At the Liquor Board hearing on July 17, El Rancho Blanco, a bar located at 100 S. Fagley St. in Baltimore Highlands, received a four-month liquor license suspension for disturbing the peace.
On February 23 of this year, police had found that a firearm had been discharged in the bar and a fight that started inside spilled across the street to the Gmart (formerly Santoni’s) parking lot. When police arrived at the lot, according to reports, one of the bar patrons was pointing a handgun in the direction of another patron who was hunched on the ground. Police recovered a semiautomatic handgun, a magazine, and three live rounds from the parking lot.
According to police reports, five men were playing pool in the bar when some of them got into an argument over whose turn it was at the game. The fight started with pool cues and escalated.
At last week’s Liquor Board hearing, Baltimore City Police Officer Jacob Reed said after the incident, he went inside El Rancho Blanco and discovered that the bar’s surveillance camera system was not working.
“The manager said he didn’t know why,” Reed said.
Furthermore, Reed added, the metal detector used by El Rancho Blanco’s staff security had been working fine but was apparently not used the night of the incident.
“It [the wand] was on the window ledge,” Reed said. “Whoever was doing security wasn’t doing it right.”
Liquor Board Commissioner Thomas Ward asked El Rancho Blanco licensee Eduardo Reyes if the three men charged in the incident were regulars at the bar, and if he had had this kind of trouble before.
Reyes, who appeared before the board without counsel, replied through his interpreter Ricardo Elias that they came in two or three times a week.
Reyes acknowledged that the bar had a previous violent incident but did not elaborate.
Ward offered Reyes the opportunity to question Officer Reed and to give his side of the story. Reyes declined and said via his interpreter that “everything in the [police] report is exactly what happened.”
Keven Bernhard, representing the Highlandtown Community Association at the hearing, said that the bar had a “rough history” and asked the board to revoke the bar’s license.
Ward then addressed Reyes and his interpreter.
“A liquor license is a privilege,” said Ward. “A bar owner is always responsible for the conduct of his patrons. A bar owner is responsible for policing his own establishment. A security system would most likely have prevented a gun from coming in.”
“Tell him [Reyes] that,” Ward instructed the interpreter.
“Four months. Closed,” Ward said.
This was not the first time Reyes had been called to the board for license violations.
According to documents on file at the Liquor Board, Reyes had previously been called to the board for five incidents that occurred on Oct. 3, 2009—serving alcohol after hours (at 2:21 a.m.); letting patrons drink after closing; refusing to cooperate with police (refusing to clear the bar of patrons); allowing smoking inside; and failing to make employee records available to police officers.
At that hearing, which occurred in March 2010, the five violations were dismissed because police officers did not appear.
According to the March 4, decision, which is on file at the board, Stephan Fogleman, then chairman, acknowledged that the board knew that the police “were on their way” and “were held up by a drug arrest” but “called the case” at 1:44 p.m. and “reluctantly dismissed the charges.”
Similarly, a violation was dismissed on September 30, 2010, when the licensee was called to the board for serving after hours on June 13, 2010, and police did not appear at the hearing.
Becky Witt, a lawyer with the Community Law Center, says she does not believe the board is required to dismiss charges if the police fail to appear.
“I think it is possible that the Board could find a licensee guilty based just on a police officer’s testimony in his/her written report. I think, though, that they would much rather have the officer present,” Witt wrote in an email.
Michelle Bailey-Hedgepeth, Liquor Board executive secretary, said “in most cases, we do need the officers to appear at the hearing.”
“When police officers do not attend, the board does dismiss the charges, unless we have some other additional information that makes the police report less important,” she explained.
This is reportedly not the first time a firearm was discharged at El Rancho Blanco.
On July 14, 2012, a patron was reportedly shot twice in the back and once in the arm at around 7 p.m. by a man who entered the bar.
According to a July 14 Baltimore Sun article, bar patrons detained the shooter, and homicide detectives were investigating the case because of the seriousness of the victim’s injuries.
Reyes was not brought before the Liquor Board for that incident. There is no record of its occurrence on file at the Liquor Board.
As of July 21, El Rancho Blanco had not filed an appeal of its suspension with the Circuit Court.
by Danielle Sweeney