Bar, scene of killings, is closed

Liquor board seizes license of Top Shelf

October 05, 2007|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,Sun reporter

Saying there was no other punishment acceptable, the city liquor board last night seized the liquor license of a Southwest Baltimore bar where three people have been killed since 2004 and underage-drinking raids have resulted in multiple violations and fines.

"Based on the totality of the circumstances, the board felt ... we just could not give them one more chance," said liquor board Chairman Stephan Fogleman.

He and liquor board Commissioners Elizabeth C. Smith and Harvey E. Jones voted unanimously to force the owners of the Top Shelf Lounge in the 3300 block of Old Frederick Road to sell the liquor license within 90 days or lose it.

A liquor inspector went to the bar last night to take the license, which must be displayed at all times in order to serve alcohol.

"The Top Shelf is dead and gone," said Fogleman shortly after the nearly four-hour hearing at City Hall.

The bar has been shuttered since July, when city health inspectors closed it because of unsanitary conditions, including evidence of mice and cockroaches.

But police and other city officials said the tavern was operating in violation of the Health Department's order.

Early on the morning of Sept. 15, John J. Christen, 20, was fatally shot inside the bar's front door.

The young man's mother, who attended the liquor board hearing, said her son was dancing and drinking at the club the night he died despite the fact that he was underage and the establishment was supposed to be closed for cleaning and renovation.

"I used to tell [my son], don't go to the Top Shelf because you won't come back," a tearful Lolita Price told liquor board commissioners.

But even before Christen was killed, there were problems at the Top Shelf.

The bar, most recently operated by Omar K. Smith, 33, and his mother, has long been a hangout for violent individuals, according to police records.

In February 2004, a 23-year-old man was shot in the head and killed, and in October 2005, a woman was hit on the head with a broken bottle, according to police reports.

In April 2006, a 24-year-old man was stabbed and left for dead on the sidewalk across the street from the bar. He later died, police said.

And in March, a man was stabbed and then shot during an altercation at the tavern.

Omar Smith said he can't control who comes into his lounge or what they do when they leave. He said he has asked police to help patrol the area at closing time and has hired security guards to pat down patrons for weapons as they arrive.

"Incidents are going to happen, but that happens at any bar or tavern," said Omar Smith, who appeared before the liquor board with his mother, Connie Butler, who holds the liquor license for her son's bar.

Court records show that Omar Smith pleaded guilty to charges of distributing a controlled substance in 2000.

State law prohibits those with a criminal record from holding liquor licenses. However, it is not unusual for those same people to put a liquor license in the name of a friend or relative.

Omar Smith said that community members who signed petitions asking the liquor board to shut down his bar were exaggerating the violent conditions there. "The things that they are saying are not true," he said. "It's getting blown out of proportion."

During the hearing, neighbors told liquor board commissioners that they had long avoided the bar and its young patrons, some of whom, like Christen, were underage and should not have been served alcohol. The bar has a history of serving underage youths.

Omar Smith and his mother purchased the tavern in 2003. Since then, they have been fined three times for serving alcohol to underage individuals, according to liquor board files.

In May 2006, the most recent underage-drinking violation, Butler was fined $2,000 for serving alcohol to a police cadet who was under the legal drinking age of 21.

City Councilwoman Helen L. Holton, who represents the 8th District in which the bar is located, said that 90 percent of the calls her office receives regarding rowdy or loud bars are about the Top Shelf.

She implored the liquor board to shut the bar down for good yesterday.

"This bar has demonstrated a lack of reasonable responsibility as a law-abiding entity in Southwest Baltimore," she said. "Please do something to help me help the people I represent."

As for Price, the mother whose son died in the bar's foyer, enough is enough.

"The same pattern will keep going and keep going," she said. "It's the same thing all the time. It's time to stop."

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