Punch Palace

Belly up to the bar in The Basement. Then duck.

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Just outside the Basement, a popular nightclub on Old River Road in the Flats, a uniformed police officer strides by, ordering people onto the sidewalk and out of the way of traffic. They try to obey, but the swelling crowd waiting to get inside keeps knocking them into the street. Pedestrians, just hoping to get past the club's entrance, choose the street as a safer passageway than pushing through the tightly huddled mass.

The police officer returns moments later and scolds the crowd again, his authority reduced to that of a flustered substitute teacher forced to repeat the same instructions over and over.

The real authority on this recent chilly Friday night belongs to the Basement's doormen, a pair of young men who could easily pass for frat boys. With just a few words and an arm gesture, they can shape the crowd into a line or direct it to another doorway. At the moment, they are content to let people mill about and figure out for themselves where the actual line begins and ends.

The doormen's power emanates from the club's perceived status as the city's number-one beer-and-babes nightspot. The Basement's 21- to 25-year-old faithful stand in line every week, regardless of the weather, waiting for their chance to be seen there.

For anyone hoping to enter, obedience is the only option.

"Show us your nipples," one of the doormen, cracking a big smile under his baseball cap, says to a couple of shivering women without coats who cut to the front of the crowd. "No. I'm serious. No nips, no entry."

The women, perhaps eager to get out of the night air, lean toward the doorman and yank down their camisole tops. Grinning, he lets the women enter without bothering them for IDs. He laughs as he looks at the next pair of females, who dutifully follow suit.

Inside, it doesn't take long to understand the club's appeal. Beyond its young and attractive crowd, the place is the hangout of a suburban kid's dreams. In classic basement style, it's filled with mismatched furniture, old posters, low-hanging lights, and plenty of casually dressed, would-be friends. Only this Basement is bigger than most homes, and it attracts throngs of people who dance to '80s and '90s music everywhere -- atop giant speakers, stairs, or on an elevated dance floor supported by an old washer and dryer.

Despite the noise and crush of humanity, the attentive bar staff remains focused on delivering alcohol to patrons. On the first floor, protected from the surging crowd by an island bar lit by lava lamps, bartenders waste no time talking as they pop caps off of beer bottles two and three at a time. Cocktail waitresses fight through clusters of bodies to retrieve fresh beers for dancers; others vend colored shots in test tubes. Upstairs, employees dispense beer at bars and from tubs filled with ice. On the club's enclosed patio, two female employees with bottles of liquor in hand stand on a mini-stage, ready to pour shots through a huge ice block to any drinkers willing to catch the frosty liquor in their mouths.

Responsible for keeping an eye on all of this are club owner Gary Bauer and his security personnel, who include bouncers and doormen. Their job is to safely manage the flow of people in and out of the club and, more important, escort rowdy drunks from the premises, especially at closing time.

They're supposed to keep the people partying while keeping the peace.

But some of the club's patrons have complained that the club's security personnel -- despite the implied pacifism of the large '70s peace sign on the backs of their Basement T-shirts -- have met the challenge by too often choosing muscle over diplomacy.

While conflicts between employees and disorderly patrons are typical of high-volume establishments in the Flats and elsewhere, the Basement is unique for the number and severity of allegations -- both criminal and civil -- pending against the club and its staff. According to police reports and court papers, some former and current staff members are said to have punched, slapped, kicked, choked, dragged, and tossed patrons, pushing some down steps or over railings.

Longtime Flats club owner Tim Spencer, who's also a Cleveland firefighter and often the unofficial spokesman for Old River Road establishments, is troubled by the reputation that some clubs employ aggressive bouncers. "We have done everything we can, through advertising and promotion, to get [patrons] in the front door," says Spencer, the owner of the Circus strip club, located across the street on Old River Road. "We take all their money, and then we turn around and beat the hell out of them. This is insanity. It should stop. It has to stop."

Among the Basement's alleged victims are tourists, a former Lumberjacks hockey player, an off-duty police officer, and a woman.

Typically, in cases involving bar patrons, charges get dismissed, dropped, or, if a plaintiff is lucky, settled for medical costs. Cops and juries are rarely sympathetic to patrons and witnesses who were drinking at the time of an alleged incident. Some people don't even bother to pursue claims against a club, instead chalking up their bruises to the cost of partying.

But the claims against the Basement are gaining serious attention.

•A Cuyahoga County Grand Jury earlier this month indicted five former employees of the Basement for attempted murder for a violent assault on patrons that occurred in the club in January 1999.

•Criminal assault charges are also pending against another five staff members, both former and current, including club owner Bauer.

•The Basement's security staff and Bauer's management are at the center of at least four lawsuits, including one in federal court that alleges, among other things, that some of the Basement staff members routinely used excessive force on clubgoers without cause, and that Bauer failed to do anything about it. (These lawsuits are expected to move to trial in the coming months.)

