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The City of St. Paul Tries to Close down Diva’s Bar: The Complaint

Newspaper Reports of the Complaint:

The Star Tribune reported on November 12, 2006: “A St. Paul man was shot twice in the abdomen during an early-morning confrontation Saturday outside Divas’s Overtime Lounge in St. Paul ... The Rice Street bar has been the site of frequent police complaints over the past year. In July, a 25-year-old man was fatally shot and two others were wounded in a gang-related shooting. A month later, the city threatened the bar with a public nuisance suit in response to numerous complaints, including gunshots, loud music, fights and after-hours drinking. After Saturday’s incident, police said the owner of the bar, Debra Johnson, refused to help officers retrieve the recordings. Because of the business’ history of violence, a top-level security system is a licensing requirement, and officials believe the confrontation was likely caught on camera ... Walsh (a St. Paul police spokesman) said that Johnson was arrested when she drove to the bar early Saturday afternoon, and officers discovered that her driver’s license had been canceled because of an aggravated drunken-driving charge. She was later released on bail. Officers are considering further charges of obstructing the legal process ... Johnson could not be reached for comment.”

The Star Tribune reported on November 15, 2006: “A litany of liquor license violations may soon force a popular but notorious St. Paul bar out of business. Licensing director Bob Kessler said he will recommend that the City Council revoke the liquor license of Diva’s Overtime Lounge at 1141 Rice Street. If the council decides to revoke the license, owner Deb Johnson wouldn’t be allowed to operate Diva’’s and would likely be denied the opportunity to run another bar in St. Paul any time soon ... If the revocation becomes official, however, the city wouldn’t allow any bar to operate at that address. ... City Attorney John Choi said St. Paul is proceeding with legal action against Diva’s on grounds of loud music, after-hours drinking and violence. The most recent such episode took place early Saturday when 31-year-old Keon Nunn was shot twice outside the bar... Andy Dawkins, Deb Johnson’s attorney, said Tuesday he had not seen any evidence that the shooting was linked to Diva’s. Kessler said his recommendation on revocation is based on liquor license violations, not the weekend shooting.”

The Star Tribune reported on November 14, 2006: “After a man was shot twice Saturday outside (Diva’s) bar, police arrested owner Debra Johnson partly for obstruction of justice when she refused to give officers video surveillance. Bob Kessler, the city’s licensing director, said Diva’s agreed to stay closed Monday pending the outcome of today’s meeting ... Diva’s rap sheet includes violence, loud music and after-hours carousing that has upset residents near the Rice Street bar. A shooting at the bar in July left one man dead and two others wounded.”

 

Debra Johnson gives her side of the story:

In descending order of importance, we have:

(1) the fatal shooting in the bar on July 14, 2006,

(2) the shooting outside the bar on November 10, 2006,

(3) alleged nuisance conditions at the bar


(1) The Fatal Shooting on July 14:

The shooting took place in the bar around 12:30 a.m. Four men, who had never visited Diva’s before, walked into the bar shortly after midnight. Bar security checked the men in three ways. They checked personal IDs, passed a wand over the person, and patted the person down. This procedure failed to disclose any guns. (The murder weapon might have been a “glock gun”, made of plastic.) Bar staff later recalled that one of the men seemed to be limping. The men were not arguing and did not order any drinks. About thirty people were in the bar at the time.

The shooting incident took place about twenty minutes after the men had entered the bar. Owner Deb Johnson was standing at the south side of the bar counter when a man named Maurice Lowell, who was standing near her, fired two shots. It is believed that the first shot hit Julian Jackson, one of the shooter’s companions, in the stomach. This man, standing three feet away from the shooter, died about four hours later in Region’s Hospital. The second shot harmlessly struck the wall. Curiously, the two other men also had wounds. One was hit in the leg and the other in the calf. This shows that more gun shots must have been fired than the two fired inside the bar.

The four men were members of the Goon-squad (or G-squad). They were originally from Illinois. Earlier that evening they had robbed a barber shop on Rice Street, the pull tab booth at Champs bar (Larpenteur & 35E), and possibly other neighborhood businesses. They had then gone together to the McDonald’s restaurant at the corner of Arlington and Rice to decide how to split the money. Four of the gang members were injured during an argument at McDonald’s. Two of the four went to Region’s Hospital for treatment of these injuries. Four others went down the street to Diva’s bar where the above-mentioned shooting incident took place.

