Troubled nightclub closed for violations

Tunnel had banquet hall zoning only

police linked club to crimes of violence

July 06, 2002|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

The Tunnel, a troubled downtown Baltimore nightclub long criticized by police for attracting violence, has been forced to shut its doors after city inspectors determined it was violating zoning regulations, officials said yesterday.

Acting on complaints from the mayor's office and City Council members, zoning officials said they inspected the club - in the 300 block of N. Eutaw St. - on June 28 and found it was violating its "banquet hall" zoning designation. The violations were that the Tunnel was charging admission and operating as a nightclub, said Michael Savino, city superintendent for zoning enforcement.

Banquet halls are required to be rented for specific events and have invited guests, according to city zoning regulations. Savino said he told the club's landlord, Jay A. Benjamin, on the night of the inspection that he had to comply with zoning laws or his permits would be revoked.

Benjamin couldn't be reached for comment yesterday.

The day after the inspection, the Tunnel was again found by an inspector to be operating as a nightclub. City officials then revoked the Tunnel's zoning permits and shut its doors.

Savino said that he was seeking a temporary restraining order in state court to add legal weight to the closure. Benjamin can appeal the shutdown to the city zoning board, apply for new permits or challenge the action in court, Savino said.

For more than a year and a half, police had been complaining about homicides, shootings and other violence linked to the club. The Tunnel drew renewed attention in May when a 19-year-old college freshman was shot and killed in a robbery just a block and a half away.

Benjamin, who also holds the Tunnel's liquor license, has said that he hired off-duty police officers to patrol the streets surrounding the club and was not responsible for violence outside his doors.

"I don't think there is anything I can do if something happens [several] blocks away," Benjamin told The Sun last year.

Police officials, who often dispatch more than 30 officers to patrol streets surrounding the nightclub on Friday and Saturday nights, yesterday praised the action by zoning officials.

"To put it mildly, I'm ecstatic," said Maj. J. Charles Gutberlet III, commander of the central district. "If it weren't for the club, I wouldn't need to be using resources playing bouncer. ... We can now put the officers in areas where there has been a spike in violence. Now, the officers will be in the community."

The club has also run into trouble with the city liquor board, which cited it earlier this year for having illegal adult entertainment.

But Samuel T. Daniels, chief inspector for the liquor board, said he had "mixed emotions" about zoning officials closing the club.

"The relationship the club has with outside crime is somewhat questionable," Daniels said.

Councilman Melvin L. Stukes, a Southwest Baltimore Democrat, said he wanted more information about why officials closed the club, which is just a block outside his district. "You can't just close something because of a homicide," he said. "Otherwise you'd have to shut down all of Baltimore City."

Police said that Rio Jarell-Tatum, an honors student on academic scholarship at Pennsylvania State University, was killed in May by robbers preying on patrons of the club. Tatum was heading to the Tunnel with a friend when he was killed.

In April, a bouncer was shot just outside the club's doors and was wounded in the neck, police said. The same month, a 19-year-old man was stabbed in the club. In March, another 19-year-old was shot and killed in a nearby barbershop after exchanging words with a man outside the crowded nightclub, police said. In September, two people were stabbed inside the club.

Sun staff writer Laura Vozzella contributed to this article.

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