affect them and give deeper insight into victims, the accused and law enforcement. He studied history with a focus on the American South at the University of South Carolina.