By Ray Downs
By Ray Downs
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Lindsay Toler
By Jon Gitchoff
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
Lure is dead.
When the house lights come up at 2:34 a.m. on Sunday, September 12, no one's dancing. Back in July, 450 bodies thronged this Washington Avenue club, Thursday through Saturday. "The place where the A list goes to unwind," as the owners bill it, always drew the gel-haired dudes sipping vodka in striped button-downs and Ed Hardy tees. Maybe they'd run some game. Maybe the ladies with strappy high heels and skimpy skirts would let them. Not so much tonight.
"The girls wouldn't come in," says manager Rob Olsen. Thirty-three, handsome and upbeat by nature, Olsen is now slumped against the club's front window, alongside a pair of off-duty policemen on Lure's payroll. His bouncers have given up trying to hand out free-entry and free-drink passes. One young woman told them she feared there'd be a shooting.
Inside Lure, there's never been a shooting. But listening to the news or city hall, you might have thought otherwise.
The controversy began after gunshots cracked in the muggy streets nearby Lure on two nights over the summer. One incident allegedly involved Lure patrons (although that's never been proven). The other occurred down the block, close to a different club, on an evening that Lure wasn't even open to the public.
Still, for those already fed up with the drunken rowdiness that's become typical for late-night Washington Avenue, those were just details. Enough was enough.
The siblings who own and manage Lure — Aprille, Tony and Nick Trupiano — admit their track record in the bar business isn't blemish-free. But they say they've improved. And, as the children of the late Matthew "Mikey" Trupiano, a supposed mobster who did prison time for gambling, they feel unfairly singled out. Every club gets belligerent guests — Lure can't possibly be the worst, can it?
A loose coalition of loft-dwellers, local business leaders and city officials now believes precisely that. The St. Louis Street Department briefly revoked Lure's right to offer valet service. Then, with the mayor's blessing, the city's excise division went after its liquor license. It ruled on September 20 in favor of revocation. In a parallel move, the Partnership for Downtown St. Louis — a sort of chamber of commerce closely tied to city hall — circulated a petition among residents with the same goal. The media breathlessly followed every turn.
The costs to the nightclub, both social and financial, have been steep.
A year ago, Cedric the Entertainer partied here after the Major League Baseball All-Star Game with sportscaster Joe Buck, Boston Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield and several Playboy bunnies. Rapper Huey filmed a video here last July. Will.i.am of Black Eyed Peas DJed in August.
Yet by closing time on this September morning, gross receipts are $3,600 when they used to be $12,000. All that's left are maybe two dozen drinkers and George Michael's "I Want Your Sex."
When St. Louis' last big capo — Anthony "Tony G." Giordano — died of cancer in 1980, a car-bomb war erupted. Crime boss Jimmy Michaels Sr. was blown up while driving on I-55. His rival, Paul J. Leisure, was maimed in a retaliatory explosion, then landed in prison. The only person left in any kind of a leadership role was Tony G.'s nephew and head of the Local 110 Laborers Union: Mikey Trupiano of Mehlville.
The mob here was small potatoes compared to Chicago, and even by St. Louis standards, Trupiano wasn't much of don. He ran a bookmaking operation that somehow lost money. Federal wiretaps caught him lamenting a lack of respect from small Italian businesses and his own underlings.
Yet his biggest sin seemed to be a life-long addiction to gambling, which is how the feds finally nailed him, after years of obsessive pursuit. He was convicted in 1986 for bookmaking, then again in 1992 for playing gin rummy in the back of a car dealership on South Kingshighway.
For the rest of his life, Trupiano complained he was "railroaded" by the authorities. He once told Bill McClellan, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist who befriended him and chronicled his twilight years, "As sure as you love your children, believe this: I'm not as bad as the government says I am."
His children sometimes sound like him. Nick Trupiano, 28, recently said of Lure's troubles with the city, "I'm not being hardheaded; it's just I know we're right. They're trying to make us look like a bunch of jack-offs."
Aprille Trupiano agrees: "There's a lot of prejudice in this town against my family."
