In the wake of a 10th person being shot at downtown Chattanooga nightclub Coyote Jack's since 2016, community members are pleading for the city to shut the club down.
"My 22-year-old brother was murdered, right over here, in the middle of a tourist district," Sharee James said during an emotional plea to city council members, as broken glass and a sign banning firearms lay at the scene of the most recent fatal shooting. "I guess the parking lot holds my brother's blood, but Coyote Jack's property holds [the latest victim's] blood."
The Cowart Street saloon, opened in 2015, is co-owned by Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke's uncle Ronald "Ronnie" Berke and his business partner Tammy Taylor.
Since it opened, there have been 19 recorded shooting incidents at the club, 10 of which had victims and three of which were fatal.
The most recent shooting was early Sunday morning when 19-year-old Brandon Rogers was shot on the patio of the club just before 2:30 a.m.
Rogers' death, which is still under investigation, has prompted cries for the club to be shut down from some city council members and many community members, including James, whose 22-year-old brother Sharone was fatally shot outside of Coyote Jack's in late 2017.
"Sunday morning, I relived that day. There has to be something done," James said to council members on Tuesday. "I was told you guys are where I need to go I need y'all to tell me what to do. And if y'all can't tell me, I need you to tell me who can now there's a whole other family going through exactly what we just did."
Before Coyote Jack's Saloon, before Bella Vita, the location was Niko's Southside Grill. It was touted as having helped the Southside's growth and renaissance.
It closed its doors in December 2012 after chef and co-owner Nick Kyriakidis suffered a spinal injury the year before and was left unable to cook at his award-winning restaurant, wife and co-owner Amy Kyriakidis previously told the Times Free Press.
The family preferred to sell the business rather than hire a general manager and sacrifice Niko's family atmosphere, she said.
By January 2015, the venue's doors reopened, this time as Bella Vita, a Mediterranean restaurant that moonlighted as a weekend nightclub.
Since then, police have been called to the address 470 times, according to Chattanooga Police Department data.
Ten people have been shot there from 2016 until now, three of whom died. And there have been nine "shots fired" incidents in which no victims were found.
Apart from alarms and self-initiated calls (usually by officers), the most common calls are disorders, of which there have been 61; assault, 30; fight, 23; and shots fired/person shot/active assailant/stabbing, also at 23.
Neighbors and business owners are afraid. They're afraid for themselves, their employees and for their customers.
"I'm very nervous," said Nini Davenport, a nearby resident and business owner.
She and others who live nearby have awoken to gunshots several times, and they're afraid to walk by the bar after dark.
"My wife is afraid to go walk at night now, whereas we used to feel — well, I felt safer in the Southside than anywhere in Chattanooga, and now I don't," business owner David Hudson said. "And it's not because I think somebody's going to accost me on the street, it's we're afraid of catching a stray bullet."
Adam Kinsey, of the Chattanooga Choo Choo, said people went into the hotel's lobby seeking shelter during one of the shootings.
"When you have tourists sheltering in place, they're not going to go home and talk about the weather," said business owner John Clark. "They're going to talk about what they did on Saturday night hearing bullets fly. We can't afford that as a city."
Some business owners are hiring extra security on the weekends, partly out of concern for the crowds attracted by Coyote Jack's that use their parking lots.
Other businesses have had to close earlier than they'd like to in an effort to get their employees out before Coyote Jack's closes.
"This is not a loud bar with bands at one in the morning or two in the morning," Davenport said. "This is a threat to life."
Some called the level of violence unprecedented, and said it's being generated by the club. That's the difference between 1400 Cowart St. and other high-crime areas, Clark said.
"A large contingent" of residents and business owners have expressed their concerns to city leaders several times, they say, from the mayor and the police chief to city council members and the district attorney.
"The last shooting, every resident and property owner in this neighborhood called the DA, and the DA said he was going to start an investigation," Kinsey said. "I think you see a lack of energy now, because the last shooting is when everyone tried their hardest to get traction and nothing happened."
There was a surge in momentum, Hudson said, but after the club announced a controversial renovation, the momentum died down.
"It's trickery," Clark said. "They're just blowing smoke."
