Raid puts spotlight on illegal clubs

Roving `speak-easies' provide prostitutes, liquor, officials say

April 05, 2001|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

The police dub them "roving whorehouses." A liquor board official refers to them as modern-day speak-easies that change addresses weekly.

Saturday night, drawn by a flier that promised a "locked door freak fest" where "up to 30 sexy dancers" would be on hand, 50 men packed a West Baltimore after-hours club.

But this time, authorities intervened, raiding the establishment. Tipped off by a neighbor, police and state liquor agents burst into Ronnie's West Side Gallery in the 2100 block of W. Lanvale St. - part of a stepped-up campaign to rid the city of unlicensed clubs where alcohol is illegally sold.

Discovered amid the patrons, naked dancers and booze was a city police officer, Lt. John M. Mack, who was scheduled to be at work but was lounging inside - his police-issued gun behind the bar.

A routine raid - the ninth of similar clubs around the city since October - has become the talk of the Baltimore Police Department and a new headache for top commanders, who say Mack has been in trouble before.

Mack's lawyer acknowledges that the 17-year veteran is in trouble.

"He was at the wrong place," said attorney William R. Buie III. Mack has been ordered to desk duty and relieved of his arrest powers, gun and badge during the investigation.

Authorities said they were alerted by someone who saw a flier and sent it to the city liquor board with a message scrawled on the top: "Please check out what [is] happening in my side of town," it reads. It was signed: "Afraid to give my name!!"

The advertisement noted a $15 cover and warned, "doors locked at 12:30" - signaling, police investigators say, an uninterrupted, anything-goes evening. Officers said 25 dancers were at the club.

Police also allege that beer was being sold for $4 a bottle - illegal without a license. The club's owner, who was arrested and charged with alcohol violations, said Monday that patrons were told to bring their own alcohol, and he was unaware that liquor was being sold.

But the ad promoted "free food" and "cash bar."

A former city police official said the clubs have proliferated over the years because law enforcement has concentrated on drugs and violent crime.

"At least with The Block, you know where it is, and it's somewhat regulated," the former official said. "With the unlicensed clubs, they can do what they want and get away with it."

Shades of old speak-easies

Nathaniel C. Irby Jr., the city liquor board's executive secretary, said unlicensed clubs pop up often across the city - with locations constantly changing.

Police investigators say they are nothing more than fronts for prostitution.

Irby likened them to Prohibition-era speak-easies.

"If you don't create the environment where they can be monitored and legally licensed, they will create themselves," Irby said, noting that some try to mask illicit activity by advertising dancers or prostitutes as "cheerleaders."

"Everybody knows what the deal is," he said.

Police investigators have said they are trying to determine whether Mack was providing security at the West Side Gallery. The owner, Ronald Lee Williams, 53, of Pikesville, said Monday that he does not know Mack.

Mack's lawyer, Buie, said the lieutenant was at the club to meet a friend. Buie said his client sat away from the dancers and did not notice any illegal activity.

Police have said Mack, who runs a Northwestern District detective squad, was scheduled to work from 6 p.m. Saturday to 2 a.m. Sunday. The raid was at 1:50 a.m.

Buie said Mack had an "understanding" with bosses that he didn't have to work weekends as the "area duty lieutenant" because of a leg injury.

He said he had taken out his gun because it rubbed against his injured leg when he sat down.

"It was always within reach," Buie said.

Police officials said yesterday that they know of no position called "area duty lieutenant" and said nothing is recorded about his injury or arrangement not to work this past weekend.

Off duty or on, officers are held to high standards regarding their actions and cannot ignore illegal activity. Officers, the department's rules state, "shall not place themselves in a position which would interfere with the proper discharge of their police duties."

One of Mack's most serious problems concerns his 9mm Glock handgun, which should never leave an officer's possession unless it is securely locked and out of anyone else's reach.

Mayor comments

Buie acknowledged that the department has a strong case against his client regarding the weapon.

That aspect of the case drew a comment yesterday from Mayor Martin O'Malley: "Fortunately, nobody thought that the people raiding the place were armed robbers and picked up the gun and did God-knows-what with it."

Mack has been accused of a wide range of questionable actions in the past, including using a police pager to conduct personal business, showing up at a roll call dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and cheating on a promotional exam.

None of the accusations has been proven or cost him career advancement.

"This guy has been very controversial," said one high-ranking police official.

Buie said Mack is the "unfortunate recipient" of complaints because he is outspoken and unafraid to speak out about unfair treatment of black officers.

"He appears arrogant, but he's not that way," Buie said. "He is a very competent lieutenant. He's a minority officer who has had to come through the ranks tough. Speaking out causes problems, even when speaking out is the truth."

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