Lounge target of raids by city police

Belvedere basement called illegal club


In the same basement where Prohibition-era bootleggers once stored casks of whiskey, city officials say two young entrepreneurs opened an illegal nightclub that has residents of the historic Belvedere Hotel's condominiums complaining of thumping rap music and violence.

In response to the complaints, city officials and vice police have staged a series of raids at the venerable Mount Vernon landmark, where they say liquor laws are once again being breached. During an early-morning raid this month, police seized alcoholic beverages, cash and a handgun. They said they found evidence of illegal liquor sales, including bottles of beer and a bottle of wine at the club's bar and money in the cash register.

City zoning authorities allege that the owner of the venue, Sammy Hyun Paik, 32, a Baltimore County resident who describes himself as an events promoter and entrepreneur, has committed numerous zoning violations, including running an illegal nightclub. Last week, they filed criminal charges against Paik and civil charges against his company, Paik Trust Holding LLC, in Baltimore City District Court.

Paik - who state records show acquired the 6,000-square-foot basement space for $10,000 in March 2002 - says his business is legitimate. "I think they are out to get me," he said during a recent interview in the dimly lit lounge, which has a hot tub and sauna, remnants from the days when the hotel's health spa was located in the basement.

City records show that Paik and an associate, Louis L. Wood, 27, have approval to run a public hall and auditorium, a zoning category that permits some live entertainment, including karaoke. The two say they are not operating a bar and that clients who rent the basement lounge from them sign a contract that makes it clear that a one-day liquor license is necessary to sell beer or wine.

But in reports from raids executed March 5, 9 and 16, police allege that Paik and Wood were operating an unregistered "bottle club," a type of bar to which patrons bring their own liquor, and allowing alcohol consumption after 2 a.m., both violations of the state liquor law.

During the March 5 raid, police said they seized bottles of beer, brandy and wine, as well as $792, most of which came from Paik's pants and coat pockets. Also confiscated, according to police reports, was a 9 mm semi-automatic handgun found in a bag belonging to Wood, who had registered the gun but did not have a permit to carry it.

Police arrested both men that night and charged them with violating state liquor laws. Wood also was charged with a handgun violation. Police arrested Wood a second time March 9 and again charged him with operating an illegal club.

Paik and Wood say they'll prove their innocence at a court hearing Tuesday on charges stemming from the March 5 and 9 raids. Hearings on the zoning violations against Paik and his company have yet to be scheduled, according to city officials.

"I'm being treated like a criminal," said Wood, a Baltimore resident who argues that he should not have been charged with the handgun violation because the gun was in his bag.

A self-described "rebel child" who used and sold cocaine when he was a teenager but later straightened out and landed a good job at a downtown hotel, Wood says he signed a lease agreement with Paik in January so that he could start his own events business.

He says he has tried to meet with city officials on numerous occasions to resolve zoning and liquor violations but has been met with silence and closed doors.

"I'm not a criminal," said Wood, whose mother, a minister, serves as his receptionist. "I'm a businessman. I'm trying to create something for my family. It's just not right."

But city officials say they've met with Belvedere residents who complained of noise from late-night parties in the basement, a stabbing and a shooting.

Some Belvedere residents declined to be interviewed for this article, saying they are afraid of Paik, who wears smart suits, a large diamond pinky ring and his long hair in a tight ponytail.

The lounge is not associated with a shuttered Japanese restaurant and bar, also in the basement, or the Owl Bar, a long-time watering hole on the first floor of the Belvedere. Built in 1903, the hotel was a hub of social activity for much of the 20th century, drawing Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and movie stars Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, according to a Web site maintained by the Belvedere condominium association.

"The bottom line for us was to stop Mr. Paik from doing what he has been doing at the Belvedere," said David Tillman, a spokesman for the city Department of Housing and Community Development, which took action to shut down Paik and Wood's business after a meeting with residents and police March 8. "We took aggressive zoning action."

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