Pull the Plug, Bolt the Door, And Kiss Your Club Goodbye

It was members' night at Uncle Charlie's, and everyone was having a pretty good time drinking and dancing to the DJ's mix of Top 40 tunes. Until about 1:00 a.m., that is, when 30 masked men burst through the door of the bar, wielding clubs. "Everybody thought they were gay-bashers until they yelled, `It's a raid!'" recalls Bill Brown, who witnessed the events of the wee hours of last December 6.

The invaders were a special team made up of Metro and Miami cops, and agents from the U.S. Border Patrol and the Florida Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco. The raid, which resulted in the arrests of three patrons and an Uncle Charlie's bartender, as well as the confiscation of small quantities of cocaine, marijuana, and Quaaludes, capped a six-week investigation of drug activity at the club at 3673 Bird Rd. Border Patrol agents didn't come away disappointed - they took into custody two illegal aliens.

Acting on the tip of an anonymous caller, undercover officers had made eighteen half-gram cocaine purchases from Uncle Charlie's patrons between November 15 and December 4. On the night of the arrests, officers of the Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco (ABT) brought with them an emergency order, signed by agency director Richard W. Scully, suspending Uncle Charlie's liquor license, effectively shutting down the club. A week later, owner Robert Sloate contested the suspension at an administrative hearing.

Citing the fact that Sloate rarely attended his own club, and detailing the "flagrant, persistent, repeated, and recurring" violations, which he noted "were such that they would have been noticed by a reasonable diligent licensee," presiding judge Michael M. Parrish rejected Sloate's request, recommending instead that Uncle Charlie's liquor license be revoked and Sloate pay a fine of $18,000. ABT director Richard Scully is expected to make a final determination within the next two weeks. Parrish's fourteen-page decision took particular note of the activities of one patron, Sergio "Tambourine Man" Herrera, who "was so flagrant about his illegal activities that he carried a tambourine with him and would shake the tambourine to advise all who were interested that he had cocaine available for sale.... It was obvious to anyone who troubled to look that Sergio was dealing in something, because after he shook his tambourine there would be several people who would approach him, hand him money, and receive from him small plastic baggies containing white powder."

Attorneys for the 48-year-old Sloate, who has owned the popular gay nightclub for nearly eleven years, had argued in their emergency petition that the state could not reasonably hold an owner accountable for the illegal activities of his patrons. "An alcoholic beverage licensee is not required to be an absolute insurer that no illegalities take place on the licensed premises," reads the petition, "but rather only must supervise the employees and premises in a reasonable and diligent manner." The attorneys also pointed out that Uncle Charlie's is certified under the state's Responsible Vendor program. Sloate's staff had been trained to discourage the use of illegal drugs on the premises, and therefore the establishment was protected from license suspension or revocation "for its employees allegedly allowing others to traffic in drugs unless the vendor knew or should have known about the acts."

"We did everything humanly possible to keep that place drug-free. This has been an absolute disaster, and it's all unjustified. We did the best we could," says Sloate, who declined to comment further, pending his request that the Third District Court of Appeals cancel the emergency order.

While the ABT has no authority to level criminal charges, the agency's power to fine a club owner and/or revoke his license is daunting. The extreme case of permanent revocation would result in the loss of a license that in Dade County can cost as much as $40,000.

During the past six months, ABT has been particularly busy, issuing 22 emergency orders to suspend liquor licenses, two more suspensions than were ordered over the entire previous year. "I just don't know if it has to do with the economy or the availability of cocaine," says Richard Boyd, chief of law enforcement for ABT's southern region, "but we want the licensees to know we don't condone this. Having a license is a privilege. Not everybody can qualify to get a liquor license and not everybody can run their business properly to keep it."

The two most recent busts took place early this past Sunday morning in Miami Beach. Club Boomerang, at 323 23rd St., and A.M./P.M., the after-hours club in the old Club Nu site at 245 22nd St., were raided by local police and state ABT officers after an investigation conducted by both agencies. A total of three arrests for drug possession were made, and ABT issued emergency orders suspending the liquor licenses of the establishments.

Since March of 1991, eight Dade and Broward clubs had their licenses suspended for allowing illegal drug sales. Four of them, including Uncle Charlie's, catered to a gay clientele. Cheers in South Miami, Club 21 in Pembroke Park, and the Copa Cabaret in Fort Lauderdale were all raided last May. In each case, the ABT negotiated with the club owners. Agreements were reached and fines, ranging from $10,000 to $12,000, were paid. The Copa's owners retained their license; the proprietors of Cheers and Club 21 had their licenses revoked but were permitted to sell them.

Robert Sloate faces a stiffer penalty, says ABT's Boyd, because he has refused to negotiate, choosing instead to fight the suspension of his license. ABT prefers negotiations, Boyd explains, because that way the agency retains control of the situation. In such instances, he says, ABT is "willing to give a little bit. In the case of Uncle Charlie's, we did go to a hearing. When it goes to a hearing, the coin is flipped and it could go either way, depending on how the hearing officer feels about it. In [Sloate's] case, it came down hard."

The December raid at his club wasn't the first time Robert Sloate had heard from drug-enforcement authorities. In June 1990, U.S. marshals seized Savannah Moon, a restaurant located in a strip shopping center across from The Falls on U.S. 1. The marshals contended that the upscale eatery, which specialized in Southern cuisine, originally had been acquired with illegal drug proceeds. Sloate, who had purchased the establishment from its original owners shortly after it opened in 1987, denied any knowledge of Savannah Moon's illicit origins. The government, however, was not required to link Sloate with any drug dealers - the mere existence of drug-tainted assets was sufficient to justify the seizure. As federal officials seek a buyer to reopen it, the restaurant, like Uncle Charlie's, remains closed.

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Mary Ann Esquivel-Gibbs