An East Baltimore nightclub where two college students were gunned down Thursday morning was closed yesterday by city officials, who cited the building's owner for offering illegal adult entertainment.
Known as Volcano's, the bar has been a popular oasis for young black singles in recent years -- and a hot spot for self-styled street gangsters playing out violent rivalries with little resistance from state or local officials until yesterday.
Wednesday night's killings brought to five the number of young party-goers who have died outside the bar in the 1000 block of Greenmount Ave. in a string of shootings since 1994. Another 16 have been wounded, including the son of a city liquor board official who was hit Wednesday night when a gunman opened fire on a crowd outside the club's back door.
Since May, there have been more than 120 calls to police for incidents ranging from shootings and assaults to public drunkenness and disorderly conduct.
For years, records show, scant action has been taken against the club by the Baltimore liquor board -- even as it was becoming well known among police and neighbors for its violence-marred "Ladies' Nights" and nude dancing productions.
"I don't know of any other club in the city that can operate with impunity, and without fear of the liquor board," said Maj. Wendell France, police district commander. "I think it involves who owns the building, and what connections they have in the city."
The club's owner of record is Donna K. Bishop -- the ex-wife of Ioannis M. "Crazy John" Kafouros, a prominent Greektown businessman who owns the Volcano's building and four other adjoining storefronts on Greenmount Avenue.
Kafouros also holds interests in a produce business, an arcade on Baltimore Street in the heart of The Block red light district and a restaurant on Eastern Avenue, records show.
Contacted by phone yesterday, Bishop said "no comment" and hung up.
Kafouros failed to return numerous phone messages to his home and businesses.
A friend of the couple, John Alevrogiannis, 52, said they are being unfairly blamed for causing problems they have no control over.
"The cops want to blame him," he said. "The TV stations want to blame him. But nobody has worked harder to save that neighborhood than him. If you blamed every business owner in town for what happened outside their door, you wouldn't have no businesses in the city."
But records and interviews show that Volcano's has been a flash point in the neighborhood almost since the day it opened.
Started as a private club in August 1988, it was raided two months later by city police and state liquor agents, who charged that it was operating illegally. But a year later, the owners were back in business after transferring over a liquor license from Missy's Show Bar, an old nude dance club on The Block.
"John [Kafouros] spent a fortune fixing the place up," said his friend, Alevrogiannis. "The building was about to fall down when he bought it. There was trash all over the street. The parking lot was a mess. He put in all new everything. New 400 amp service. New floors. New walls. He saved the neighborhood."
By 1992, the liquor board received its first notice of problems at Volcano's when Bishop asked for permission to provide live entertainment and packaged goods in her bar.
"Already, there are fights and tremendous noise and cars' windshields being broken as a result of its nightclub crowd, and youths who flock to see it," wrote Kyong Lee, a neighbor, in a letter imploring the board to turn down the application.
In the end, Volcano's application to sell six-packs was denied. But it was permitted to offer "live entertainment" two nights a week, records show, and that's when the shooting started.
Volcano's soon began holding Ladies' Nights on Wednesdays and Men's Nights on Thursdays, offering customers more than just cheap drinks. Out on the dance floor, strippers cavorted before the audience, peeling it all off to the hoots and cheers of what was increasingly becoming a young collegiate crowd.
"The kids are all well-behaved," said one elderly resident on Homewood Street, which runs behind the club. "As far as breaking windows or fighting or stuff like that, there's none of that. The only problem we've ever had is with them parking all up and down our street."
But a block away on Greenmount Avenue, the situation in front of the club was getting worse by the week. Especially on Ladies' Nights.
Within view of the barbed wire fences of the city jail on nearby Eager Street, young men from all over the city would start gathering early, drawn by the prospects of picking up college girls as they came out of the male strip shows shortly before
midnight, neighbors and business owners said.
Killing time, they knocked back 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor, smoked, listened to music thundering from car stereos, peddled drugs, neighbors and business owners said.