Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Gazette Premium Content $20K city 'error' led to shutdown of Springs bar

DANIEL CHACÓN Updated: February 15, 2013 at 12:00 am

The drug deal went down without a hitch.

Days after scoring methamphetamine and prescription pills from an alleged drug runner at her home, undercover Detective Greg Young arranged another deal with the 33-year-old woman at the Irish House bar on East Platte Avenue.

Described as “a crappy little bar in a crappy little area,” the Irish House is surrounded by other bars, pawn shops, tattoo parlors and an adult bookstore in one of the grittier sections of Colorado Springs.

“She specifically told me that it was a one-stop shop,” Young testified Sept. 21.

Even the bartender was in on the action, Young told the city’s liquor board, which relied on his testimony to immediately shut the bar down that day.

There was just one problem: Young got some of his facts wrong.

While the Irish House is back in business, bar owner Michael Bowden said he’s out $20,000 and hasn’t heard so much as an apology after the city closed him down for 16 days. City officials chalked up the mistake as an isolated case of “human error” and insist that immediate action on the bar was warranted for several reasons, including a long list of police calls for service in the months leading up to the alleged drug deal.

“The Prosecution Division and the Police Department had very careful conversations together, and their collective judgment was that this was a close case but that public safety really mandated that this matter be brought forward very quickly,” City Attorney Chris Melcher said in November.

According to police reports filed by three Metro Vice, Narcotics and Intelligence Division officers and sworn testimony before the liquor board on Sept. 21 and Oct. 5, here’s the chain of events:

Aug. 30

With the help of a confidential informant, Young arranged to buy 3.5 grams of meth, commonly referred to as an 8-ball, and 10 oxycodone pills from Ann Marie Santistevan for $250. Young has been assigned to VNI, a multi-agency drug task force, for several years.

Young and his informant went to Santistevan’s home in the 100 block of North Hancock Avenue about 1:30 p.m. and exchanged cash for drugs in a matter of minutes.

Before leaving, Young asked Santistevan if she could get stronger prescription narcotics and if he could contact her directly instead of using a middleman. Santistevan, who was later arrested on drug charges,said yes.

Sept. 5

Just after 9 a.m., Young texted Santistevan asking if she was able to get oxycodone.

“Can get you perks,” she responded.

Young followed up with a phone call about two hours later, and Santistevan told him they would have to meet at the Irish House, 2001 E. Platte Ave., because the prescription pill dealer would be at the bar.

Young also asked for another 8-ball, and Santistevan said it wouldn’t be a problem.

“That place is a one-stop shop,” she said.

Young arrived at the bar about 1:30 p.m. and sat down.

“The bartender asked me what I wanted to drink. I told her I was waiting on someone and that I didn’t want anything,” Young wrote in his report. “She said, ‘OK,’ and then walked away.”

Santistevan arrived a short time later and obtained drugs from two different women in the bar. The meth deal happened in the open, and Santistevan got the prescription pills from the other woman in the women’s restroom, though Young said Santistevan approached the pill dealer in the open after he told her he was missing a pill.

“The dealer handed Santistevan another pill. Santistevan walked over and handed the prescription pill to me. During this transaction, there was no attempt to be discrete by the (pill dealer) or Santistevan. It was obvious all people involved during this transaction were very comfortable with their surroundings,” Young wrote.

Two other undercover officers were at the bar before Young arrived. They played pool and tried to blend into the crowd while acting as back-up and providing surveillance.

Each wrote a report on their observations.

Sept. 21

Anthony Moore, senior prosecutor in the City Attorney’s Office, asked the city’s Liquor and Beer Licensing Board to suspend the Irish House’s liquor license.

The request came during a summary suspension hearing in which the bar owner doesn’t have to be notified. Moore said it was based on “open drug dealing” at the bar Sept. 5.

“The city does believe that emergency action should be taken,” he told the board.

Only Young was called to testify.

Young has been in the hot seat before. He was one of two VNI detectives involved in the highly publicized case against Hooters in June 2011.

In that case, Young and his partner alleged that a waitress served a customer too much alcohol. But the charges against the restaurant as well as the waitress were later dismissed when Hooters produced a video showing the customer walking a straight line despite the detectives’ assertions that he was staggering and holding onto table chairs for balance.

During the hearing on the Irish House, Young detailed his dealings with Santistevan. He also testified — erroneously — that one of the other undercover detectives, Kristin Genta, saw an Hispanic woman matching Santistevan’s description walk into the bar before him.

“The bartender asked Santistevan, ‘Is he here yet?’ She (Genta) believed that that statement was referring to me,” Young testified.

But he mixed up what Genta wrote in her report.

