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Amy Dalrymple, Forum News Service, Published April 24 2013

Williston suspends liquor licenses at strip clubs

WILLISTON, N.D. – City commissioners here suspended the liquor licenses of Williston’s two strip clubs, which police say are causing excessive calls for disorderly behavior.

Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday night to suspend the license of Heartbreakers for 30 days and suspend the license of Whispers for seven days, both starting at midnight Tuesday.

Williston City Attorney Taylor Olson said the clubs violated city ordinances related to serving intoxicated customers, allowing patrons to take alcohol outside and maintaining an orderly establishment.

Heartbreakers will close during the suspension.

The two clubs, which are adjacent to each other on the city’s Main Street, are in the area of downtown Williston where a homicide occurred in March.

However, concern about these clubs violating their liquor licenses began long before that incident, said Police Chief Jim Lokken.

The two bars often are responsible for three to four calls per night to the police, while other bars in town have none or one or two each week, Lokken said.

Olson said she tallied 120 calls for incidents to those bars between January 2012 and this February, with 84 of those calls representing assaults, bar fights or gun incidents. Seven of those 120 calls resulted in criminal charges that were filed, Olson said.

City Commissioner Tate Cymbaluk, who made the motions for suspension, said citizens elected commissioners to maintain a safe community and be responsible with spending.

“I’m satisfied in my mind that for the safety of this community we need to do something. I think something needs to happen and it needs to happen now,” Cymbaluk said. “We need to send a message to this community that we are here to protect them, not necessarily you as the bar owner or the liquor license holder.”

Managers of both establishments denied the allegations, saying employees monitor the door to prevent alcohol from leaving the premises and that employees take care to not overserve patrons.

The recent law banning smoking inside bars has pushed more customers outside, where they can’t be monitored by bouncers, said Jared Holbrook, operations manager for Heartbreakers.

“The rate of crime has came up since then,” Holbrook said. “We’re doing everything that we can to stop it, but we’re not going to go outside and monitor it on the public streets.”

Managers from both bars offered to hire an off-duty Williston police officer to have a presence outside the bars at their expense.

“As long as he’s parked outside and shows a presence, 99 percent of this problem will disappear,” Holbrook said.

Lokken said after the hearing that police officers are not allowed to work for liquor establishments, but the bars could hire private security firms.

Williston police Sgt. Detective Dave Peterson said Heartbreakers, which Holbrook said opened in 2010, causes most of the problems.

Peterson said he’s seen dancers at Heartbreakers pull the faces of patrons into their breasts, which is a violation of a city ordinance.

Peterson said he’s seen video surveillance of a Heartbreakers bouncer pulling a pistol out of his waistband and striking a patron in the head. The bouncer then went outside and fired off a round from that firearm, Peterson said. It was later learned that the firearm was stolen and the man was a convicted felon, Peterson said.

Holbrook said the man was a bouncer who had been fired that day for smoking cigarettes when he was supposed to be working. He asked to return later to have a few drinks.

“We had no idea he armed himself,” said Holbrook, adding that it was his employees who called police.

The night of the shooting, Whispers employees called police about rowdy behavior but were told that officers were busy responding to another call, said Michael Holub, co-manager of Whispers.

Two employees, who are Iraq war veterans, went outside to retrieve firearms to provide protection while they waited for police to arrive, Holub said. Once officers arrived, the assistant manager walked over to show police his weapon and put it away, Holub said.

Peterson said video surveillance shows bouncers carrying firearms in the streets during that incident.

Whispers has been operating since 1999.

“Until recently, there were no issues on Main Street. Now all of a sudden there are issues on Main Street,” Holub said. “It’s not coming from our place.”

Williston resident Tom Powers, who attended the hearing, said the city has limited resources and shouldn’t be spending an unwarranted amount of resources on these two bars.

“Let them clean it up or leave town,” Powers said.

Charlie Tanner, who retired from the police department after 26 years, said his shift had problems with the strip clubs and began keeping a greater presence there to prevent incidents.

“In my opinion, these bars are open sewers,” Tanner said.

In an interview after the meeting, Holbrook said he was surprised Heartbreakers received a 30-day suspension when the neighboring bar received seven days and had the same allegations.

While many during the meeting said the issues didn’t exist before Heartbreakers opened, Holbrook said, “The answer to that is we opened when the boom started.”

Holbrook said he’ll use the 30 days to renovate the club and regroup with management and staff. He said he welcomes city officials at any time to observe how the bar is operated. Heartbreakers has four to five full-time security employees on site at all times and employees walk female patrons to their cars, Holbrook said.

“We put public safety at highest regard,” he said.