The Mafia in St. Louis has long since disintegrated. Still, the Trupianos feel like outsiders, a scrappy but well-meaning bunch that city officials (and those cozy with them) have made a scapegoat.
Of course, this time, the stakes are higher than a gin rummy game. This has become a fight over the future of Washington Avenue — who gets to party, and who gets to profit.
By the time a heart attack took Mikey Trupiano in 1997, the Washington Avenue loft district was just beginning its rebirth. For years, it had been a deserted stretch of elegant-but-empty buildings, save the odd punk club here and there. Then, in 1999, a public-private group called Downtown Now unveiled an über-plan for rejuvenating the area.
Federal funds enabled a face-lift for Washington Avenue in 2003, complete with lights beaming up from the street. The state handed out millions in tax credits to anybody rehabbing historic buildings. But most crucially, the city offered juicy tax incentives to developers. For a time, they even agreed to forgive tens of thousands of dollars in loans if a business stuck around for five years.
"We wanted downtown to start booming," says former mayor Freeman Bosley Jr., who now represents the Trupianos.
The siblings opened Lucky's at 1204 Washington Avenue in 2006. Two years later, they transformed it into Lure. The grand opening was a swimsuit fashion show.
By that point, the Trupianos had owned, co-owned, helped launch or managed five establishments from Laclede's Landing to Kirkwood: Rum Jungle, the Drink, the Bubble Room, Dolce' and Lucky's.
Taking a cue from the city's crackdown, the Post-Dispatch recently ran an exposé of the Trupianos' track record. Their bars and restaurants reportedly racked up more than 50 local or state violations from 2002 to the present, including fights, underage drinking and a giant brawl outside Dolce' in April 2008.
"We were young when we got into this business," says 32-year-old Tony Trupiano. "There have been growing pains." From Lure's opening in June 2008 to the recent brouhaha, he often repeats, the club had an unblemished record with the excise division.
Bob Kraiberg, who has been the city's excise commissioner for 23 years, says the Trupianos' management problems go much further back than Lure.
Asked whether the club's clean record until July was indicative of progress, Kraiberg demurs.
"Well, they seem cooperative. But that's kind of like saying, 'Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the theater?'"
In the wee hours of Friday, June 11, two policemen standing on St. Charles Street watched a mob gather in the middle of Tucker Boulevard. Just around the corner on Washington, people were pouring out of Lure's "Red Hott Thursdays."
Over the previous fourteen months, those weekly hip-hop-themed parties had started drawing capacity crowds, mostly African American. Seven fights had broken out inside the club during that time, five of them between young females (and in four of those, Lure management says, hair weaves were yanked out). The situation on this night in June looked more ominous.
When fists started flying in the street, officers called for backup. They set off across Tucker toward a parking lot where even more fights were raging. A black male with an assault rifle was already there, watching them. He fired several rounds in their direction as they approached. The officers dived for cover behind their patrol cars and heard the squealing of tires.
If that incident wasn't enough to get city hall's attention, the next one surely was. And ironically, it had nothing to do with Lure.
At 1:00 a.m. on Monday, July 19, two groups of young men in the parking lot at Locust and 14th streets started jawing at each other after an eighteen-and-up event at Sugar Lounge. According to a witness, one young man said, "We don't fight." He ran over to a car, opened the hood, pulled out a gun and shot three of his adversaries, one in the neck.
The next day, Jeff Rainford, Mayor Francis Slay's chief of staff, decided to get involved. "There had been two shootings," he recalls, "and people were like, 'Are you gonna do something about it, or are you gonna wait until somebody dies?'"
Rainford met with officials including Police Captain Kenneth Keigel, commander of the city's fourth district. He learned that the "problem properties unit" of the city counselor's office had already sent cease-and-desist letters to three downtown nightclubs — Lure, Club 15 and Sugar Lounge — owing to "disturbances and other unruly behavior."
Tony Trupiano knew about the cease-and-desist letter, but his brother Nick didn't. While sitting at a bar just after 9 p.m. on July 19, Nick peered up at the screen in shock as Charles Jaco of KTVI-TV (Channel 2) announced that the city was cracking down on all three clubs.