•The Cuyahoga County Prosecutor's Office, which conducted interviews with current and former employees and numerous other witnesses, continues to investigate these and other allegations as it prepares to prosecute former and current Basement employees.

These incidents at the Basement have prompted the Cleveland Police Department to review the actions of its own officers who have been employed off-duty by Bauer. The Basement has also become a catalyst for a larger change of policy: Police Chief Martin Flask is now considering recommending to the city's safety director -- who approves all off-duty work assignments -- that all requests by officers to work directly for bar and club owners be denied. Such a move would be unprecedented and would significantly change the way cops and club owners have long worked together.

Bauer and his lawyers will not comment on any aspect of the club or the pending criminal charges or lawsuits. A call to his home was returned by his attorney, James Wrentmore of Teamor & Associates, who initially agreed to meet with Scene, but later canceled after conferring with other attorneys working on Bauer's affairs.

The Prosecutor's Office, which issued a brief statement early this month announcing the attempted murder charges against the Basement employees, will not discuss any aspect of its investigation. And the litigants in Basement-related civil and federal lawsuits are not talking. Nonetheless, a telling picture can be constructed from police reports and court papers, and from interviews with attorneys who have represented former plaintiffs against the club, as well as with the police.

"I am embarrassed to admit, and I use that word very clearly and very distinctly, that I personally did not see any trends at the establishment," says Chief Flask. "But very clearly, in retrospect, there was a pattern of activity occurring at the Basement that I could have known about and should have known about, and I didn't."

Welcome to Cleveland

On a rainy Saturday night in January 1999, Michigan residents Delsean Littlejohn and Dustin Snodgrass came to the Flats to socialize with friends. Like most visitors, they planned to hit several clubs. During the evening, the two friends separated, with plans of finding each other at the end of the night. Around 2:30 on Sunday morning, as most clubs began locking up, 26-year-old Littlejohn went looking for his friend. Walking down Old River Road, he ducked into the Basement to see if Snodgrass was inside and to escape the rain.

Some staff members and patrons were lingering about. But before Littlejohn, who stands 5-foot-11 and weighs 185 pounds, could explain his intentions, he allegedly was struck by a bouncer near the door. According to Littlejohn's statement to police, he was then jumped by several others, dragged into a corner, and beaten.

"As we hit the ground, I had a number of people on top of me and all around me. I had two people actually gouging their fingers in my left eye, trying to rip my eye out of its socket," he would later tell a television reporter.

As this was taking place, Snodgrass happened by and immediately jumped into the fray. Instinctively, he tried to pull the bouncers off of his friend, but the 6-foot-2, 180-pound Snodgrass was no match. According to Snodgrass's statement to police, bouncers jumped him, then dragged him into another room and beat him, before he and Littlejohn were thrown out of the club onto the wet sidewalk.

Dazed, their heads and faces bleeding, the two sought medical treatment before contacting the police. (There were no police reports available from the night of the incident that contained the bouncers' account of the incident.)

Since their beatings, the two men have filed a federal lawsuit charging specific bouncers with assault and battery, and the club's owner, Gary Bauer, with negligence for his hiring and supervision of the bouncers.

The case is expected to go to trial this year. Perhaps then, both sides will be able to explain what it was about Snodgrass and Littlejohn's visit to the club that so alarmed the security staff.

Littlejohn and Snodgrass declined to comment on the extent of their injuries, their lawsuit, or any of the events surrounding their time in the Flats. Their attorneys also refused to discuss the case. "I'll sing like a bird when this is all over," says Snodgrass, who, according to his lawsuit, was more severely beaten than Littlejohn, requiring plastic surgery and extensive medical follow-up.

Earlier this month, a grand jury indicted five bouncers from the Basement for their participation in the Snodgrass-Littlejohn incident. Those charged with attempted murder, among other charges, are 27-year-old Mike Naegele of Parma; 24-year-old Jason Berman of Euclid; 25-year-old John Cramer of North Olmsted, who is a member of the U.S. Coast Guard; 26-year-old Kyle Bentley of Columbus; and 24-year-old Scott Koterba of Willoughby. (They have all pleaded not guilty. Naegele and Berman remain in jail, while the others have made bail.)

Even before the indictments, Basement attorneys handling the federal lawsuit anticipated action from the prosecutors. "The Cuyahoga County Prosecutor's Office has begun an intensive investigation into the facts underlying this case and has subpoenaed many individuals to testify before the Cuyahoga County Grand Jury," states a status report filed by defense counsel.

