Board hears complaints against bar

2 deaths, 8 DWI arrests traced to Johanssons

Westminster

September 29, 2004|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

For the third time in as many years, the owner of a popular Westminster bar was called before the Carroll County Liquor Board yesterday to discuss police reports involving the establishment's intoxicated patrons.

Liquor inspector Charles Kaizer told the four-member board that since its previous meeting regarding Johanssons Dining House and its Down Under bar in April last year, there have been two deaths, nine assaults, eight DWI arrests and six instances of disorderly conduct traced back to Johanssons. In addition, 12 fights have been reported in and around the establishment.

Westminster police Chief Jeff Spaulding told the board that police reports and citizen complaints showed Johanssons' patrons being served alcohol to excess, which led to assaults, disorderly conduct and other problems. He also said bouncers at the bar were being provoked into committing assaults and recommended better training to handle rowdy patrons in a nonviolent manner.

There were two incidents in May in which Down Under bouncers fought with drunk patrons. In one instance, the bouncers were found with bloody noses, according to Westminster police reports.

The board did not take action, but members issued warnings of possible consequences throughout the two-hour meeting.

"I think we're going to have to take a stronger response to the problem and look at your license," said board member Robert Tabler Jr. "It's not fair to the taxpayers of Westminster and Carroll County to be monitoring your establishment. I think you need to clean that act up and do it immediately."

The board will review other recommendations submitted by Spaulding, which include training bar staff to recognize drinkers who shouldn't have any more, and unannounced inspections by the liquor inspector and Westminster police officers.

David Johansson, owner of the restaurant and the bar at the corner of Route 27 and Main Street, estimated that his establishment serves 624,000 people a year, which Westminster city council President Damian L. Halstad called "a large economic engine for downtown."

Johansson plans to open an Irish pub across town, but he has not applied for a liquor license.

"Reading the reports, there obviously is a problem with assaults and rowdiness in and in the vicinity of Johanssons," said board member Ronald J. Meerdter, a former state trooper. "I see it not as the responsibility of the police or city council president, but Mr. Johansson's."

Johansson defended his bartenders and his business. He said they regularly cut customers off, occasionally bar patrons from the establishment and always watch for signs of trouble.

Johansson said he felt that only a small number of people were causing the problems at his bar. "I find it very unjust and unfair to be persecuted because of a small number of idiots," he said.

Johansson said his bartenders are certified through the Techniques of Alcohol Management program. He said he's also changed the music format and dress code to try to weed out potential trouble-makers.

"It's unfortunate when things like this happen, we are portrayed as a bad place, a bad element," Johansson said. "We do a tremendous volume and I really do truly believe the larger the volume, the more problems you have."

Tabler countered Johansson's comments. "You are obliged to maintain your license and protect the public from these types of things," he said. "If you have more volume, you need to hire more employees."

Both city officials and the police said they believe Johansson to be sincere in trying to address public safety concerns, but that the situation only seems to improve temporarily.

"I'm concerned because this is the third go-around. It seems like a merry-go-round," Meerdter said. The board first met in 2001 to discuss problems at Johanssons. "I'm concerned that what's been done in the past has not been effective."

The first of two deaths linked to drinking at Johanssons was that of Amanda L. Hahn, 21, of Hanover, Pa., the victim of a three-car collision in the Union Mills area of the county on Oct. 10 last year, officials said.

Liquor inspector Kaizer told the board that even though Hahn was killed as a result of being struck from behind, her blood-alcohol level was found to be 0.18 percent, beyond the 0.07 percent legal limit of driving while impaired.

State police said their investigation traced Hahn's movements during the night she was killed to Johanssons.

The second victim, Teresa Gustafson, 41, of the 4600 block of Hanover Pike, was found dead of hypothermia in her snow-covered driveway on Jan. 29. Her blood-alcohol level was 0.36 percent - more than five times the limit for DWI.

Witnesses told state police investigators that Gustafson had spent six hours the previous night at Johanssons before stopping off for a nightcap at the Bachman Valley Inn.

"To say we're responsible for her death is untrue," said Johansson, who identified Gustafson as a "personal family friend" whose recreation involved hanging out at the bar playing the computerized table top games and eating, as well as drinking.

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