Sunday, September 23, 2018
Public safety

A Clearwater lounge brought loads of trouble. The city cracked down. Now, a lawsuit

CLEARWATER — The night spot was open for just 16 days when gunshots tore through the chatter of patrons heading to their cars.

One of them, 31-year-old Henry Robinson, was almost to his car near The Epic Lounge at 19042 U.S. 19 N when a black sedan pulled up next to him, he said.

The driver’s side door flew open. A man he recognized from the lounge pulled a gun and fired two shots. One bullet hit a neighboring business, according to a police report. The other hit Robinson in the forearm.

"I saw the bullet poke out of my skin. It started burning," Robinson said in an interview. "I was shocked."

The April 30 shooting turned out to be the foreboding start of an ongoing battle between the city of Clearwater and the lounge, which describes itself on social media as an "upscale hookah lounge and event center."

As of January, police officers had responded to the lounge more than 160 times, fire inspectors had shut down the business for numerous violations, and residents of neighboring townhomes directed their lawyer to take their noise and safety concerns to the city.

The owner, Christopher Legagneur, had been arrested several times, accused by police of noise violations, selling alcohol without a license and maintaining a public nuisance.

Clearwater officials see the business as, at best, operating outside its hookah lounge license and, at worst, a harbor for drugs and violence with a blatant disregard for public safety.

"The business model seems to be centered around illegal activity," said Deputy Police Chief Eric Gandy. "A legitimate business owner doesn’t want to get arrested, doesn’t want to get fined, doesn’t want to have police at their establishment."

Perhaps that’s the one area where Legagneur and police agree. He says he doesn’t want the attention hurting what he said is a laid-back night spot that he poured his life savings into. And in a lawsuit he has filed against the city, a police officer and a resident, he alleges the city and neighboring residents are unfairly targeting and harassing the business, in part based on racial discrimination.

Legagneur, 32, is black, and the lawsuit references Epic’s "minority clientele."

"They’re just throwing everything at me left and right," said Legagneur, who is represented by the prominent adult entertainment lawyer Luke Lirot. "We’re not condoning any drugs, any guns, any violence."

Muddling the situation further is an error by the city that allowed the lounge to obtain a unique alcohol license from the state. According to the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, Epic is a bottle club, meaning patrons can bring their own beverages but the establishment can’t sell alcohol. The license also allows Epic to sell tobacco products, including hookah.

In the city, the business is licensed only as a hookah lounge. In fact, bottle clubs aren’t allowed in the U.S. 19 corridor where the lounge is located. But the city inadvertently signed off on the state license, leading to two descriptions of the business depending on which agency you ask.

"Obviously, we wish that weren’t the case, but at no point have they ever made an attempt to legitimize the operation of the business here (in Clearwater)," said planning and development director Michael Delk, who attributed the error to his staff’s unfamiliarity with bottle club licenses. There are only three in Pinellas County and four in the Tampa Bay area, including Epic.

Now, both licenses could get revoked. In separate letters to Epic, the city and the state ticked off a litany of issues.

In October, officers arrested an Epic Lounge security guard after finding .75 ounces of marijuana split into 21 bags in his car during a traffic stop, according to police. He has since been fired, Legagneur said.

Police data on the address show arrests ranging from attempted murder to drug trafficking. Fire inspection reports detail numerous hazards, including one account from New Year’s Eve in which patrons were evacuated because the fire alarm system wasn’t working.

"This business is ruining our lives," said Ahmed Said, who lives in neighboring Waterford Townhomes with his wife, mother and 10-year-old child.

Said, 35, said he’s been woken up by fights and gunshots in the parking lot since the lounge opened. Sometimes, people are still there when he and his wife leave for work, he said.

One of Said’s neighbors, David Hawkins, is named in Legagneur’s lawsuit. Hawkins’ lawyer, Christopher Breton, and deputy chief Gandy contend the suit is a baseless intimidation attempt.

The property had been vacant for years after a past life as a diner. David McComas, president of European Equities, which manages the property for the owners, said he’s sympathetic to the concerns of residents and the city. But his hands are tied because Legagneur isn’t violating his lease.

"We don’t administer the law," McComas said. "We’re just a landlord, and we have a finite amount of rights."

Legagneur and Candice Rojas, a lawyer with the Lirot firm, say they are sympathetic, too — to the legitimate complaints. Rojas pointed out in the long list of police calls that 42 were for suspicious people, vehicles or events.

"I don’t understand what would ever make that legitimate," Rojas said. "It seems like there’s some other motive for a huge portion of these calls."

In the wee hours of a recent Saturday morning, the lounge’s parking lot was quiet as security guards ushered people to a booth to pay a $10 entry fee. Inside, the room was hazy with smoke as lights flashed and bass thumped from a DJ stand.

By 3:30 a.m., about 100 people were dancing, talking and sipping drinks sold for cash only at a bar tucked in the corner. Hookah pipes were nowhere in sight.

Legagneur said the alcohol sales should not have been happening, and the hookah pipes were stored in another room, waiting for pieces to come in to properly assemble them.

Times senior researchers Caryn Baird and John Martin and staff writers Colleen Wright and Jamal Thalji contributed to this report. Contact Kathryn Varn at [email protected] or (727) 893-8913. Follow @kathrynvarn.

 
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