Schenectady County

Bennett: Schenectady’s dangerous “private parties” need to be addressed

A group that resembles “organized crime” has hosted all three private parties at which men were shot

A group that resembles “organized crime” has hosted all three private parties at which men were shot dead, Public Safety Commissioner Wayne Bennett and City Councilman Gary McCarthy said.

At Monday’s City Council meeting, they offered details about three shootings — at the Shanghai Bistro, Tip Toe Inn and Aquarius — to drum up support for a new law that would allow police to better control private parties.

Bennett said the group created a guest list and allowed only those on the list to enter each party. The organizers also brought in their own alcohol, which they sold behind the bar — a violation of state liquor laws. Bennett said the group also allowed an atmosphere of such rowdiness that on several occasions gunfire was exchanged. The parties eventually claimed the lives of John W. Johnson, Jumez Lee and Ronnie Crenshaw III.

Johnson was killed at the Shanghai Bistro on Sept. 14, 2007. The other two men were killed this year; Lee at the former Tip Toe Inn on Jan. 25 and Crenshaw at the closed Aquarius topless bar on April 25. Two arrests have been made in the Crenshaw killing; none have been made in the other two.

Bennett said a core group organized each party and, in some cases, “deceived” the property owners into believing that the parties would not include alcohol. They sold large amounts of alcohol at each party, Bennett said, citing the scene his officers found when they responded to the shots fired at Aquarius last month.

“When the cops arrived, they were in the process of loading that booze into private vehicles,” he said.

As they loaded their wine and beer, Crenshaw lay dead in the parking lot. His brother lay nearby, wounded.

It was at least the third location used by the organizers, with the previous two being closed to them after the deaths of Johnson and Lee, Bennett said.

“It’s moving from one location to another,” Bennett said, adding that he could only confirm that the organizers changed locations — he would not say whether the guests remained the same at each site.

“These people are. in many cases, not welcome at established businesses, possibly because of reputation,” Bennett said.

So they began looking for bars to rent for weekend parties.

McCarthy said their first target was the Shanghai Bistro.

“The holders of the liquor license [at the Shanghai Bistro], which were good people, weren’t making much money with the restaurant, so they were leasing it out on weekends,” McCarthy said. “You can’t do that — with the license, you have to maintain control.”

Allowing renters to sell alcohol was a violation of their liquor license, Bennett said. The owners lost their license after police reported the matter.

Parties move

So the group moved their parties to the Tip Toe Inn, a building that had been closed for years, Bennett said. They operated there, still without their own liquor license, until Lee was killed.

“There was illegal serving of alcoholic beverages by people who don’t have the right to do it,” Bennett said. “If you don’t have a license to lose, you have nothing to lose. There’s no discipline. People can get far more intoxicated.”

And police were helpless to act.

They could not raid the building unless they could prove, without going inside, that some sort of illegal activity was going on, Bennett said. In other words, unless they saw someone drinking outside, they could not walk through the door.

“We can go into licensed bars. I don’t think we have that authority if they say, ‘This is a private gathering,’ ” Bennett explained to the council. “Is it not like a private home, where the cops are going to need some evidence?”

He called the “private party” description a “ruse” designed to keep police out.

McCarthy proposed that the council create a new law requiring a permit for all private parties in commercial buildings.

Bennett said the permit would allow police to inspect any party — and the lack of a permit would allow police to enter because the lack proved the group was breaking a law.

He urged the council to create a permit.

“You have to do something, when people are routinely using ruses,” he said. “This has to be discouraged. This is going to become more and more of an issue. We have to address this.”

McCarthy added that the situation is already serious.

“This comes very close to becoming organized crime,” he said. “They’ve set up to circumvent the liquor control laws. We need to create an environment that discourages this and allows the Police Department to shut them down immediately when they find them.”

Bennett agreed with McCarthy’s comparison to organized crime.

“The word ‘organized’ is correct. It may not be national players, but there is a core group,” he said.

The council plans to hold a public hearing on the permit proposal as early as June 8 if the law department can draw up legislation that quickly.

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