In a panic, Nick Trupiano hopped in his truck and sped to city hall, where Jaco was reporting live.
"I talked to him," Trupiano recalls, "and he took the racist stuff and ran with it."
The next morning, Jaco broke the news that the Trupianos were accusing city hall of wanting to expel blacks from the loft district. Certain unnamed city officials, the siblings claimed, had let it be known: Get rid of the cognac, Grey Goose vodka and Red Hott Thursdays, and all of your problems will disappear.
The following day, the Trupianos hung banners in Lure's front window: "Downtown Doesn't Like Black People" and "Jim Crow Is Alive and Well in Downtown St. Louis."
On July 21, Police Chief Dan Isom felt compelled to say of the Trupianos, "I think it would be better for them to sit down and work with us."
Here was a black police chief calling out a group of ethnic Italians for bemoaning racism — against blacks. "It's not about race," Isom calmly told the news cameras that day. "It is about behavior."
The siblings' truculent response scored them no points at city hall, either. If they had a philosophical case to make about where their responsibilities should end and the government's should begin, this wasn't it — or at least, this wasn't a tone conducive to dialogue.
"There was nothing racial about it," says Bob Kraiberg. "If you have a Lawrence Welk concert, the blue-haired old ladies aren't gonna be beating each other over the head with their walkers. If you play Grateful Dead music, you're gonna get a certain crowd. If you play gangster rap, you're going to get a certain crowd.
"If the Hells Angels were out there fighting each other, don't you think the neighborhood would react to that, too?"
On July 28, ten days after the triple shooting near Sugar Lounge, the excise division formally cited Lure — and only Lure — for a host of offenses. Among them: allowing fights, gunshots, loitering, littering, and lewd and indecent conduct. The Trupianos say they found out about the charges from a TV reporter.
That bar owner just happened to be one of the Trupiano brothers.
According to the feds, Morgan approached the Trupianos with a deal: If they made him manager of their new bar in Soulard for a $60,000 salary and threw in $10,000 for a new car, he'd expedite their liquor license application and prevent future investigations.
Morgan's mistake, according to Bosley, was floating this idea within earshot of an off-duty police officer working for the Trupianos. He blew the whistle, and soon the feds had amassed wiretap recordings of Morgan making the necessary arrangements.
Kraiberg describes Morgan as a good employee, but one who pretended to have more pull than he really did. "I was very surprised and disappointed," the commissioner says.
Still, the timing of these events seemed remarkable. Was the city cracking down on the Trupianos in retaliation for their assistance with Morgan's indictment? "How all those things lined up in the universe is beyond me," Kraiberg says. "Totally and purely coincidental."
So why the focus on Lure? Rainford, the mayor's chief of staff, says he now defers to Kraiberg's department in the matter. But as for Lure, he says, "It's not like every other club is like this."
Yet some of them are, according to a Riverfront Times analysis of police records.
Citizens made several 911 calls over the past two years regarding fights, assaults and disturbances at Lure during bar hours or immediately after. Seven of those calls resulted in written reports.
Yet at the Loft on Olive Street, a mile and a half to the west, just as many calls have resulted in reports. At Jim Edmonds' Club 15, on Locust Street and only eight blocks from Lure, there were nine written reports.
These statistical measures only go so far: As the police note, they may initiate action without any call or report. But there's plenty of anecdotal evidence that violence has simply become commonplace on Washington Avenue. Over Labor Day weekend, a "highly intoxicated" young man on the sidewalk patio of the Sidebar got knocked out by an "unknown subject," police say.
On May 7, an argument over a hat at Lucas Park Grille moved outside to the valet service, where 29-year-old John Overschmidt of south city was sucker punched. He fell, hit his head on the curb, went into a seizure and briefly choked on his own blood before spending five days in a coma.
Talking to reporters the day after the triple shooting near Sugar Lounge, Rainford said the city's problem-property file on Lure was "thick." He later told RFT that the file justified putting Lure in the hot seat. A spokeswoman for the mayor, when asked to produce it, responded that there wasn't much in it that could be released. It contains mostly attorney's notes, she wrote in an e-mail, plus neighbors' complaints and details of police calls-for-service that are "confidential."
