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Bars breaking badly: Mayhem begins at closing time

Kyle Hopkins
Anchorage Police officer Rayne Reynolds questions a man after getting a report of a disturbance in a parked vehicle on 4th Avenue on Saturday, August 24, 2013.
Marc Lester
Sgt. 1st Class Richard Morales and Staff Sgt. Joseph Wambach walk 4th Avenue as part of JBER's Courtesy Patrol on July 13, 2013. Earlier this year, the U.S. Army Alaska announced an increase in the number of courtesy patrols visiting popular spots to help maintain discipline of soldiers.
Marc Lester
Customers fill an outdoor area at Bernie's Bungalow Lounge between 6th and 7th Avenues on Friday, August 2, 2013.
Marc Lester
Anchorage Police speak with a man whose face was bloodied on Saturday, August 24, 2013. APD flagged a taxi for the man to get home after the man declined to be seen by medics.
Marc Lester
A crowd gathers outside the entrance to Club Soraya on 4th Avenue on July 13, 2013.
Marc Lester
Women dance in an alley between 6th and 7th Avenue on Friday, August 2, 2013.
Marc Lester
Pedestrians walk along 4th Avenue on Saturday, August 24, 2013. Popular bars on 4th Avenue make it the city's busiest nightlife districts.
Marc Lester
Customers fill an outdoor area at Bernie's Bungalow Lounge between 6th and 7th Avenues on Friday, August 2, 2013.
Marc Lester
A mechanical bull is one of the attractions inside the Gaslight Lounge. Customers spend time there at about 2 a.m. on July 13, 2013.
Marc Lester
A crowd lingers outside the Avenue Bar as Anchorage Police officer Barry Hetlet drives by early Sunday, September 8, 2013.
Marc Lester
A woman carries another as they leave downtown on F Street on July 13, 2013.
Marc Lester
A vendor sells hot dogs and a crowd lingers outside the Gaslight Lounge on July 13, 2013.
Marc Lester
Anchorage police officer Ryan McNamara breaks up a fight on Saturday, August 3, 2013. "Some of the warm nights you'd see a fight every 10 minutes or so," said APD Sgt. Mark Rein, who oversaw a recent effort to curb late night violence.
Marc Lester
Felix Nelson, Jr., plays saxophone on 4th Avenue as a couple dances on Saturday, August 24, 2013. Nelson said he can make hundreds of dollars on a busy night playing requested songs for tips.
Marc Lester
A crowd gathers near the 3 a.m. closing time outside the Gaslight Lounge on 4th Avenue on Saturday, August 3, 2013. The club has recently opted to stay open for an hour after drinks stop being served. "Each weekend night there's only been a handful of people remaining (inside), and the sidewalk is packed," said Gaslight owner John Pattee.
Marc Lester
Abdulla Watson operates an ice cream truck on 4th Avenue on July 13, 2013.
Marc Lester
People walk between bars on 4th Avenue on Saturday, August 24, 2013. Popular bars on 4th Avenue make it the city's busiest nightlife districts.
Marc Lester

Hands in his pockets, the guy in the black hoodie never sees the punch coming. One right cross to the chin and he's out cold in the snowy Legislative Information Office parking lot.

Cut to the pavement in front of the Gaslight Lounge, yellow under the streetlights. A fall-down drunk backhands a cop. Across the avenue a man is stabbed outside the Anchor Pub and Club.

You're watching Anchorage bar break's greatest hits. Filming from rooftops, cars and hidden cameras, police have stockpiled hours of footage documenting late-night mayhem on a single block of downtown.

"Some of the warm nights you'd see a fight every 10 minutes or so," said Sgt. Mark Rein, who oversaw the effort from late 2011 to early this year.

This is what the Anchorage Press once called "barmageddon," the brief but volcanic period just before and after 3 a.m. when hundreds of people leave downtown bars and spill into the street. From the food trucks to the street fights, it's a side of Anchorage most people never see.

Tourists and their shopping bags vanish from the sidewalks. Miniskirt girls with Gucci clutches appear, heels clacking. During this summer of record-breaking heat, guys in striped button-ups and T-shirts sauntered in the roadway eating $3 snow cones.

On most nights, 28-year-old Nelson Felix Jr. brought his saxophone, earning as much as $300 playing "Careless Whispers" by George Michael, the Super Mario Bros. theme and other requests.

"The craziest thing I saw this summer was, I believe, two people got shot," he said.

