'Padlock' law allows cops to close troublesome bars

Baltimore County police chief has three bars and clubs in his sights

  • Baltimore County's police chief wants to padlock a bar that his officers raided after a an investigation into drug use at the bar. The Black Hole, a Dundalk fixture for years, has been popular on the music scene for two generations, and has ferocious supporters as well as detractors.
Baltimore County's police chief wants to padlock a bar… (Joe Soriero, Baltimore…)
August 18, 2011|By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

The Black Hole Rock Club in Dundalk is closed, for now. The manager was arrested and charged with selling drugs to customers. Inspectors condemned the barnlike structure and slapped notices on all the doors: "This building is unsafe."

Baltimore County Police Chief James W. Johnson wants to go further — padlocking the doors to ensure that the club stays closed for up to one year.

The county's "padlock law" gives the police extraordinary power in certain cases to lock the doors of an establishment, though the tactic has not been used there in at least 15 years. It's a tool that the Baltimore City police commissioner has used to shutter troubled bars, liquor stores and motels.

Johnson also wants to padlock a bar in Essex where two people were stabbed in July, and a club in White Marsh where a man was fatally shot.

But the police chief said that the county's law, written three decades ago, is inadequate. To initiate proceedings, it requires two convictions on nuisance crimes such as loitering, prostitution or drug possession within 24 months.

He's conferring with county lawyers to determine whether the law could be applied to any or all of the three clubs he's targeting, or whether he should wait and ask the County Council to broaden the ordinance.

In both the city and the county, a public hearing — overseen by an administrative law judge — is required to determine whether a bar can be padlocked. But in contrast to the county's version, the city law allows the police commissioner to begin the process when two police reports on virtually any crime are written from a single establishment within two years. No convictions are necessary.

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said through a spokesman that he will wait for the police chief to brief him before deciding whether to push to make the ordinance read more like the city's.

"We're constantly looking for tactics and methods that can be taken," Johnson said of liquor establishments he feels run afoul of community and legal standards. "Most are operated in a very orderly manner with quality customers."

Of the Black Hole, he said, "Unfortunately, this place was not."

Police said in charging documents that a 15-month undercover investigation revealed "blatant use and distribution of narcotics," including hallucinogenic mushrooms. The court documents allege that there were an exclusive drug dealer and "runners" to make transactions, and that the manager got a cut of the proceeds.

In targeting the Black Hole, Johnson is taking on an established club that he knew as a young patrol sergeant in the 1980s as The Zu. "It always had a sordid reputation," he said. "It was always a hot spot. We had numerous calls there for fights and drug activity."

Former and current owners of the Black Hole lured nationally known performers with an eclectic audience, vast stage and intricate lighting sets.

With its windowless, black exterior, the two-story club towers like a dark fortress over neighboring bungalow-style homes and trimmed green lawns along German Hill and Woodwell roads. Its interior is described by the manager in documents as "beatnik" — a private room for performers is decorated with Led Zeppelin posters and has a bed, couch and TV so the talent can unwind.

Supporters of the Black Hole have mounted a ferocious defense in anonymous blog postings, though Elizabeth Ki Lee Walger, who was arrested in the Aug. 11 raid, said she had stopped going regularly because of the bar's deteriorating reputation.

"People went there to hang out and make new friends," said the 25-year-old Walger, who denied police accusations that she had drugs that night. "It used to be about a lifestyle. … It was about the music and the people. Then a lot of people stopped going because of what it turned into."

The manager arrested, 47-year-old Christopher Trikeriotis, is a disbarred attorney who, starting in 2001, spent 30 months in federal prison for bilking people out of millions in a mortgage fraud scheme.

Trikeriotis said Thursday that he did not want to comment on the recent raid and shutdown until a reporter reviewed surveillance tapes from inside the bar. He said they would show how police have unfairly targeted him.

Trikeriotis has accused officials before of conspiring to shut him down, and his defiant demeanor has drawn scolding at public meetings.

During a 2009 liquor board hearing that lasted seven hours over two days and fills 200 pages of transcripts in the thick Black Hole file, the chairman warned Trikeriotis, "If it is your desire to destroy your business, just keep doing what you're doing."

The board found the club guilty of several violations but fined the owner just $2,500, telling Trikeriotis that he should be pleased with the "lenient" sanctions. The owner appealed, and a judge sliced $1,000 off the fine.

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