Club Crave Nuisance Case Moves Slowly

By Bill Dries

The Shelby County District Attorney General’s office and attorneys for the owners of Club Crave have been talking privately since prosecutors got the court order that closed the Beale Street nightspot during the Christmas holidays as a public nuisance.

But they still couldn’t agree on a trial date for the matter Monday, Jan. 7, in a second try by General Sessions Environmental Court Judge Larry Potter to set one.

Potter gathered attorneys on all sides in his chambers Monday morning after the sides couldn’t agree Friday in open court on a trial date.

“You may have noticed it has not been easy,” Potter said Friday after five attorneys gathered at the bench. “We have failed.”

But Monday, all sides agreed to a Jan. 16 deadline to file motions.

Prosecutors are seeking to close the club at 380 Beale St. permanently. George Miller, who controls the property that is owned by Beale Street Development Corp., according to the Shelby County Assessor, as well as the club owners who are leasing the space from Miller, are fighting the attempt to close it permanently. Miller evicted previous club owners who rented from him for the same problems.

Potter anticipated a full trial to get to “the difficulties of the issue” and talked of possibly moving the hearing from his courtroom in the Criminal Justice Center to the Shelby County Courthouse.

“We’re always negotiating trying to work out some sort of settlement,” said Assistant District Attorney Robert Ratton after Friday’s court session. “I can’t talk about what they are or what they might be. We’ll see what happens.”

“It’s just frustrating that we can’t resolve this quickly because there are lots of conflicts involved,” said Robert Wampler, attorney for Miller, who has separate legal counsel from the club owners. “I think we can at some point. But we can’t today.”

Assistant District Attorney Paul Hagerman was quick to add that his office’s goal is still to close Crave permanently and includes Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr.’s call to demolish the building.

“Those remain our goals,” he said. “The club remains closed. Ideas are always welcome. … We’re always listening.”

In most nuisance petitions some kind of settlement is announced with property owners after the initial court appearance and the settlement with conditions, including a pledge and specific steps to work at discouraging all illegal activity on the property, is then made formal.

The other high profile nightspot with a history of violence targeted by a nuisance petition was Denim and Diamonds, 5353 Mendenhall Road, in the Mendenhall Square shopping center.

The western-themed nightclub drew large and very different crowds on weekend nights including a Sunday night event called “Soul Night” in which the club was leased to organizers of the once a week gathering in the late 1990s.

Soul Night was what drew the attention of Memphis Police brass who several times blocked all but one exit on the parking lot on Sunday evenings and checked those funneling through the checkpoint for warrants or indications of gang activity.

At times the crowd on the parking lot would be twice what could fill the club to capacity.

Club owners argued they weren’t responsible for what happened on the parking lot, including several homicides, and touted security measures that included metal detectors and a private security force with helmets and riot batons used inside the club that they referred to as a “SWAT team.”

Even after the club owners dropped Soul Night, the violence continued and in 2003 then-District Attorney General Bill Gibbons targeted the club for permanent closure. It was Gibbons who began the use of the state nuisance statute in 2002 to attack such problems and the use of the statute has continued under his successor, Amy Weirich.

Potter made the injunction closing Denim and Diamonds permanently in 2003. The injunction enjoined the owners at the time and any future owners from operating a nightclub “any other business similar to its previous operation at said location, or any business that supports any such operation.”

Platinum Plus, a strip club at 2514 Mount Moriah Road, was closed permanently in 2005 on a nuisance petition that was paired with a federal criminal investigation of the club’s ownership that included several undercover police officers in the club. The club’s owner, Ralph Lunati, was sentenced to 18 months in prison after he pleaded guilty to a federal charge of conspiracy to commit racketeering. Federal authorities seized the club as part of the criminal case and later sold the property and contents of the club at auction.