A yearlong push by Sgt. Rein and his Community Action Policing team to curb late-night attacks, drug dealing, rapes and drunk driving in the city's busiest bar district came during a surge in closing-time violence. One night in October a 27-year-old man was shot and killed outside Platinum Jaxx. Another man was stabbed 12 minutes later in an unrelated bout three blocks away.

Detectives are still searching for a shooter who wounded three people outside the Anchor Pub on June 15. The gunfire began after two men began arguing while standing in the scrum of people surrounding the door at bar break, police said at the time.

CASES DROPPED

Figuring fewer drunks would mean fewer problems, police at first tried to stop bartenders from over-serving customers, Rein said.

His undercover team ticketed eight servers in early 2012. They brought charges against another 20 customers under a little-known Alaska law that makes it illegal to be drunk on a licensed premise.

The liquor industry pushed back, organizing a legal defense fund. The Community Action Policing team was ordered to stop focusing on servers and drinkers inside bars and instead target crime on the surrounding streets, Rein said.

Asked why the city changed its tactic, Mayor Dan Sullivan, himself a downtown bar owner, said the state district attorney was not pursuing the police department's charges against servers and drunks in bars.

"What's the purpose if you're not even going to get to the point where the court's going to hear these cases?" Sullivan said.

Deputy District Attorney Clint Campion said his office never made a blanket decision to drop the cases but found many of the arrests would have been difficult to prosecute before a jury. In a busy bar where a bartender is serving 20 people, for example, it could be hard to prove that the server should have known a customer was clearly drunk.

Prosecutors remain "very interested" in clear cases of over-serving, he said.

A change to city law allowing bars to stay open for an extra hour after 3 a.m. -- so long as they take away everyone's drinks -- at first did little to reduce the chaos. Today, only the Gaslight and Pioneer have signed up for a new extra-hour permit. (A permit request by the Avenue Bar is pending, according to the city clerk's office.)

Few customers were staying late as of late September.

"Each weekend night there's only been a handful of people remaining (inside), and the sidewalk is packed," said Gaslight owner John Pattee.

As many as 250 people exit his bar at once, Pattee said. Some hang around waiting for rides or debating where to go for the afterparty.

"There's a handful of them that are looking for trouble," he said.

CLOSING TIME

Two popular downtown clubs have closed in the past two years.

Rumrunners, at Fourth Avenue and E Street, shuttered in late 2012 while facing criminal charges that a bouncer severely beat a handcuffed customer. A Hard Rock Café is expected to take its place.

The Anchor closed in August to make room for an expansion of the Legislative Information Office. That bar and dance club filled with as many as 400 people on busy nights, a manager said. Police considered it one corner of a triangle of bar break commotion when combined with the Pioneer and Gaslight across the street.

Whether the closures dampen late-night violence -- and whether dropping temperatures lure more people to stay inside bars for the alcohol-free safety hour -- remains to be seen. On one recent Saturday night, the scene remained a mini-Mardi Gras.

A 22-year-old mechanic stood in handcuffs next to a Ford pickup with a crumpled hood at the intersection of Fifth and G Street, charged with drunken driving. Four blocks away dozens of people waited in line for the Avenue Bar, which bar-goers say is sponging up some of the old Anchor foot traffic. Two college co-eds, one dressed as Superman, one as Robin, thumbed through their purses to buy a hot dog.

By 3 a.m., five police cars had appeared on either side of the Gaslight and Pioneer on Fourth, lights flashing. A man in a pirate costume stopped, wobbly, and peered at the squad cars.

"Arrrrrr!"

More than 100 people were elbowing outside the Gaslight when several voices began hollering at once. Punches flashed.

Bar security dragged a wild-eyed man in a polo shirt to the ground. He howled, unable to move. When police arrived no one was arrested, a department spokeswoman said.

"They apparently were mutual friends that had gotten into a fight," she said.

Twitter updates: twitter.com/adn_kylehopkins. Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334 or email him at khopkins@adn.com.

 

Reporting for this story, part of ongoing coverage of the effects of alcohol in Alaska, was supported by the Recover Alaska Media Project fund at the Alaska Community Foundation. Contributors to the fund are Alaska Children's Trust, Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, Bristol Bay Native Corp., Providence Health & Services Alaska, Mat-Su Health Foundation, Wells Fargo and Rasmuson Foundation. The Daily News has sole responsibility for the selection and execution of the stories in this series.

 


KYLE HOPKINS
Anchorage