Nightclub tightens security with background checks

2010-09-14T14:00:00Z 2010-09-14T14:16:56Z Nightclub tightens security with background checksColey Ward Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
September 14, 2010 2:00 pm  • 

Editor's note: This story first appeared Sunday as an exclusive for our print readers.

Think of it as a "Very Innocent Person" plan.

In response to a murder in its parking lot in August, Pearl Nightclub is requiring some would-be customers to submit to a background check before they enter.

Pearl general manager Damian Calderon said Pearl's guards ask people to submit to a background check if they don't meet the club's dress code, which prohibits baggy clothing, athletic wear, flip-flops, work boots or plain-colored T-shirts.

The online searches are done on the Arizona Judicial Branch's website.

People without recent felony convictions - "recent" isn't clearly defined - are issued a VIP card, which entitles them to free admission on the night in question. On subsequent visits, showing the VIP card and a valid ID will get them to the front of the line.

But if a background check turns up a recent felony conviction, they're not allowed in.

"If an older guy did something when he was 18, am I going to keep him out? No," Calderon said. "But if it was last month? Yes."

Pearl, formerly The Keys, is a 20,000-square-foot club divided into four areas: Touch, a semiprivate ultra lounge; Element, an outdoor bar and lounge; Mantra, a dance room with an oxygen bar; and Orchid, the restaurant.

The club is located in a strip mall at 445 W. Wetmore Road.

Anthony Duron, 21, was shot to death in Pearl's parking lot in August when someone fired into a crowd. Four other people were injured, including a Pearl security guard.

After the shooting, Pearl's owner Luke Cusack offered a $10,000 reward to anyone with information that led to the killer's capture. So far, no one has been arrested.

Cusack says the background checks take one minute or less.

So far, only men have been asked to submit to background checks.

Calderon said about 10 people have been asked to leave the club after a background check turned up a recent felony conviction.

"Not as many as I thought I would find," Calderon said.

Tucson Police Department spokeswoman Sgt. Diana Lopez said Pearl is entitled to require background checks.

"Their rules would be their rules," she said.

Alessandra Soler Meetze, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, said the club needs to avoid the perception that it is targeting certain groups.

"Our position is that there should be clearly defined standards for who gets searched to guard against discrimination," she said.

Of course, background checks conducted on the Pima County Justice Court's website aren't foolproof.

For starters, they won't turn up crimes a person has committed in another state or another country.

Moreover, if a person commits a crime in the weeks after being issued a VIP card, Pearl's security guards won't know.

On Friday night, at least two men were asked to submit to a background check because they were wearing sneakers.

Mike Williams, 21, was wearing black shoes with a white sole. He said he didn't mind waiting what turned out to be four minutes. "I felt it was kind of weird," he said. "But it also made me feel safe that they care about their establishment."

Williams' friends, who had to wait while the background check was performed, weren't as thrilled with the extra precautions. "I think that's a little too much," said Brandon Pennington, 30.

"You're already filming and you're scanning (IDs), what more do you need?" asked Yoss Theory, 22.

In addition to background checks, Cusack has also installed additional cameras in the parking lot and hung signs that say, "No firearms allowed on premises."

He's also hired another six security guards, bringing the total number of guards at the club on a given night to 20, including four who work in the parking lot and six at the front door.

The guards scan IDs when guests arrive.

"I am going to have the safest club in the state," Cusack said.

Other clubs

Pearl isn't the only club that has stepped up security in recent months.

The guards at Maloney's Tavern, on North Fourth Avenue, said they had stepped up enforcement of the club's dress code since a stabbing at the club in April.

Fernando Lara, 22, was killed after he confronted two men who, witnesses told police, made inappropriate comments about Lara's girlfriend and other women in their party. Nicholas R. Taylor was arrested a month later and is facing first-degree-murder charges.

There are five Maloney's clubs in four states. A representative from Maloney's corporate headquarters did not return several phone calls.

O'Malley's On Fourth, next door to Maloney's, has also increased security.

The bar's guards now check everyone's waistbands when they come in the door.

"We say, 'Sorry, we need to see your belts,' " said general manager Rick Cano. " 'We need to see your waistband.' "

Few clubs in town use metal detectors.

"Metal detectors are not as efficient as frisking," said El Charro President Ray Flores.

Flores says at the company's Broadway and Wilmot restaurant, which operates as a nightclub in the evenings, security guards "do full body frisks and search purses."

No off-duty cops

In addition to background checks, Cusack would like to hire off-duty police officers to provide security at his club, he said. Flores and Keya Tehrani, who own Club DV8, 5851 E. Speedway, also said they would like to hire off-duty officers.

But the city of Tucson prohibits officers from working at bars and clubs.

TPD spokeswoman Lopez said officers working in a bar "could make for a dangerous situation."

In lieu of off-duty officers, Flores hires fugitive recovery agents - what most people would refer to as bounty hunters. Fugitive recovery agents are licensed by the state.

At El Charro, the fugitive recovery agents police the parking lot. "They're licensed to carry weapons and they can detain people," Flores said.

Flores said he was surprised that Cusack would require some patrons to submit to background checks.

"Background checks are not going to stop a criminal element from looking for opportunities," he said.

Hotel Congress' general manager Todd Hanley said he's glad his club hasn't had to take similar measures.

"I think if it got to the point where we needed to do background checks, I'd think about getting out of the business," he said.

Contact reporter Coley Ward at 807-8429 or at cward@azstarnet.com

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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