The woman who questioned the bartender wasn’t Santistevan. It was another patron.

The liquor board was led to believe otherwise.

“So the sum total of your understanding is to all the reports from your static officers and yourself is that the bartender and Ann Marie (Santistevan) had an exchange as to whether you were there? That’s the total of the involvement, correct?” asked board member Mark Clauss.

“From what I understand, correct,” Young replied.

Melcher, the city attorney, said it’s not uncommon for officers to testify about another officer’s report.

“It would be seen as an unnecessary waste of police resources and an unnecessary endangerment of public safety to take multiple officers off the street and away from their job in order to provide testimony,” he said.

If that’s the city’s position, then Young should have gotten his facts straight, said Bowden, the bar owner.

Young also testified that Genta wrote in her report that “not only the folks at the bar but the bartender” were watching him and that the drug deal had been done in the open.

The board approved the city’s request for a summary suspension, and the city closed the Irish House that day.

Bowden said he learned about the suspension when he got a call at home from an employee who said police and a representative from the City Clerk’s Office, which oversees liquor licenses, were at his bar to shut it down.

Bowden, a retired Marine master sergeant who had bought the bar in April, said his business was on the TV news for three days.

“My business is still not what it used to be,” he said.

Bowden, who has video cameras in his bar, said the video of the alleged drug deal was recorded over because the city failed to notify him right away.

“Yes, I’m angry,” he said. “They assumed that I was a criminal without any evidence…I’m sure a drug deal occurred in here, but myself and my staff were in no way involved.”

Oct. 5

As part of its regular meeting, the liquor board held a revocation and suspension hearing on the Irish House.

Attorney Vince Linden, who represented the bar owner, was angry, too.

“I’ll make you this promise: You’re not going to get hoodwinked today like you did two weeks ago. We’re going to get to the truth today,” Linden told the board.

During questioning from Linden, Young acknowledged that he may have made a “very simple mistake,” which Moore — the city prosecutor — didn’t catch either.

During closing arguments, Linden ripped the prosecution, saying “we’re supposed to believe them because this guy runs a crappy little bar in a crappy little area that none of us would go into.”

But Moore said the city felt an “obligation” to bring the case to the board.

“No one engaged in intentional misrepresentations, but there was rather a misrecollection,” he said.

Clauss said he had “a lot of emotion” because he had based his earlier vote to suspend the license, in part, on faulty testimony from Young.

“I don’t believe that the prosecution laid a good foundation,” he said.

Others agreed.

“My initial thoughts in this case were that this was a case that involved rather open and notorious drug dealing,” said Dick Bursell. “However, from ... the evidence I’ve heard today, I would say it was substantially different from that. I’ve sort of characterized this case as the ‘SS Open Drugs Transaction,’ and that ship never arrived.”

Aftermath

In an interview, Melcher, the city attorney, said his office has brought forward 15 significant summary suspension or revocation proceedings in the last three years. The case against the Irish House is the only unsuccessful one.

“We understand those are very serious proceedings and potentially can cause significant impact on a business owner. But at the same time, that has to be weighed against the public safety and the public interest in not having illegal activity conducted on a premise,” he said.

During the same interview, police Chief Pete Carey said the decision to pursue a case against the Irish House was not made lightly.

“When you look at overall high volume of calls for service, a complaint by at least one neighbor and some other information, I think after thoughtful consideration, it was the right thing to do,” he said.

Melcher said the detective’s faulty testimony was a result of “human error.”

“We’re all human. A mistake was made, and it was corrected as soon as it came to our knowledge that the mistake was made,” he said. “We’re constantly looking at how to do things better, but at this point, we don’t see a process flaw or a problem that we need to address other than just be more careful and keep trying to do our job as best as we can.”

Bowden said he hadn’t given much consideration to filing a claim against the city — until now.

“Maybe it’s something I ought to pursue,” he said Friday night. “But I’ve been more concerned about re-establishing my business.”

Linden, who represented Bowden before the liquor board, said the city needs to show more restraint.

“If you’ve read the police reports and listened to the hearing transcripts, then you know that there was absolutely no emergency, no threat to public welfare, no reason whatsoever for the city to unilaterally declare this bar a public safety hazard and to shut it down without providing the bar owner an opportunity to participate in the proceedings,” Linden said. “Who pays for this abuse of power? Not the city bureaucracy and agencies. Not its employees. The only one that pays is the guy whose livelihood was put at stake and had to fight back or lose his business. That obtuse, misuse of power ultimately harms all of us.”

Contact Daniel Chacón: 476-1623

Twitter @danieljchacon

Facebook Daniel Chacon

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