College Park bar under scrutiny over underage drinking

Thirsty Turtle was the scene of a fight last week that ended in stabbing

October 23, 2010|By Jenna Johnson, The Washington Post

The Thirsty Turtle bar has been open for three years, but that's long enough to develop a reputation and following among University of Maryland students.

The Turtle, as students call it, is known for its packed dance floor, loud music, sticky floors, cheap drinks and, as the bar has been charged, often lax carding at the door.

"They call it the freshman bar," said Brian Hearn, 21, a senior communications major. "It was a joke getting in there. I guess it still is."

Last week, police were called to a fight-turned-stabbing on U.S. 1, involving five intoxicated men who had been kicked out of the College Park bar. Three of the victims were underage UM students.

It wasn't the first time drunken students have been connected to the bar, said David B. Mitchell, the new chief of the university's police department.

In the first three weeks of the semester, 24 students were hospitalized for alcohol-related issues, a sharp increase over last year. Several of those students told police they'd been drinking at the Turtle at the time, Mitchell said, a trend also confirmed by student affairs and residence life officials.

"They were the primary problem — not the only problem, but the primary problem," Mitchell said.

Last week, Mitchell urged city officials to shut down the bar, saying at a news conference that he wished he could padlock the doors himself. A liquor licensing hearing is scheduled for Nov. 3.

"I will use every legal angle at my disposal to ensure the safety of my students," Mitchell said. "I will use anything and everything."

Attorney Linda Carter, who represents Turtle owner Allan Wanuck, said the bar is still investigating the allegations against it, but evidence uncovered so far "is leading to a far different story." When those facts come to light, Carter said, "I don't think people are going to want to close down the Thirsty Turtle."

Of the three popular student bars near campus, the Turtle is the largest and often the host site for student fundraisers. Although it's a popular late-night bar, with long lines forming outside most weekend nights, students say it's also the easiest place to snag a table during happy hour.

"It's a lot of fun. It's definitely crazy," said Chelsea Soobitsky, a junior public relations major who is underage. "When you come in as a freshman, that's where you are excited to go. You hear rumors about it in orientation. … You just want to get out there."

Carter, the attorney for the bar's owner, said the Turtle "has always actively reviewed identification cards to ensure people underage don't get in."

But according to students, there are several ways around that. Some students arrive at the bar during dinner time when there's no bouncer and hide out. Others use fake IDs, or borrow someone else's. And some students say they just walk in.

Mitchell decided to test the bar's carding system with what he calls an "integrity test." In late September, Mitchell recruited two student aides from his office and told them to try to get into three popular College Park bars using their Maryland-issued licenses, which showed they were under 21.

No tricky fakes. No sneaking in. And instead of sending women dressed up for a night out, Mitchell sent two young men who fit the "typical student" profile.

"I said, 'This is going to be straight up,'" Mitchell said.

The first two bars turned the students away. The two students walked up to the bouncer at the Turtle and handed over their student IDs and cover charge, Mitchell said. The bouncer asked to see licenses; the students handed them over and they were let in. Mitchell said a bar owner was standing right by the door as this happened.

Within minutes, the students sent a text message saying they were on the second floor of the Turtle and had ordered beers. County liquor inspector John McGroarty walked in, seized the two Bud Lights as evidence and cited the bar for serving alcohol to minors, Mitchell said.

Mitchell said that in a subsequent test, none of the three bars, including the Turtle, allowed the students in.

Students said that since last week it has become nearly impossible to sneak into the Turtle. Normally, both floors of the bar are packed Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. But last Friday night, the bar was sparsely filled, even after a midnight rush. Maybe it was because the basketball team was kicking off the season with Midnight Madness. Maybe it was because the place was swarming with liquor board and Prince George's County employees.

"Things aren't looking good, I'll say that, for the Thirsty Turtle right now," said Marcus Afzali, 25, a City Council member who also is a government and political science graduate student at UM. The council supported scheduling the November hearing. "We don't want to wait for something else to happen."

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