Danger after midnight

A police report says Club Fuel and Club Empire are at the center of mayhem that worries Ybor City residents and business owners.

Published June 8, 2007

TAMPA - Police Maj. Bob Guidara painted a grim picture Thursday for the City Council of what goes on in Ybor City between midnight and 3 a.m., in what he calls "the witching hour":

People spill into the street from nightclubs, drunk and high. Done with partying, they look for trouble in surrounding dirt parking lots. They rob. They fight. They even kill.

There are 20 nightclubs throughout Ybor City. But at the epicenter of all the mayhem is the 1900 block of E Seventh Avenue, home to hip-hop megaclubs Empire and Fuel.

Fifty officers saturate the area every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night. But the increase in Ybor enforcement draws resources away from surrounding residential areas, police say.

More needs to be done, Guidara said. The mayor and police chief are talking about upping nightclub admission age to 21 and making clubs close at midnight instead of 3 a.m.

In total, violent crimes in Ybor decreased by 25 percent in 2006, and have continued to decrease by 7 percent this year.

But cops are sick, he said, of dealing with a major trouble spot.

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On May 20, a fight that started inside Empire ended in a parking lot a block away, with one man fatally shot and another charged with murder.

Ybor residents and business owners begged the City Council to shut down the clubs, e-mailing stories about bricks flying into their cars, gunfights and fear of leaving their condos. The council asked police for a report.

Thursday, they got it. It includes accounts of Fuel security guards accused of robbing patrons at least four times and battering them at least six.

There was the fatal October stabbing behind Empire. The series of Thanksgiving night fights outside both clubs, where only three off-duty cops watched over a crowd of 4,000. And the time police say then-Fuel manager Joseph Azzi stood in the path of an investigating officer while another manager, Richard Mackizer, made verbal threats.

Council member John Dingfelder responded: "All this comes down to is financial greed and irresponsible ownership."

The owners

Club Fuel operators have not responded to Times letters left at the club or phone calls to their attorney's office regarding the recent complaints.

Empire owner Ken Grossman did.

"They say we're attracting all these criminals. I think that's a horrible thing to say," Grossman said. "I don't go to Orient Road Jail and put out fliers and passes. There are clubs in Ybor that accept prison IDs. I don't accept prison IDs."

Grossman said he fears being dumped into the same category with Fuel.

He turns in confiscated fake IDs, he said. His bouncers check for weapons at the door. And he took out half his sound system to comply with noise restrictions.

Club Fuel, on the other hand, has not met with neighbors. And operators face five pending noise violations.

It's pumping its base too loud, said Assistant City Attorney David Shobe. And it's racked up the highest number of criminal noise citations in Ybor.

If convicted, operators Mackizer, Azzi and Jiwat Lalwani can get 60 days in jail, $500 fines or six months' probation.

Also, if any of them are found guilty, the City Council could review the club's wet zoning and possibly suspend its permits to sell alcohol.

Empire owner Joel Brewer owns the building that houses Fuel, but his business partner Grossman said "his hands are absolutely tied. There's nothing in the lease itself that allows him to throw out Fuel."

Guidara said that after Fuel owners were warned in January of their violations, incidents have decreased.

The options

Two years ago, a committee formed just to deal with nightclub crime. It includes Mayor Pam Iorio and the police chief, and it meets every other week.

It was responsible for reopening Seventh Avenue to traffic in 2005, to discourage people from congregating. It also enacted an 11 p.m.-to-4 a.m. curfew to keep juveniles out of Ybor.

Now, it wants to keep people younger than 21 out of clubs Empire and Fuel admit over 18, but those under 21 can't drink alcohol and closing doors at midnight.

City Attorney David Smith said closing times could be regulated either by changing zoning or by targeting problem clubs, but that the legal department is still researching how to incorporate the goals into law.

Guidara also addressed resident concerns that off-duty officers employed by higher-paying clubs could look away from crime to keep their extra gigs.

From now on, the Police Department will make off-duty officers answer to an on-duty shift commander instead of another off-duty site commander.

The department also will standardize the pay officers can make from clubs.

After Guidara spoke, residents presented their own options.

Tony LaColla, president of the Historic Ybor Neighborhood Civic Association, presented a "conditional use permit" for wet zonings neighbors drafted, that would apply to all bars within 500 feet of a residence and that hold 250 or more.

The city is holding a workshop this month to tweak its wet zoning process, and some of the resident conditions - mandatory bouncer training programs, noise compliance, action plans to deal with fights, drugs and drunks - could be discussed then.

City staff members are researching whether they could be incorporated into law.

Even so, Empire and Fuel would be grandfathered into their permits.

LaColla offered another option: shut down dirt parking lots south of Sixth Avenue and north of Palm, calling them "breeding grounds for drugs and crime."

Council member Linda Saul-Sena liked the idea. She asked the city staff to bring back a report in 60 days to see how to crack down.

Grossman said he has sat down with LaColla to address concerns. He said he'll do whatever the city tells him to do to comply. He wants to save Empire.

"I've been there for 12 years," Grossman said. "I'd like to be there for another 12 years."

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at (813) 226-3354 or azayas@sptimes.com.

Fast Facts:

Problems in Ybor City

Arrests made from October 2006 to May 31 surrounding clubs Fuel and Empire:

Club Fuel

1920 E Seventh Ave.

Robbery (by a bouncer): 1

Battery on an officer: 1

Narcotics: 37

Battery by a bouncer: 1

Warrants: 2

Noise ordinance violation: 5

Fighting: 2

Opposing an officer: 2

Total arrests: 51

Club Empire

1902 E Seventh Ave.

Narcotics: 17

Underage drinking: 2

Total: 19

Parking lot behind the clubs:

Murder: 1

Aggravated battery on a law enforcement officer: 1

Narcotics: 28

Firearms: 6

Warrants: 5

Disorderly conduct: 6

Driving under influence: 1

Traffic: 1

Total arrests: 49