Mixed feelings over Volcano's Despite slayings, community found much good in club

November 08, 1996|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

After shootings, dozens of fights, scores of calls to police and the recent slayings of two college students outside the East Baltimore nightclub, Volcano's is closed. But Mary Ross, a community activist who has long sought to make the neighborhood safer, says she is sorry to see the club go.

"I'm a mother myself, and I really feel terrible about the murders," says Ross, a resident for more than two decades and community coordinator for the Johnston Square Community Development Corp. "But -- how can I say this? -- I feel this community has lost with the closing of Volcano's, too."

Ross' feelings about Volcano's provide insight into why the city waited until after the recent slayings to close the nightclub -- even though the club, which never received proper zoning for its adult entertainment, has been operating illegally since 1992. Zoning officials say they never acted against the club, which has not appealed the closing order, because no one ever complained.

In the aftermath of the Oct. 24 killings, for which detectives say they have no suspects, police officials speculated that the nightclub's political connections had allowed it to stay open. But a review of city and state records suggests another reason for the club's resilience: Community leaders, led by Ross, consistently supported Volcano's whenever it was in trouble.

That support was based on a symbiotic relationship between two very different people: Ross, a politically active 52-year-old black woman from the neighborhood, and Ioannis "Crazy John" Kafouros, 40, a prominent Greektown businessman who owns the Volcano's building and four other Greenmount Avenue storefronts.

Kafouros' former wife, Donna Bishop, is the licensed owner of the club, though Kafouros was its community representative, residents say. Approached last night at a Highlandtown bakery, Kafouros said the publicity over the killings was so damaging that he would not try to reopen. He said that he had kept the inside of the nightclub secure, and that the city had made him a scapegoat for disturbances outside.

"We got two people dead here, and instead of trying to catch the guys who did it, they want to close the building," he said. Kafouros deflected other questions, but added: "I do whatever I can to help the community."

Kafouros acknowledged that he was close to Ross, in whom he found a friend and ally, willing to settle disputes in private and to forgive his foibles, even a 1992 conviction for tax evasion.

In Kafouros, Ross, who recently retired from a $32,000-a-year job as a city human services worker, found a business owner willing to donate his club for dozens of community meetings, seniors dances and neighborhood dinners. Their friendship, she says, also gave her confidence in her entrepreneurial pursuits: a van service and a Eutaw Street nightclub.

Ross and Kafouros turned Volcano's -- in a poor neighborhood known as the location of correctional institutions -- into an important stop for local politicians.

The walls and files of the Johnston Square Community Development Corp. office display dozens of pictures taken in Volcano's: of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke talking to young people, of former City Council President Mary Pat Clarke dancing with seniors, of state Sen. Larry Young chatting up neighborhood residents.

Politicians who visited say they never stopped to ask whether the club was operating illegally, because they were not patrons and never saw the late-night disturbances that so frustrated police and some neighbors. It was a place they associated with youth forums, health fairs, senior dances and political events.

And Ross, their community contact, never complained.

Let us work this out

Ross says she never did because Kafouros was open and because the disturbances -- which include five slayings outside the nightclub in the past three years -- were not the fault of Volcano's. She believes that the city "erred" in closing the place.

"We have to look at the big picture," she says. "I'm not taking up for Volcano's, but why not let the club and us in the community work this out cooperatively?

"I attribute these problems to the people who did the shooting and a lack of something in our culture, and that's respect," Ross adds. Ross says she has treated Volcano's with respect.

Within two months of its August 1988 opening, the club was raided by city police and state liquor agents, and Volcano's was forced to apply for a liquor license.

The Johnston Square Community Development Corp., founded in 1977, was divided. Some residents opposed the club, but others were impressed by Kafouros' willingness to fix up a large building that had been an eyesore and to clean up a battered block. It also had not escaped the community's notice that Kafouros had connections in the city's Greek and political communities: Senator Young played host at a rally for Maryland Democrats there on the Monday before Election Day 1988.

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