As for the other two clubs, Rainford says they got off the hook when they expressed a willingness to pay for extra security on busy nights.
"Sugar and Club 15 are at least saying the right thing as far as wanting to be better neighbors," he reports. "The Trupianos are taking a different tack, which is their right, but because they're taking a different tack, and because of their track record, we're taking a different tack."
In St. Louis, says Bob Kraiberg, "the neighborhood can giveth, and the neighborhood can taketh away." An aspiring bar owner must get the support of a majority of eligible property owners, registered voters and business licensees within a 350-foot radius for a regular liquor license. To stay open until 3 a.m. requires the same approval within a 500-foot radius.
Under city law, residents within that radius can also shut it down if enough of them sign a petition.
The petition drive against Lure, however, was not initiated by residents. Rather, records show it was spearheaded by the Partnership for Downtown St. Louis.
That only fueled the Trupianos' paranoia. They couldn't help but notice that the city's power brokers had once again aligned against them. Almost all of the partnership's board members are associated with companies that donated generously to Mayor Slay, who sits on the board ex officio.
Tim McGowan also sits on the board. His company, McGowan Brothers Development, has either developed or owns many of the properties surrounding Lure on Washington Avenue. One of them is Lucas Park Grille, where the 29-year-old was punched into a coma in May.
McGowan signed the petition against Lure six times. He did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment.
The Trupianos won a temporary restraining order against the partnership on August 13. They argued that a quasi-public body funded by local businesses, and set up to promote them, acted inappropriately by trying to shut one down. A few days later, however, a different judge lifted the order.
The siblings' fight against the partnership may not be over, their attorney suggests.
"The actions of the partnership have opened themselves up to some defamation litigation," Bosley says.
Nevertheless, the petition file grew with dozens of signatures from nearby residents living in the Knickerbocker, Meridian and Lucas lofts.
Earl Westfall and his girlfriend, Jennifer Asher, own a loft directly above Lure on the sixth floor of the Jack Thompson Square building. Westfall had to nag the club's management for more than a year, he says, to lock their back door, so that patrons would stop loitering in the residential lobby. Music from the club has pounded hard enough to rattle a picture mounted on his wall.
"They're nice guys," he says. "But nothing ever gets done. Things got better for us when the media started paying attention. Because these issues [with their liquor license] have come up, we let people know all the dirt we see on a constant basis."
Jake Kraybill, an engineer who sits on the board of the Downtown St. Louis Residents Association, e-mailed his fellow loft-dwellers on the day of the triple shooting: "Whatever element is drawing these violent criminals downtown needs to be utterly destroyed."
But after a conversation the following day with Lure's management, Kraybill felt they had legitmate concerns of thier own. He urged compromise.
"Stay focused!" Westfall responded. "Did they buy you a beer? Did they give you free 'VIP' passes? This is how they operate."
"I assure you no one bought me any beer or gave me any kickbacks," Kraybill replied. In a different e-mail the next day, Kraybill wrote, "There is a group of people on the warpath to shut these clubs down. I believe they are doing this in a fashion that is lacking coherent thought."
On the morning of September 3, the Trupiano brothers and Lure manager Rob Olsen walked into the Kennedy Room of city hall wearing pin-striped suits. Nick and Tony also sported pinky rings bearing their initials.
Their widowed mother, Marlene Trupiano, sat at the center of the gallery in a leopard-print jacket, her rust-red hair teased up like a tidal wave. An entourage of Lure staff members surrounded her. News crews fussed with camera equipment on the left side of the room as a big group of police officers chatted on the right.
With the fate of Lure's liquor license in the balance, assistant city counselor Dan Emerson laid out the case against the club before municipal judge Margaret Walsh. Bosley, teaming up with attorney John Bouhasin, probed for weak spots.
Charge one: the assault-rifle episode. Emerson questioned Officer Timothy Bockskopf who authored the incident report, leading him through the night when his colleagues were shot at.
