Sunday, August 10, 2008
Club Stormed in Ecstasy Bust
By Hailey Heinz
Journal Staff Writer
When police stormed Club 7 in Downtown Albuquerque late Friday night, they found Ecstasy pills scattered on the floor.
They found a mix of older men and young teenage girls, some of whom had stripped to their underwear in the building's 100-degree heat.
And they found nearly 500 people, well in excess of the 299 allowed by the fire code.
The club is closed while an investigation continues, and the club's owner, Aleksandr Mkhitarian, has 30 days to fix code violations found during the raid. Mkhitarian said he intends to take steps to reopen as soon as possible.
But the owner could face harsher action by the city that could lead to a long-term closure, said Deputy City Attorney Pete Dinelli.
Friday's raid was the result of a joint investigation by city, state, and county authorities.
No arrests were made, but the investigation is ongoing, and Bernalillo County Sheriff's Sgt. Mark Kmatz said several arrests are likely.
He said authorities will turn the case over to the District Attorney's Office, which will present it to a grand jury.
All the revelers inside the club were searched and questioned before they were allowed to leave, and everyone under 18 had to get parental permission before leaving the premises.
Albuquerque police, state inspectors and fire marshal officials helped with the raid.
While Bernalillo County Sheriff's deputies served a criminal search warrant, the city's nuisance abatement team sent in inspectors and filed an order to temporarily close the club.
The criminal search warrant was the result of a months-long investigation in which sheriff's deputies visited the club and attended raves put on by "Party Crashers," a promotional group that holds raves in rural areas and throws all-ages raves at Club 7 every Friday, according to the search warrant.
A rave is a party with high tempo music, nonstop dancing, accessories like glow sticks — and a reputation for the use of Ecstasy.
Through interviews and undercover observation, deputies reported hearing from youths who went to Club 7 that they were offered Ecstasy and that the club was a major distribution point for the drug.
According to the warrant, deputies also interviewed an admitted Ecstasy dealer who said that he was "shaken down" by the club's owner and told to pay "protection" money if he wanted to deal there.
The warrant describes various ways the pills were distributed, including being hidden in CD cases with CDs that were immediately discarded.
Two overdoses, one of them fatal, have been linked to the location at 515 Central, and there was a shooting there in November 2007, Dinelli said.
The fatal overdose, in which a girl collapsed on the dance floor and later died at a hospital, happened when the club was called the Coliseum, which was located at the same place and owned by the same person. The club changed names in May 2007.
The other overdose happened in May, when a 16-year-old girl took a combination of pills that caused her to have a seizure and pass out.
According to the warrant, she was found outside the club's front doors, where several employees were watching her but had not called police or medical authorities.
Although drugs were found Friday, Mkhitarian said his club doesn't have a substantial drug problem.
"Every bar in Albuquerque has patrons who have drugs on them," he said Saturday, adding that authorities could have worked with his bar to target drug users rather than raiding it.
Mkhitarian said that his patrons' civil rights were violated and that he may file a lawsuit against the city.
"It was a complete, chaotic circus, what happened last night," he said.
Mkhitarian also said he is proactive about running a safe bar. He requires full-body pat-down searches of all male patrons before they enter and said he doesn't allow them to bring much inside other than money, glow sticks and cigarettes.
"We do our very best efforts to keep anyone from bringing drug, alcohol and weapons into our establishment," he said.
But Albuquerque Police Lt. Jay Gilhooly, who works with Albuquerque's Safe City Strike Force, said the club created a perfect situation for young girls to get taken advantage of.
"It's a very predatory environment," he said.
Gilhooly said the bar was mostly set up for an all-ages crowd, but that alcoholic drinks were sold in a small, caged-off area for those old enough to buy them.
He said that crowd was mostly made up of men, and that, after they had been drinking, they were free to leave the area and mingle with the underage crowd — mostly young girls between 14 and 17.
Gilhooly said it was also common for girls to take their clothes off in the club, not only because it was hot inside, but because Ecstasy raises the body temperature.
The chief complaint of some of the girls who escaped the raid was that their clothes were still inside.
One girl, who said she was 17, had borrowed a friend's T-shirt and wrapped it around her waist to cover herself as she stood on the corner of Sixth and Central.
The girl and her 18-year-old friend spent more than an hour hovering near the club after the raid as they waited for a friend inside who was supposed to give them a ride.
"We're stuck here for a while," the girl said.
Those who were standing in front of the club were initially told to drop to their knees with their hands on their heads. But they were soon allowed to leave, while those inside were searched and questioned.
Clara Welles, 17, was inside the club during the raid. She said she was held there for about half an hour and everyone was patted down and asked questions about whether they had been there before and whether they knew about drug use at the club.
Welles said this was her first time there and that she had to call her father at midnight to get his permission to leave. She was standing in back of the club about 12:30 a.m. Saturday waiting for a friend who was still being held inside.
Welles said she was disappointed her night was cut short.
"This is pretty much the end," she said. "I'm just waiting to go home."