Rice Street was crawling with St. Paul squad cars in the aftermath of the McDonald’s altercation. Deb Johnson had gone home to fetch the key to the bar’s ATM machine earlier in the evening. A St. Paul squad car was parked in the DeLisle’s parking lot kitty corner from Diva’s. Johnson asked the officer what was happening. He answered, “nothing”. So she entered the bar around 11:30 p.m. in time to witness the shooting.

After the two shots were fired, Deb Johnson personally tackled the shooter. She slammed him against a window and, for a time, had him pinned on the floor near the ATM machine. However, she had injured a rib while chasing the shooter through the bar. He was able to rise from the floor and escape through the front door as Johnson grabbed his shirt. The shooter then ran down Geranium to his parked car, a white Tahoe. Johnson, chasing him down the street, noted the license plate of the car. The shooter then sped away. He was arrested a week later in Brooklyn Center.

While this activity was taking place, a bar customer named Shelley ran across Rice Street to seek the assistance of the police officer in the parked car near DeLisle's real estate office. He said he would not come to the bar because he was waiting for backup. The St. Paul police did arrive at the bar ten minutes after the shooting. They did not question any of the bar customers. Instead, they asked for Diva’s security tapes. Deb Johnson gave them the tapes. Because the police did not know how to download the tapes, Johnson also gave them the complete “system” - the hardware for the tapes. It was never returned. Johnson had then to buy another system for $3,000 to $4,000. To date, she has never learned whether or not the police found anything of significance on the security tapes.

It may be significant that two days before the shooting, on July 12th, there was a drive-by shooting at the home of Julian’s mother, Lavonne Jackson, on Sherburne Avenue in Frogtown. Julian himself (the shooting victim) had been shot in the leg a week earlier near Arcade Street on the east side. So the St. Paul police had ample warning of violence from this group of gang members. After Julian’s death, the police raided his mother’s house.

Even though Deb Johnson cooperated fully with the police - she identified the four gang members from a set of photographs - St. Paul city officials have blamed her bar for the fatal shooting. Johnson herself had made heroic efforts to apprehend the shooter while nearby police waited for “back up” and, once on the scene, conducted an anemic investigation.


(2) The shooting on November 10:

Nothing unusual happened at Diva’s bar on the evening of Friday, November 10. There were no fights or loud arguments. The official closing time was 1:00 a.m. That meant that the last call for drinks was at 12:30 a.m. Legally, customers were allowed to remain in the bar until 1:30 to finish their drinks. On the evening of November 10-11, bar staff had escorted all customers to the parking lot by 1:05 a.m. and watched them drive away. Deb Johnson and staff remained in the bar for another hour and a half to clean up the place and restock the liquor.

Shots were fired near the bar around 2:00 a.m. The customers were long gone. Around 2:30 a.m., shortly before she left for the night, a St. Paul police officer who was parked in a car on Geranium asked Deb Johnson if the police could get copies of the bar’s security tapes. Johnson said “yes”. The officer asked her what time the bar opened on the following day. Johnson told him that it opened at 10:00 a.m. The officer told Deb Johnson and her staff that they could go home.

It was the first anniversary of her mother’s death. After returning home, Deb Johnson had a few drinks as she sat thinking about her mother. Then she settled into bed.

Around 3:45 a.m., the phone rang. A St. Paul police officer, Jim Gray, told her in an angry tone of voice that she needed to come down to police headquarters immediately to give him the security tapes. Johnson told him that she could not safely drive downtown because she had been drinking. She offered instead to call a cab. She also told Gray that, several hours earlier, a St. Paul police officer had indicated that it would be OK to pull the tapes after the bar opened at 10 a.m. Gray said that this officer should not have allowed people to go home; they should have waited for homicide.

Officer Gray called Johnson several times in the wee hours of the morning to demand that she turn over the tapes immediately. Johnson called Brad Morrison who worked for Criminal Investigations, a Minnetonka-based firm which handled Diva’s security tapes. Because the system was new, she needed his help to download the tapes for the police. She was unable to reach Morrison by phone until around 7:00 a.m. because he was working on another project.