Bouhasin cross-examined the policeman, asking whether he personally witnessed anyone leaving Lure. The officer said no. Bouhasin inquired if the parking lot where the shots were fired could've been used by patrons of other bars. The officer said yes.
Then Bosley moved in for the takedown. According to the report, he pointed out, the initial officers on the scene were the ones asserting that the suspects had exited Lure. But from where they were standing, Bosley wondered, wouldn't it have been more or less impossible to witness anybody coming out of Lure?
Yes, Bockskopf replied.
The next charge didn't go quite as well for the Trupianos. Officer Julie Reynolds, looking very pregnant and at ease in capri sweatpants, waddled up to testify. Judge Walsh asked her to remove her chewing gum.
Reynolds said that at about 1:30 a.m. on a Friday in February she observed a woman swinging a baseball bat at another woman on the street in front of Lure. A second officer had to mace the young lady to calm her down. (Bystanders later informed RFT that the bat-wielding woman's shirt got ripped off in the melee, exposing her bosom to the winter night. She was arrested.) A third woman sat on the curb, Reynolds recalled, bleeding profusely from the head.
Sergeant Robert Berner also responded to that incident. He tried to enter the club but couldn't, he testified, because "it was so packed with people." He also noted a "strong odor of marijuana" emanating from inside.
The judge called for a short recess. When the hearing resumed, Emerson made an eyebrow-raising announcement: The city was withdrawing the next charge on the citation. The incident in question involved shots fired at Washington Avenue and Tucker Boulevard.
Lure wasn't even open that night.
"This just goes to underscore why we are here," Bosley announced. "These are a series of charges that are unfounded, based on insinuation and innuendo."
The city forged ahead with its case. Several other blue shirts took the podium and complained that the valet and barbecue stands outside the club cause congestion. The defense attorneys hastened to point out that the valet company is owned by a policeman, and the food stand (which has no affiliation with Lure) caters to all pedestrians on the strip.
Officer David Pryor observed that Lure patrons like to show off their vehicles and make several trips around the block, worsening congestion.
"So they're driving up and down the strip?" Bouhasin asked Pryor. "This is what we want there, an entertainment district, is that correct?"
"That's what the city wants, yes," Pryor answered.
After the lunch recess, a small band of loft-dwellers vented their frustrations with Lure.
"I should not have to sleep in my $300,000 loft and be awoken by patrons who are drunk walking out of the bar," railed Jennifer Gray, who has since moved to south city. She lived across from Lure for two years. She recalled one night when a fire truck, sirens blaring, had to swerve to avoid smashing into drunken revelers who'd had imbibed too much at Lure.
Bouhasin: You're assuming this, but you don't know how many drinks these people had.
Gray: I've been in their bar.
Bouhasin: Have you ever been removed from their bar?
Gray: No...[but] I have been in their other clubs where I have been more than drunk. And should not have been served.
Bouhasin: So this isn't just about club Lure. This is about the Trupianos.
Gray: This is about their responsibility as business owners and their management practices.
Jennifer Asher, Earl Westfall's girlfriend, also took the stand. She said that the night she moved in blood was smeared across the lobby door from a fight in the club. Since then, Lure patrons have broken lobby furniture, she claimed, adding that the club's bouncers have threatened her and Westfall. Smoke from the club rises through the elevator shaft and into her daughter's bedroom, and she has hounded the club to buy smoke-eating equipment. They have not yet done so.
Under questioning by Bosley, however, Asher admitted that when Lure management posted flyers around the neighborhood calling for a safety meeting, she tore some of them down. She also confirmed that she'd had a heated exchange with Tony Trupiano upon entering the 12th Street Diner with her daughter a few days earlier.
"Did you give him the finger?" Bosley asked.
"Yes, I did," she said. "Is that a crime?"
Not all loft-dwellers spoke ill of Lure. Ollie Green, an African American law student at Saint Louis University, said the increased number of people on the streets is precisely why she feels safer walking her dog. More people, she argued, equals more patrolmen.
