In the wake of last week’s murder and wounding of a V.I. police officer just outside Front Line Bar in Calquohoun, a group of neighbors is gathering signatures asking that the bar’s license be revoked, citing last year’s closure of Metropolis Lounge as precedent.
On April 19, at least five men lay in wait outside Front Line Bar and shot and killed 32-year-old Matthew Vernege Jr. They also shot an off-duty officer after he ordered them to put down their weapons. Five men have been arrested and charged with first degree murder.
On Tuesday, the Calquohoun Mt. Pleasant Neighborhood Association sent emails to the press saying they were circulating a petition and had more than 100 signatures of area residents asking that Front Line Bar be shut down due to chronic problems with noise and violence.
In an email sent by Miguel Quinones, the group argued the bar "has destroyed the very fabric of our
Community," and makes appeals to the Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs, the V.I. Police Department, the governor and the Legislature to take action to close the establishment.
The group also appeals to the "owners of 1-C Estate Calquohoun, St. Croix; the heirs of Don Marcelino ‘Vieques En St. Croix’ Santiago,” the bar’s former owner and “a respected civic leader within the Hispanic-Crucian community."
Quinones and the neighborhood group cite Licensing and Consumer Affairs’ license revocation of the Metropolis Lounge on St. Thomas in 2013 as precedent. In that case, DLCA held administrative hearings after several complaints were filed about criminal activity.
All those incidents prompted Police Commissioner Rodney Querrard to ask Licensing and Consumer Affairs Commissioner Wayne Biggs Jr. to take action to close the establishment to prevent it from further facilitating criminal activity and endangering patrons. And after an administrative hearing at which the club owner testified, DLCA yanked its license. (See related links below)
Reached Tuesday for comment, Biggs said DLCA could not revoke a license solely because of a complaint or a petition, and that any action of that sort would be initiated by the police, as he said was the case with Metropolis Lounge.
"We don’t just move in to close a business down," Biggs said. "What happens is, first the police give us information that there is a problem. And then we have to have an administrative hearing before the license is revoked, so it is not something we just swoop in and do.”
“It is egregious to remove someone’s license so we have to go to a judge and get a ruling first," he said. At the hearing, the business has an opportunity to defend itself, he said. But "if any business indeed represents a public safety issue to the community and we have the evidence to support it, we will move to suspend or revoke the business license," he added.
In the Metropolis Lounge case, police provided Licensing and Consumer Affairs with a history of complaints, Biggs said, "and we were successful in making the case it was a public safety issue and revoke the license."
Licensing and Consumer Affairs works very closely with the VIPD on these issues, and the Police Department is looking closely at this case, Biggs said. At the same time a single complaint or single incident "does not mean they would close the club," he said.
Police are looking into the club, VIPD Public Information Officer Melody Rames confirmed Tuesday. But Rames would not speculate on what the likely outcome of that investigation might be.
"The commissioner requested a history of criminal incidents at the place and he will go from there," Rames said.
A cursory analysis of news stories about Metropolis Lounge and about Front Line Bar suggest the two cases are similar in some respects. When Metropolis Lounge was closed, officials said that over the last several years, an illegal gun was recovered at Metropolis Lounge; one man choked his ex-girlfriend, and another man assaulted a girlfriend by poking her in the face, according to DLCA.
On Dec. 8, 2012, a man was fatally shot in the Metropolis parking lot and, a month later, the establishment had to be evacuated at 3:30 in the morning because of a bomb threat.
These incidents were cited by Querrard when he asked Biggs to take action to close Metropolis. The administrative judge who ordered the closure said the owner had taken corrective measures, but those measures did not eliminate the violent incidents.
A search of the Source archives suggests Front Line is at least as troublesome as, if not more violent than, Metropolis. In addition to last week’s ambush slaying, there was also a 2011 shooting death, a 2009 nonfatal shooting of three, and a 2004 shooting fatality at Front Line. And one corrections officer arrested for "simple possession of a controlled substance."
In a phone conversation Tuesday evening, Quinones said he had spoken with one of the owners of Front Line, an heir who passively partially owns the property and lives in Florida, and was encouraged. "She appeared genuinely concerned and spoke of doing the right thing, so I had a good feeling about that," he said. A group of family members own the property, while another individual runs the bar, Quinones said. He was not certain of the name of the owner.
Told that police have begun to look into the establishment but had no comment yet, Quinones said he could accept that. “I’m excited to hear that they have started,” he said.
“We will see where this investigation leads but it is not to be bandaged over," he added.
Asked if anything short of closing the establishment would be sufficient, Quinones said he preferred closure. "I don’t know any way they can mitigate our complaints short of closing down but we are willing to entertain the idea," he said, noting the long history of loud noise and violent incidents make him dubious.
"As a matter of fact, the weekend after this last shooting, they had the same sort of big all night party they always do, as if nothing had happened, as if no one had been shot dead there a couple days earlier," he said. "It is in our community and we certainly have a right to some peace, some quiet, some safety and less drug trafficking."