The prosecutor's investigation made some people nervous. Berman and Basement DJ Carl Coyne have been charged with intimidation of a grand jury member. The lawsuit filed by Snodgrass and Littlejohn specifically names Cramer, Naegele, and Berman, as well as Ashrad Mohammad of Cleveland Heights, the club's head of security at the time of the incident, for their actions in the incident.

A review of court documents suggests that Snodgrass and Littlejohn's attorneys are trying to prove that all of the staff members named in their lawsuit have been involved in similar incidents at the club before. Court papers charge that Mohammad, Naegele, Berman, Cramer, and others who are employed as security personnel "have engaged in a pattern of assaulting and battering [patrons] without provocation or just cause," and accuse the club owner of having constructive knowledge of the "incompetence" of staff.

The club employees named in the Snodgrass-Littlejohn case are, in fact, named in other criminal and civil cases, stemming from incidents that occurred before and after January 1999.

Slap Shots

Over the last several decades, the 53-year-old Bauer has had a stake in -- or some association with -- some of the most recognizable bars and clubs in Cleveland, including Noisemakers, Spanky's, and Club Coconuts. Some of his ventures fared well. Others, like his Bentley's Restaurant in Westlake, were not around long. Ironically, the phenomenal success of the Basement emerged from one of Bauer's failures, a piano bar called the Jelly Rolls Saloon, which originally occupied the space on Old River Road. After closing Jelly Rolls shortly after its 1993 opening, he cleared it out and added some garage-sale junk to test the casual hangout concept. The tactic worked: Young adults have been spending money there ever since.

The club's success has changed the East Bank of the Flats by attracting greater numbers of young adults to the club scene than before and spawning similar retro-themed clubs. The famous and infamous have visited the Basement, including local and nationally recognized sports figures. Among them were NBA star Charles Barkley, who was accused of assaulting a patron in 1996, but was later found not guilty of the charge by a Cuyahoga County jury; and ESPN broadcaster Gary Miller, arrested in 1997 after urinating out a club window onto a couple of off-duty police officers.

Few people outside the club are aware of the trouble John Craighead, a former Cleveland Lumberjacks hockey player, encountered in February of 1998.

Signed to the Jacks in 1997 as a left wing, Craighead was a punishing player on the ice, having learned to throw and to take punches as part of his sport. The 196-pound six-footer was once suspended for five games for leaving the penalty box to fight.

But the husband and father, who now plays hockey in Germany, claims in a pending lawsuit against the Basement that he was minding his own business when he was viciously beaten by the club's bouncers.

According to his lawsuit, Craighead and his sister were trying to leave the club around 1:30 a.m., but were blocked by a woman in the doorway talking to friends. To get by, he tapped the woman's shoulder and asked her to let him pass. The woman knocked his hand away and started yelling at him, then attempted to slap and kick him. Craighead's sister intervened by standing between the two. That's when the club's bouncers allegedly grabbed the then-28-year-old Craighead and his sister, and shoved them outside, where bouncers began beating Craighead.

Craighead claims in his lawsuit and in a statement given to police that he was defending himself, but was overpowered by bouncers who began grabbing his neck, arms, and body, while other bouncers punched and kicked him in the face, head, and groin. One bouncer allegedly sprayed Craighead and his sister in the face with a pepper-spray-type chemical substance.

Named in Craighead's suit, among others, is bouncer John Cramer, indicted for attempted murder for his participation in the assaults of Snodgrass and Littlejohn. Craighead claims he received a fractured nose and severe bruises to his face and head from the beatings, and that he suffered from post-traumatic headaches, blurred vision, and difficult breathing as a result of the attack.

Because of the unavailability of a statement by Cramer or the others named in the suit, it is not clear exactly what happened.

Craighead's attorney, Ray Grabow, dismisses the argument that Craighead, a hockey player with a reputation as a fighter, is a likely candidate to be involved in a fight off the ice. "The bouncers always tell the same story -- that they were just reacting to the aggressor. But he was just down there with his sister," he says. "We are preparing to go forward to the trial's completion. We are not only suing for damages for Craighead and his wife [for loss of consortium], but to put an end to the obnoxious activities taking place at the Basement."

Despite those alleged activities, the Basement is doing well. So well that Bauer, who's described by industry insiders as a "very hands-on manager," has talked of franchising the idea in Akron and at college campuses. He appears to be living comfortably off its success and that of his other club ventures. Last year, he purchased a $360,000 home in the tony Red Hook golf-course development in Avon.

But he still faces legal and business challenges. Earlier this month, Bauer closed his popular after-hours techno dance club Aqua per an agreement he struck with the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor's Office, which was preparing to shut down the club with a nuisance claim for drug trafficking. On six separate occasions in the last year, undercover vice cops purchased Ecstasy in the club. Cops made 10 arrests -- during which they also confiscated heroin and cocaine -- and are preparing charges against three additional men, including a club employee.

