LORAIN — Business was slow around 1 a.m. Saturday at the Cotton Club.
About half a dozen customers sat at the bar, while the dance floor where a disc jockey played hip-hop and rap music was empty. Club owner Anthony Barnhill said business has been hurt by bad publicity over the club’s connection to a New Year’s morning homicide.
Homicide suspect Desmen Noble was involved in a fight at the club at 1766 E. 28th St. around 3 a.m. Jan. 1. Around 3:25 a.m., police said shots were fired from a vehicle outside the club. Around 3:40 a.m., Herman Seagers was fatally shot outside the Liberty Gas station at 2436 Broadway, and three other men were wounded. Besides Noble, Tallis Moore, one of the three wounded men, told police he had just come from the club before being shot.
At Monday’s City Council meeting, Mayor Chase Ritenauer promised to crack down on bars that serve alcohol after hours or don’t provide adequate security. Barnhill said his club isn’t one of them and feels the club is being scapegoated, noting the homicide occurred about 1.6 miles from the club.
“The Cotton Club is not the problem in Lorain. It’s some of the people,” he said. “You can control them when they’re in your establishment, but when they go outside, you can’t search their cars.”
Barnhill said he hires bouncers who search customers — there were at least two bouncers on duty between 11 p.m. Friday and 1 a.m. Saturday — and doesn’t serve alcohol after 2:30 a.m. Barnhill said the club serves food and nonalcoholic drinks like cranberry juice and orange juice between 2:30 and 4 a.m.
Barnhill and bartender Tashanna Van-Meter Hudak said the food helps sober up customers coming from other bars before they drive home.
“I’m a woman with four kids and I bust my (expletive),” Van-Meter Hudak said. “We don’t serve anybody (alcohol) after hours.”
While Ohio Division of Liquor Control spokesman Lyn Tolan said no complaints have been filed against the club, Police Chief Cel Rivera said Barnhill is “not being truthful” when he said the club doesn’t serve alcohol after hours.
“We just know for a fact that he serves after hours,” Rivera said.
Since the club opened Oct. 5, police have been called six times, not including the New Year’s shooting. The calls include complaints of an assault, an alleged liquor law violation, menacing and suspicious activity, according to police records.
Barnhill said there have been two violent incidents besides the shooting. One involved a drunk man whom bouncers wouldn’t allow in the club. Barnhill said police arrested the man. In the second incident, Barnhill said a gang member refused to pay a cover charge to enter the bar and fired two shots into the ceiling.
Barnhill said on New Year’s morning, Noble and at least one other man scuffled inside the bar after one man said another man stepped on his shoes. He said bouncers quickly ejected the men and he doesn’t know what the shots fired outside the bar was related to. He said he provided police with surveillance video from the bar.
Barnhill said he’d like to hire uniformed, off-duty police officers as security, which he believes would deter violence. Rivera, chief since 1994, said the police department stopped allowing officers to provide security due to a lawsuit about 20 years ago involving allegations of favoritism and conflicts of interest.
“There’s always the question of whether the police officer is acting as an objective, professional police officer or is he acting as an agent for the bar owner,” Rivera said. “It’s just not a good situation.”
Barnhill, 41, of Elyria, said he deplores violence and supports Ritenauer’s call for higher bonds for violent criminal suspects and stricter sentencing if they’re convicted. He blamed violence in Lorain on easy access to drugs and guns by young people.
“These kids have more guns in their hands than the stores have packs of cigarettes,” he said. “They’re experimenting with all these different drugs out here.”
Barnhill, who said he used to run a club in Cleveland in the 1990s, said he knew the Flamingo Nite Club, the Cotton Club’s predecessor, had its liquor permit pulled in 2007 for after-hours drinking and closed in 2008.
Barnhill said he had hoped to draw an older crowd to the Cotton Club by having live blues and jazz. But when customers didn’t come out, he switched to a D.J. and hip-hop and rap, which draws a younger crowd.
Barnhill said he employs about 12 people at the club and also owns Magic Touch Hand Car Wash at 1963 Leavitt Road. He said he wants to give back to the community and held a benefit on Jan. 6 for Seagers’ family that he said raised about $200. Barnhill said he wants to get involved with mentoring young people and would donate money for a gun buyback program.
“Innocent people are dying around here,” he said. “I want to do anything and everything I can to help.”
Ritenauer said Barnhill met with him on Saturday. Ritenauer said if bar or club owners can’t control violence at or around their establishments, the city would try to close them. He said the same goes for businesses like Liberty Gas, which police have been called to a combined 16 times in 2011 and last year for complaints that included drug abuse, a liquor law violation, rioting and theft.
Ritenauer urged residents to call police or the Division of Liquor Control about problem bars or clubs.
“Certainly, unfortunate things can happen,” Ritenauer said. “But when there’s a pattern of behavior though, that’s when I have a problem.”
Contact Evan Goodenow at 329-7129 or firstname.lastname@example.org.