"There's something with the Berke name that's keeping this from being done," Davenport said. " If it were anywhere else, in front of any other restaurant/bar, there would be an investigation. Somehow they are getting through."
Mayor Berke released the following statement Sunday in response to the most recent shooting.
"I am concerned any time a life is lost to senseless gun violence and my heart breaks for the victim's family. The establishment where this incident occurred involves a family member of mine, and as I've stated previously, I have explicitly requested to Chief Roddy that I remain recused from any decision making whatsoever to prevent the appearance of favoritism or preferential treatment," he wrote. "As I would with any venue, I have encouraged Chief Roddy to take any action necessary to ensure public safety. The safety of our community and the integrity of CPD's work are my top priorities."
In response to accusations of the club receiving preferential treatment Tuesday, City of Chattanooga Communications Director Richel Albright referenced the previously issued statement, but the mayor's office provided no further comment.
Several council members expressed concern about the club throughout meetings on Tuesday. Erskine Oglesby, the council chairman and representative of District 7, where the club is located, said late Tuesday that the club is overdue for repercussions.
"I don't know what the relationship between [Mayor Berke] and his uncle is, but I know that there have been clubs that have been shut down for a lot less, so it leads you to believe " Oglesby said. "It's a public nuisance and it infringes on the safety of everyone in the area and those who visit it. I think it needs to be shut down. And we've been coming at it as a public nuisance, but that's under the district attorney's office. This kind of issue warrants the attention of the police and the city attorney's office. I'm looking at what can be done from our standpoint, because this type of behavior cannot be tolerated at all. It breaks my heart to see this many young people affected by this atmosphere."
District 9 Councilwoman Demetrus Coonrod first addressed the issue during the council's strategic planning meeting, asking city attorney Phil Noblett to explain apparent discrepancies in discipline of similar businesses with regular violent crime.
"The public doesn't understand the difference between the two, and we have a lot of entities that operate as nightclubs on Glass Street and one was closed down. There was a fight that broke out and an individual stabbed. They were cited to come to the beer board and there were one or two situations that happened, and they were immediately closed, couldn't transfer ownership, could not operate again as a club in this location," Coonrod said. "We have an establishment downtown, Coyote Jack's where, since 2015, issue after issue after issue has happened outside of their establishment. I need help getting clarity on what is the difference between [the clubs]."
District 8 Councilman Anthony Byrd, who was affiliated with several nightclubs that were shut down for lesser violations in the early 2000s, seconded Coonrod's concerns.
"Just to champion Councilwoman Coonrod, I was affiliated with several night establishments, Deep Blue, Whole Note and Midtown Music Hall, and I was told when I went to court and when those places were shut down that we 'created the atmosphere' for [crime] to happen by being open, and that's how several of our places got shut down," Byrd said. "I would like to know [the difference], because this place is creating the atmosphere, as well."
Noblett assured both council members that the attorney's office and police department were working on finding a solution for the habitual violence at Coyote Jack's.
"I would like to have a timeline of all incidents that have occurred to establish if there are continued breaches of peace we can bring before the court," Noblett later told the Times Free Press. "If there is some type of action that occurs to find a breach of peace, there can be a nuisance abatement action by the city, so we will look into that."
The police department confirmed those actions, adding that shutting down the club was on the table.
"Chief Roddy is working with the City Attorney to examine the events that occurred over the weekend and any previous events that could be used in any future legal actions, up to and including the closing of Coyote Jacks," police communications coordinator Elisa Myzal wrote in an email to the Times Free Press on Monday.
According to Oglesby, the city's beer board will address potential alcohol and occupancy violations at the club during its Oct. 17 meeting.
While both owners told other media that Ronnie Berke planned to relinquish his control of the company to Taylor, no city officials were able to verify that any paperwork had been filed or official actions taken to change the ownership.
Neither owner responded to multiple attempts to contact them for comment between Sunday and Tuesday.
"I would like Southside to be back like it used to be," said Robert Gentry, an area resident and business owner. "I used to walk my dog at 11 p.m. and not feel any problem at all. I cannot do that anymore."
Sarah Grace Taylor can be reached at 423-757-6416 or email@example.com or on Twitter @_SarahGTaylor.
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