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Club owners and the ABC are about to duke it out over who's responsible for controlling drug use.

Agony and Ecstasy

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Richmond's club owners, now more than ever, are fearing for their businesses.

Recently, they've been vexed by the apparent proliferation of ecstasy and other drugs in Richmond nightclubs. And now they're fretting over a crackdown by local law enforcement.

None of them want to end up like Cafine's, the popular downtown dance club that closed weeks ago after the landlord pulled its lease, in part because of the owners' civil and criminal drug-related charges. Charges against co-owner Doug Heller were dropped last month because of lack of evidence. Co-owner Todd Boyd was never implicated in any of the civil or criminal charges.

Cafine's was the first case in what has become Operation Ex-Clubs, a five-month-long undercover investigation by Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control and state and local police designed to curb drug activity, particularly ecstasy use, wherever it's suspected. And increasingly it is being suspected in and especially linked to, nightclubs and dance clubs.

Often, the clubs the ABC has targeted cater largely to gays — something that hasn't escaped notice in the gay community. (The ABC vehemently denies that it's targeting any group other than drug users.)

The Ex-Clubs investigation resulted in a multijurisdictional grand jury and the subsequent drug-related arrests of nine individuals on Feb. 9. Nearly half of them, though, were later acquitted.

But the real targets of the ongoing sting appear to be not merely individuals but the clubs themselves.

And law enforcement officials are using everything in their power to shut the businesses down, including ABC hearings to determine whether the club's license should be forfeited and public-health ordinances like local nuisance laws imposed on nightclubs with a history of drug problems.

The ABC argues that ecstasy is hurting people. So far, the recent increase in ecstasy use hasn't sparked a surge in hospitalizations. A spokesman for Virginia Commonwealth University's Medical College of Virginia Hospitals says that from January to March 2001, seven people were treated in the emergency room for ecstasy overdoses. That's compared with 66 for cocaine, 60 for heroin, 14 for marijuana and 124 for other drugs.

No one is in the middle of the immediate mess more than Ted Kastanos, owner of Fahrenheit. His club is one of the next to face ABC administrative charges from the undercover investigation. Kastanos has hired defense attorney Paul Buckwalter and a former Richmond assistant commonwealth's attorney, Trip Chalkley, to represent him and Fahrenheit in an administrative hearing with the ABC.

Kastanos has not been implicated in any way for drug use or distribution, but the ABC's charges — the same accusations it leveled at Cafine's — allege the club has become a meeting place for the sale of narcotics. An ABC hearing to determine whether action will be taken against the club's liquor license is scheduled for May 17.

Buckwalter and Chalkley say the ABC charges are baloney. Their client, Kastanos, they say, has a strictly enforced no-drug policy that includes throwing out and even suing any suspected drug user. Kastanos has one lawsuit pending in Richmond Circuit Court against one former patron convicted of selling cocaine at Fahrenheit.

Kastanos' attorneys point out that the club has hired off-duty deputy sheriffs; until recently, one or two deputies have been on the premises every night the club is open. Even so, they argue, a club owner can't possibly know the criminal histories and behaviors of every club-goer.

"To the owner of a bar, a person coming in having used cocaine or ecstasy looks no different from anybody else," Chalkley says.

"Under the ABC's interpretation if Daryl Strawberry, Robert Downey Jr., Marion Barry or Chuck Richardson came to the door, he wouldn't be able to let any one of them in," adds Buckwalter.

The attorneys are calling foul, claiming the ABC is abusing its powers as a state agency at the expense of law-abiding citizens.

Buckwalter and Chalkley accuse the ABC of "club profiling" and aligning itself with convicted felons, acting as informers, to seal drug deals and validate the investigation.

And they accuse Operation Ex-Clubs of being nothing more than an attempt to score public-relations points with officials and the public however they can.

They say the ABC, not their client, has contributed to the escalating drug climate in some Richmond clubs. "The only alleged illegal activity happened when the ABC sent someone in to solicit a particular drug," Chalkley says.

According to the ABC's report on Fahrenheit, ABC special agents using at least one unidentified confidential informer were able to purchase cocaine and ecstasy six times from September 2000 through January 2001. As a result of that investigation, two people were arrested Feb. 9. Two of the transactions did not take place inside Fahrenheit.

As a result, Buckwalter adds, "[Fahrenheit] is painted as a drug haven." And that designation, say the lawyers, already has cost Kastanos thousands and thousands of dollars for everything from hiring a new security consultant to attorney fees. What hasn't been factored in yet is whether the allegations will have a lasting impact on business.

But most egregious to Kastanos, say the lawyers, is that the owner was never informed that the ABC was looking for drugs. If there were a drug problem at Fahrenheit, they contend, Kastanos should have been asked to be part of the solution.

Becky Gettings, public affairs director for the Virginia ABC, says the agency anticipated some "mud slinging" from targeted clubs and owners when Operation Ex-Clubs began.

Gettings says Kastanos wasn't notified because "ABC enforcement doesn't notify targets of investigation that they are under investigation." In addition, she says, ABC doesn't "station" agents to help their licensees in cleaning up their mess. "That is up to them," says Gettings.

Gettings concedes she's heard that some people think Operation Ex-Clubs is targeted at gay-owned or gay-friendly clubs, while some say that federal money was available to the department if it aggressively pursued and stopped ecstasy use.

Gettings says the ABC isn't targeting any particular group or club but simply is committed to "going where the drugs are." And Gettings emphasizes that no federal money is involved in the operation. As for using felons as confidential informers, Gettings says, "Most enforcement agencies use similar profiles of informants. If we took someone off a church pew and sent him in to buy drugs, who would go for it?"

Still, Buckwalter hammers the relationship between ABC special agents and confidential informers. "It chills me to think the ABC talks zero tolerance and then aligns itself with drug dealers for months and months and months," he says.

So far, the success of Operation Ex-Clubs appears to be mixed. Cafine's is closed, but that's more the result of its landlord's decision to call in the lease than any direct action taken by law enforcement. Another club, Casablanca on East Grace Street, has an ABC hearing May 10.

Buckwalter and Chalkley insist their client has been wronged by a state agency too shortsighted to ask for his help. "There was no smoke," says Chalkley. "The ABC supplied the stick and the

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