Arsalan Suhail, a business consultant who moved across the street from Lure in May, took an interest in neighborhood safety after being the victim of a hate crime: An ethnic Pakistani, he got his jaw severely broken by a gang in of skinheads near America's Center last November. He refused to be cowed by the experience and instead feels as drawn to the hustle-bustle that Lure generates.
"It offers nothing but a safe haven for those who enjoy music and beats, and who happen to have a good time with good-looking individuals," he said. "And those scantily clad women — with all due respect your honor...I'll put some ellipses after that."
The only person from city government to weigh in at the hearing was Alderwoman April Ford-Griffin of the fifth ward. Grifiin testified that she considers Lure an asset that would be even more valuable.
She echoed the Trupianos' plea for equal treatment: "We have to treat everybody the same. It seems like the focus has drifted to one place, and we've stopped talking about the bigger picture."
At the hearing, no one brought up the fact that the Trupianos, their landlord and Bosley have all contributed to Ford-Griffin's campaign. Nor did anyone mention that Judge Walsh, who was deciding the case, was appointed by Mayor Slay and has made a campaign contribution to him.
Ford-Griffin continued: "I'm concerned that some of these issues come up because we've created an entertainment district, and we do not have a public-safety plan in place. There are some issues the city has to bear some responsibility for."
On September 20 Judge Walsh ruled to revoke Lure's liquor license, concluding that "violence, intimidation, noise and disturbances" indeed took place near Lure and were "precipitated by its patrons." The Trupianos are filing an appeal, which will likely be heard in the 22nd circuit court.
In the long run, the future of Washington Avenue is unclear. Now that well-heeled residents have moved in, can they coexist with the neighborhood's hopping club scene? Will the clubs have to adapt — or, eventually, will they be forced to move elsewhere?
Bob Kraiberg predicts that the tension on Washington Avenue will work itself out through the democratic process. Getting a liquor license requires "the magnanimity" of nearby stakeholders, he says.
"It all depends on what standards the neighborhood wants," he says. "The neighbors down on Washington Avenue have not been supporting clubs as much as froufrou bistro places."
Rainford believes that club owners need to modify their practices. Instead of hiring off-duty police as a "secondary" security force, he suggests the bars use on-duty officers instead and reimburse the city for their overtime.
"When they're on duty, there's no ifs, ands or buts about who they work for," he says. "If there's a knifing, there's no 'Maybe I ought to cover it up.' No. You call in the backup or you make the arrest yourself." He also believes that when clubs expect a certain number of guests, they should be required to pay for extra cops to patrol nearby streets.
Tony Trupiano disagrees. Lure already hires more security than any other bar in the neighborhood, he says: twelve bouncers and three secondaries on busy nights. From the time guests walk in to the time they walk out, he insists, they're in no danger. As proof, he notes that Nick's girlfriend works at the bar. So does Rob's. They even bring Marlene Trupiano down there on occasion. Outside the club's doors, he believes, there's a limit to what they can be expected to secure.
"We can't police the parking lots or all of Washington Avenue," he says.
That attitude isn't helpful, Rainford says.
"If we all took that approach," he says, "then I would open up a hazardous waste dump on my property, and if the rain makes it leak on my neighbor's yard, that's his problem. But that's just not the way it works in a densely populated area."
Indeed, the Trupianos' refusal to budge on security has already proven costly. If city officials demonstrated nothing else in recent months, it's that they can make life hell for a club owner should they so choose.
And who knows: They may have to do so again soon.
On the same weekend night nearly two weeks ago that Lure showed such a dismal turnout by closing time, Lucas Park Grille — one block away — disgorged droves of revelers onto the sidewalk. The bar had hired a techno DJ for the evening. Out front, Washington Avenue was choked with cabs and cars jockeying to whisk away the bluging crowd of customers.
Developer Tim McGowan is the owner of Lucas Park Grille, according to state records. Yes, the same Tim McGowan who sits on the board of the Partnership for Downtown St. Louis, who signed the petition against Lure six times.
"Lucas Park is our biggest competition on Fridays and Saturdays," says Nick Trupiano, adding: "Maybe it's just my Oliver Stone mentality, but since all this stuff happened, they've been way busier."