Last month, Bauer was indicted for allegedly participating in the September 1998 assault on Cleveland police officer Robert Collins, who was a patron at the Basement. Following the incident, Collins sued the Basement for assault. His case is expected to come to trial this year. (Collins's attorney recently amended his complaint to add charges that the club was negligent in hiring and supervising its employees.)

According to the original complaint and a police report, Collins was on the second floor of the club near closing time when he was grabbed around the neck by a bouncer who yelled, "You're out of here." Collins says in the report that he identified himself as a police officer and flashed his badge, but the bouncer continued to hold him and push him toward a staircase, where, Collins claims, the 5-foot-10, 170-pound Bauer grabbed him by the throat and began choking him while also pushing him down the stairs.

In addition to Bauer, the County Prosecutor's Office charged 210-pound club bouncer Michael Barto with felonious assault for his participation in the incident. (Statements from Bauer and Barto about the incident were not available, but a defense response in Collins's civil claim states Barto is not the right guy.)

Following the filing of charges against Bauer, Cleveland Police Chief Flask recommended that approval of all off-duty police assignments for Bauer be rescinded.

"As a matter of law, we can't engage in secondary employment with an individual who is under indictment," explains Flask. "There were eight or nine officers who listed the Basement or Club Aqua as the place of their secondary employment."

Flask says that Internal Affairs is monitoring the status of Collins's case and more. "Actually, they are continuing to make inquiries into the officers who were employed by the Basement, to see whether or not they could have or should have taken different actions than what has been reported," he says. "At the bars themselves, there are some allegations of inappropriate behavior and conduct that have risen to the surface that make us take a step back and look at whether we want our officers engaged in employment in any way linked to a bar."

Presently, police officers are free to work off-duty for individual bar and club owners. City regulations, though, prohibit them from working inside, but allow them to work at the door and around surrounding premises. Flask questions whether there should be any link between officers and the clubs.

Many Cleveland police officers work as part of a Flats security force organized by Spencer, the Cleveland firefighter and club owner, who collects money from bar owners to pay for the cops.

Flask says he would like to see an organization like the Flats Oxbow Association, a nonprofit group concerned with development along the river, take responsibility for security issues, eliminating the department's ties to the clubs. (Traditionally, Flats Oxbow has been hands-off when it comes to security issues.)

Spencer, a Flats club owner for 20 years, says the problem is not related to the cops or his hiring practices, but lies with individual owners who hire aggressive bouncers and don't regulate their actions. The solution, he says, is in better training and, perhaps, licensing of club security personnel.

The practice of hiring aggressive bouncers has to come to an end, he says. "The only way to stop it is the training and licensing, and make these people responsible for their actions."

No doubt Karen Jamieson would agree. She is another Basement patron trying to hold the club accountable for the actions of its staff. In a lawsuit filed last summer for an incident that occurred in May 1999 -- just months after the Snodgrass-Littlejohn incident -- she claims she was assaulted by 24-year-old cocktail waitress Michelle Hace and her boyfriend Ashrad Mohammad -- the club's head of security, who was a named defendant in the Snodgrass-Littlejohn lawsuit.

In addition to claiming that they slapped, kicked, punched, and beat her, she alleges they threatened to have her arrested and "forcibly restrained and imprisoned [Jamieson] by holding her on the floor in one of the rooms, preventing her from leaving."

Her suit claims that the bar had a pattern of assaults, and that Hace and Mohammad were "known by general reputation to be bellicose . . . and the Basement failed and neglected to make any appropriate inquiries with respect to the character, temperament, and temper of Hace and Mohammad."

In a police report filed the day after the incident, Hace disputes all of Jamieson's allegations. She maintains Jamieson attacked her, leaving her with a swollen eye. According to Hace's statement, Jamieson first grabbed her arm, then swung a beer bottle at her before punching her in the face. Hace's statement says Jamieson conspired in the attack with another patron of the bar, who had previously threatened Hace. The police report says club security escorted Jamieson out of the club after she hit Hace, and the witness -- Mohammad -- stated that he heard Jamieson and her friend plot against Hace.

According to court records, Jamieson was in fact charged with assaulting Hace, but after further investigation, the charges were dismissed. (Hace and Mohammad failed to appear in court to present their case.) Although it is not clear from the available police report and lawsuit exactly what happened, Hace and Mohammad were indicted for the assault. They have pleaded not guilty and filed a counterclaim to Jamieson's civil suit.

This incident is also under review by police, because the officer who took the report had been employed off-duty by Bauer.

It will be some time before this and the other cases are sorted out by the courts. In the meantime, the Basement and other clubs along Old River Road prepare for the significantly bigger crowds that come with the summer months.

No doubt they will have to hire more bouncers to keep the peace.

Mark Naymik can be reached at [email protected].

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