Unable to sleep, Deb Johnson arrived at Diva’s around 6:30 a.m. to set up the bar for cribbage and for her annual Veteran’s Day event which involved giving free food to veterans. Then she went shopping for the food and for supplies from Menards. Being part native American, Johnson was planning a small celebration in honor of her late mother.

The St. Paul police arrived at Diva’s bar around 9:45 a.m. on Saturday, right after Johnson had left for the store. They dug through her trash behind the bar. An officer reached Johnson by cell phone as she shopped in Menards urging her to return to the bar immediately. At a certain place in the store the phone signal died. That may have been the basis of a later claim that Deb Johnson had hung up on the police. But she called the police again outside the Menards store and was again told to come to the bar.

Upon arriving at Diva’s, Deb Johnson found that the St. Paul police were screaming at the customers to leave. They were going to close the bar down, they said. The police promptly put Johnson in handcuffs and sat her in a squad car on Geranium Street for nearly an hour while the officers and her attorney, Jerry Radowski, argued. The police wouldn’t allow Johnson to say anything. When she asked what her offense was, the police said she was driving without a license. She was also “obstructing justice”. An officer told Johnson that, if she did not have a drivers license, she wouldn’t be arrested. So Johnson said she didn’t have a license. The police arrested her anyhow.

The police claimed that she needed a drivers license with the name “Rauschnot” on it. This was her maiden name. She hadn’t used that name in fifteen years. Oddly enough, the police never asked her to show her drivers license. They simply claimed that she did not have a drivers license. They drove Johnson down to police headquarters on East 7th Street and booked her under the name “Rauschnot”.

Debra Johnson spent two hours in jail. Her attorney, Terry Radowski, came to the jail looking for her but was unable to find anyone booked under her name. Arriving later, a bar employee named Freddy recognized the name “Rauschnot” and was able to locate Johnson. Fortunately, she had bail money and was released from jail around 2:00 p.m.

A friend of Johnson’s named Tamara Grahams called the Minnesota Department of Transportation to check on the status of her drivers license. Contrary to the police report, Johnson did have a valid drivers license. Ramsey Country Sheriff department personnel were amazed at the arrest.

Back at Diva’s, Deb Johnson found that St. Paul police officers would not let her enter her own building. The bar was closed, they said. The police were rummaging through her belongings without a proper search warrant. They had a warrant to take the security tapes, but nothing more. Brad Morrison had been at the bar between 12:30 p.m. and 1:00 p.m. to expedite the request for the tapes. However, Johnson was in jail at that time so Brad left. The police then claimed that Deb Johnson was refusing to turn over the tapes.

When Deb Johnson returned to the bar from jail, she led St. Paul police officers to her offices in the basement where they rifled through all her belongings in search of drugs and gambling paraphernalia. Diva’s had a “$5-a-day club” which was a daily door prize given to lucky customers. The police suspected this was connected to illegal gambling. It wasn’t. Also, the police never found illegal drugs. A bar employer overheard a homicide sergeant named Munioz complaining to the investigator with the inventory sheet: “The bitch (Johnson) runs a legit business.”

Johnson did turn over the bar’s security tapes to a technical person with the St. Paul police. Her name was Kim. Unfortunately, Kim did not know how to download the tapes so, with Johnson’s permission, she took the hardware “system”. At last officer Munioz had something to cheer about. Since the city required Diva’s to maintain a system of security tapes at all times, he realized that by taking her hard drive they effectively prevented Johnson from meeting that requirement. “We have her now,” he muttered joyfully to an assistant. Once again, however, Johnson spent the money to replace the missing hardware - the third time that she had spent $3,000 on security to please the city.

The police had told everyone that Diva’s was closed “until further notice”. The head of licensing, Bob Kessler, held a meeting with Johnson on Monday afternoon to discuss conditions for reopening the bar. At this meeting, a woman from the city attorney’s office named Rachel Gunther in a loud voice accused her of such things as permitting after-hours drinking and playing loud music. Both accusations were false. Diva’s scrupulously observed bar hours. The basis for the other claim was an anonymous complaint that loud music was coming from the bar at 8 p.m. However, Diva’s was only playing music from the juke box, too soft to be heard on the street. Patty from District 6 Neighborhood Council admitted that this was Diva’s only reported violation.

