SARATOGA SPRINGS – As one of the hottest attractions in the downtown bar district, Gaffney’s restaurant and bar has long been on the radar of city officials for late-night disturbances.
It’s only six weeks into 2022 and the longtime nightspot has already gotten off to a rocky start with two alarming incidents.
On Jan. 5, city police released a news statement that said a 28-year-old patron of Gaffney’s had been stabbed in his torso inside the business during the early hours of New Year’s Day.
Three weeks later, the entertainment venue was on the defensive end of an assault, when an Albany man who’d been thrown out of the bar clashed with bouncers.
The ousted patron allegedly picked up a heavy metal stanchion and bashed it into a bouncer’s face, police said.
However, when asked about the recent troubles, Gaffney’s attorney Sarah Burger and its co-owner, Ryan Venezia, suggested the business is being picked on.
During a recent interview, they said the New Year’s Eve patron had been stabbed before he set foot in the business.
Burger, a former attorney for the city under former Mayor Joanne Yepsen, accused local police of putting out a false narrative that was defamatory and damaging to her client’s reputation.
“Nobody was stabbed at Gaffney’s,” she said. “That’s not what happened, and they know it, and they said it to our security guards.”
Police Lt. Laura Emanatian, the department spokesman, dismissed the claim.
“Yeah, prove it,” she said.
“If you look at where our officers are typically posted — in the downtown ‘gut area’ we call it — a lot of the officers catch the fights as they’re rolling out of the bars,” Emanatian said. “They would have noticed the guy bleeding before he went into Gaffney’s.”
Venezia, the Gaffney’s co-owner, countered that it would have been easy to miss an injured man entering the bar in a crowd, since he was not bleeding profusely.
“With the amount of people on a New Year’s Eve, nobody’s gonna notice a small speck of something on someone’s shirt,” the co-owner said.
Burger said the real story is that violence is on the rise everywhere, including on airplanes. The lawyer said people are increasingly entering bars with knives in cities like Saratoga Springs, Albany, Boston and New York City.
“Gaffney’s is doing full-on pat-downs and taking weapons all the time,” she said.
In the other recent incident, Gaffney’s security staff fought with two combative patrons from Albany just after 3 a.m. on Jan. 23, according to arresting documents.
Burger said a bartender refused to serve one of the men, who had entered Gaffney’s clearly intoxicated.
The man began to throw objects, Burger said, and security guards escorted him out.
The drama didn’t end there, according to documents in court:
Nazir Ross, 25, of Albany, allegedly tried to strike and kick several Gaffney’s security guards, causing a crowd to gather, according to arresting documents.
Ross, who was due to appear in city court last week, picked up the metal stanchion and struck one of the security guards in his face, causing the bouncer to bleed profusely. He suffered a broken nose.
Ross was charged with assault with intent to cause physical injury while using a weapon, criminal possession of a weapon, with a third previous conviction, obstructing governmental administration in the second degree, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct.
He was ordered to stay away from Gaffney’s.
A co-defendant, Aame R. Johnson, 27, of Albany, also fought with members of Gaffney’s security staff and was charged with obstructing governmental administration in the second degree and disorderly conduct.
Anyone would agree that Gaffney’s hadn’t sought trouble in either incident.
But, if anything, the incidents are indicative of just how busy the business keeps city police, the department spokesman suggested.
According to Emanation, city police responded to more than 60 documented incidents at 16 Caroline St. during 2021.
Not all of the incidents are releasable, as some are protected information due to the nature of the event, some are sealed as a court process, and some are currently in litigation, Emanatian said.
Emanatian added that city police work closely with bar owners and the New York State Liquor Authority each year to set a standard for safety.
Former Mayor Meg Kelly hosted two meetings last year with the SLA and city business owners. One was attended by Gaffney’s owners and the other was not, Emanatian said.
“We continue to work for the community to keep everyone safe. It is through collaboration and cooperation with all parties that we are able to achieve this goal,” she said in a statement.
In an interview shortly after the Ross-Johnson incident, Emanatian was asked if violence at Gaffney’s was a big concern for the city.
She said: “If you were to maybe give consideration to where this incident happened, and where the majority of our incidents are occurring, there are some issues in this location, and there are some things that should really be addressed and taken into account. I don’t know if that happens with the bar owners or the people that we’re attracting to the bars, or what time of day these incidents are happening. There’s a lot of things that come into play — and the resources that it draws from our organization is tremendous. It’s just a constant.”
Public Safety Commissioner James Montagnino said he’s been told that part of the concern is Gaffney’s late-night deejay is known to play “gangster rap,” and that it draws patrons from places like the shuttered Pearl Street Pub in Albany.
“That’s fine if you’re here just to enjoy yourself,” Montagnino said, while cautioning that he doesn’t have a first-hand account of those dynamics.
“But what I’m told is that there are some unsavory characters who enjoy the gangster rap, and late on a Saturday night tempers sometimes flare.”
Montagnino said he’s just beginning to grapple with concerns about the business.
“A lot of people have come up to me and said that all the cops are picking on Gaffney’s, and why are they picking on Gaffney’s? I don’t think it’s that they’re picking on them. But that’s where the hotspot is.”
The tougher question, Montagnino said, is how does the city address the problem of people who are coming to the city looking for trouble.
During the peak of tourism in the city, Gaffney’s has as many as 25 private security guards on staff to handle massive crowds, Montagnino noted.
“It’s hard to fault them for that. But it’s a problem that needs to get addressed. And as I’m sitting here, I wish I had the answers at the top of my head. But I certainly think I have some of the questions — which are, what are the things that might be inviting the people who are looking for trouble, and is there a way of keeping people who are looking for trouble out of the city? Because people who look for trouble find it. And we’d rather not have it here.”
Burger called Montagnino’s statements about gangster rap “ignorant — and they sound racist, to be very blunt.”
Montagnino disagreed, and said he was at “a loss of words” at the suggestion, considering the music genre is known to extoll violence. The commissioner said he considers Burger a friend, but understands her responsibility to represent her client.
Venezia wondered why the recent events at Gaffney’s were even newsworthy, given the expanse of his business drawing a couple of thousand attendees per week.
“There’s probably 20-plus establishments on Caroline Street,” he said. “Obviously Gaffney’s is one of the bigger ones just by sheer volume, and the numbers,” he said. “It’s going to have the most amount of people not being served, the most amount of people that are going to be asked to leave. It’s one of the biggest establishments on the street — if not the biggest — in serving and having the most amount of people through the doors. It’s going to involve the most amount of people that are going to leave maybe unhappy because they’re not being served.”
Said Burger: “I feel like the police department’s job is to investigate a crime when a crime has occurred — like an assault or a stabbing — and get to the truth. And so, the truth is that that stabbing did not happen in Gaffney’s. The truth is, unfortunately, that a patron that was highly intoxicated assaulted one of our security guards.”
Emanatian said there’s not much police can do to prevent incidents inside private establishments. But the police will maintain their nighttime presence outside the bars, she said.
“We always try to take care of the small problems before they become big problems,” she said.
Contact reporter Brian Lee at [email protected] or 518-419-9766.