Sunday, February 20, 2000

Unfair to drug pushers




BY PETER BRONSON
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Courtroom 360 at the Hamilton County Courthouse is the cavernous, red-draped kingdom of Judge Thomas Crush, who sometimes seems to almost disappear as he leans farther and farther back in his padded black-leather chair, gaining every extra inch of distance from the inexhaustible source of his perpetual annoyance, lawyers.

        Judge Crush has the world's best name for a judge. He also has the world's largest oil paintings, bigger than a life sentence. They are quite good, painted by his wife, Sandra Crush. Flanking the judge are George Washington, Abe Lincoln, U.S. Grant, “Black Jack” Pershing and Cincinnatus, the Roman god of stadium cost overruns.

        On Wednesday, as the colorful portraits looked down on the courtroom in stern and silent reproach, I thought I saw Abe Lincoln wince and George Washington shake his head in disgust.

        The City of Cincinnati was seeking a permanent injunction to keep the doors padlocked on a hangout of drug pushers.

        The dive near Findlay Market in Over-The-Rhine was called The Elder Cafe. The name sounds like the kind of place where Presbyterian church leaders meet for cucumber sandwiches. Trust me: Any church elders found in this joint would be seeking crack, not Christ.

        “It was the worst situation encountered by the police in District 1, the worst encountered by neighbors, the worst encountered by businesses and their customers,” said Mark Vollman of the city solicitor's office in his opening argument.

        “There was an inordinate, ungodly amount of manpower put on the Elder Cafe by police,” he said.

        “In the 38 days before it was boarded up, there were 22 arrests in and outside the Elder Cafe. On five different occasions, police recovered drugs from the floor of the bar.”

        He explained: “When an officer walks in — bang, everything hits the floor.”

        Cincinnati cops described undercover drug busts, such as the time they made two drug buys within 15 minutes of entering the bar.

        Neighbors and police had complained for months, including a two-hour litany of gripes at an Ohio Liquor Control Commission hearing in July 1998.

        And through it all, the owner, Jerome J. Grogan, simply showed up each day to count his cash and depart by 10 a.m., Mr. Vollman said. It was a lot of cash.

        And when police sought to clean up The Elder Cafe, “There was absolutely no cooperation out of Mr. Grogan,” Mr. Vollman said.

        In 1998, police made 130 radio calls to the bar. After one of the Elder “regulars” was shot to death as he stood at the bar in January, 1999, police finally moved in and closed it down on Feb. 25, 1998.

        Neighbors, business owners and their customers had two words: “Thank God.”

        Mr. Grogan and his lawyers had just one word: “Unfair.”

        On the first day of the trial, Mr. Grogan's lawyers popped up and down like prairie dogs yipping “objection.” Judge Crush seemed to lean a bit farther back each time he said “overruled.”

        “This was a politically motivated closure of a legitimate neighborhood bar that happens to be located in a high crime area,” said attorney Eric Holzapfel. “The city is seeking to give the impression it is attacking drug activity in Over-the-Rhine. The Elder Cafe is a scapegoat.”

        His lawyers insist Mr. Grogan never “knowingly acquiesced and participated” in the public nuisance of drug felonies and other crimes that filled his bar and spilled into the streets like the smell of stale smoke and spilled beer.

        “The police never informed him it was drug arrests,” the lawyers said.

        Maybe he thought the cops were just designated drivers to escort his customers safely to the nearest crack house.

        Cincinnati taxpayers have spent $14 million to clean up Findlay Market. If the city wants to “create the impression” that it is attacking drug dealing in the neighborhood, bring it on.

        As I left, the case against Mr. Grogan's bar lurched slowly over pothole objections. The Elder Cafe has already lost its liquor license. I hope they lose this round too, so they can't collect damages from taxpayers for “unfairly” cleaning up a neighborhood.

        The preposterous claim that a drug pushers' hangout is not a public nuisance is enough to make Abe and George turn a sickly shade of green.

        Peter Bronson is editorial page editor of The Enquirer. If you have questions or comments, e-mail letters@enquirer.com, call (513) 768-8301, or write to 312 Elm Street, Cincinnati, Ohio 45202.