published Friday, June 6th, 2014

River City event hall punished after major furniture-hurling fight

River City event hall
River City event hall
Photo by John Rawlston /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
River City event hall
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A Chattanooga event hall must either shut down for seven days or pay a $1,000 fine after a brawl broke out at the site in April, the Chattanooga Beer and Wrecker Board decided Thursday.

River City event hall at 3201 Wilcox Blvd. was cited for disorder by Chattanooga police after a concert and party erupted into an all-out brawl on April 7.

It took about 25 police officers and another 14 private security personnel who'd been hired by the event hall's owner, Gwen Blackmon, to defuse the situation, Chattanooga police officer John Collins told the beer board.

And even with that much security, the brawl spilled into several parking lots and continued in the neighboring streets after the fighting had stopped inside the event hall. The fight required a large amount of the city's resources, Collins said. Video from the event hall shows partygoers hurling furniture at each other and waving what appear to be metal pipes.

Later that morning, three men were dropped off at HCA Parkridge Medical Center because they'd overdosed on ecstasy. While being treated, two of the men, Antonia Espey and Roger Bell, told police they took the drug at the River City event hall party. The third man, 20-year-old Robert Allen, was pronounced dead at the hospital when he was dropped off.

"[The owner] has concerts quite a bit and every time she has a concert there are some problems," Collins said. "This one was off the charts that night."

Police brought a heavy presence to River City event hall that night even before the fight because information gleaned from social media showed that partygoers expected violence to break out, Collins added.

"She is cited for running a disorderly business because it escalated into this," Collins said about Blackmon. "She did not take adequate steps to keep [the brawl] from happening and there was enough out there that she should have known."

About 300 people attended the party -- the event hall can fit 400. The fight broke out at 2:45 a.m., just as the event hall was closing for the night. Blackmon says she did not have any warning that a fight would break out and added that she is very careful about security.

"If you smoke a cigarette, I put you out," she said. "If you throw a gang sign and we catch you, we put you out. There is zero tolerance in there."

She denied that drugs were sold or given out at the party, and emphasized that she had many more security guards on site than required by regulations.

The beer board was divided over how to deal with the citation, debating three different punishments before deciding to give Blackmon a choice between a seven-day suspension or a $1,000 fine. The debate centered on whether one incident is enough to consider an establishment disorderly, or whether multiple incidents are required for a citation.

"I know the place and I know how you run it, and it's a decent place," beer board member Joe Ramsey said.

Beer board member Forestine Haynes said she wasn't sure whether Blackmon could have stopped the fight from happening.

"I don't want to give the message that it's OK for these event halls to have this type of situation occur, but I'm not quite sure it was preventable on [Blackmon's] part," she said.

But others on the board, including Chairman Phillip Sallee, said the brawl was inexcusable.

"How many people have to get hurt or killed before it's recognized as a disorderly place?" he asked. "Just because you've never had a disorder in the past doesn't mean you don't operate a disorderly place."

The board first considered a letter of reprimand, which was voted down 5 to 4, then a seven-day suspension, which was also voted down 5 to 4. Finally, the group settled on the option of either a seven-day suspension or a $1,000 fine. That motion passed 6 to 3.

Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or with tips and story ideas.

about Shelly Bradbury...

Shelly Bradbury covers police and crime in Chattanooga and Hamilton County for the Times Free Press. She's been with the paper since 2012, working first as an intern and then as a business reporter. She is from Houghton, New York, and graduated from Huntington University in Huntington, Indiana, with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and minor in management. Before moving to Tennessee, Shelly previously interned with The Goshen News, The Sandusky Register and The Mint ...

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