Even so, St. Paul regulatory services imposed various new requirements on Diva’s as a condition of reopening: It needed more lighting outside. The bar needed to install a video system. All these things were done by Sunday evening. Diva’s did reopen on Wednesday, November 15th. Deb Johnson’s Kafkaesque nightmare with the city of St. Paul was over - at least temporarily.

 

(3) The alleged nuisance conditions (a.k.a. liquor license violations):

There were two alleged infractions. The first had to do with after-hours drinking, and the second with violence in or near the bar.


(a) Unruly behavior, after-hours drinking: The basis of this charge was an incident that took place on April 8, 2006. At that time, Diva’s had a license to close at 2:00 a.m. What happened is that about 1:45 a.m. a traffic accident occurred on Rice Street near the bar. Bar customers rushed outside to see what was happening. The driver of the car involved in the accident reportedly was threatening to beat up a police officer. When Diva’s customers came outside to witness the accident, a parishioner at St. Bernard’s church named Jennifer Cassidy, who was personally close to Father Mike Anderson, was leaving the church. She thought she saw Diva’s customers beating up the police; or, at least, there was a crowd of people who, to her, seemed unruly.

As for after-hours drinking, an undercover officer parked in the DeLisle’s lot across the street thought he saw customers drinking in the pool room in the back of the bar at 2:32 a.m. - two minutes after customers were supposed to be out of the bar. By law, customers had the right to finish their drinks until a half hour after closing. In other words, they could stay until 2:30 a.m. But the undercover officer reported that he saw customers drinking at 2:32 a.m. - clear evidence of “after-hours drinking”. Evidence to the contrary comes from two other officers, who actually entered the bar. They left at 2:29 a.m. after all the customers were gone. Also, it should be mentioned that there is no clear line of sight from the DeLisle’s parking lot to the pool tables in Diva’s because the bar itself obstructs the view.

So, despite the city attorney’s claim, there was no drinking after hours on that date. What did happen was that after the 2:30 a.m. closing, some of Diva’s employees came outside to have a smoke. The ban on smoking in St. Paul bars had gone into effect on March 31, 2006. It may be that the undercover officer thought these people were Diva’s customers.

(b) Violence in or near the bar: The alleged violence concerns a pair of brothers with criminal tendencies known as the Lewis brothers. This brotherly pair and a friend named Joe came into Diva’s bar on September 11, 2006, and caused a ruckus. They had never previously set foot in this bar. Deb Johnson had them immediately evicted by her security staff. When the brothers continued to hang out near the bar entrance harassing customers, Johnson called the St. Paul police. In fact, she called the police three times attempting to have them arrest the Lewis brothers for disturbing bar customers. Each time, the police talked with the Lewises and did nothing. They told Johnson: “They’re nothing but knuckleheads, banned from all the bars in St. Paul.” The police report stated, however, that Deb Johnson had told the officers: “Let them (the Lewis brothers) go; they’re friends of mine.” And so a case was made that Johnson was tolerating violence. In fact, the Lewis brothers are on her trespass list.


Some other relevant information:

When Club Cancun on Rice Street closed in January 2006, its 1,500 customers, some with criminal backgrounds, had no place to go. Some gravitated towards Cabs Pub at Arcade and Jenks Streets while others came to Diva’s. Debra Johnson was concerned about the impact on her bar of Club Cancun’s closing. At least four times between January and April 2006, she had phone conversations with St. Paul police chief, John Harrington, urging him to change the department’s policy against allowing off-duty police officers to do private security work at bars. Johnson wanted to hire some of these officers to work at Diva’s bar. Chief Harrington refused to change the policy.

Curiously, the Asian Hall on Rice Street near Front has on-duty St. Paul police officers. Employees of the Ramsey County Sheriff’s department do security work at Club Crystal at Larpenteur and Rice Streets and at The Myth in Maplewood Mall. Johnson also approached Sheriff Bob Fletcher about providing security services for Diva’s but received no response.

 

See also this report.

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