"This isn't over," says Todd Boyd, 33, co-owner of the Grace Street restaurant and nightclub. "We're very enthusiastic about seeing this thing through and showing what went on, and holding some people accountable."
Some of those people are the local media that trumpeted a spate of reports linking Cafine's to a Feb. 9 drug bust by local and state police and the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. The bust was the result of a five-month special undercover operation by local and state narcotics investigators. And after those stories, came ones about Cafine's landlord revoking its lease.
Boyd says the TV and newspaper reports sensationalized and irresponsibly reported what happened. As a result, says Boyd, dozens of broadcasts on all four local stations and articles that appeared in the daily paper contributed more to the club's demise than any of the legal actions taken against it.
Boyd and his business partner, Doug Heller, 33, have been all over the news at least their names have been. But until now they haven't been talking publicly.
Heller was one of nine men arrested. Of the nine, six allegedly sold, possessed or distributed drugs at Cafine's. The other three arrested were connected to other restaurants or clubs. None of the arrests was actually made at Cafine's. The nine individuals were arrested on 16 counts of distribution and conspiracy of ecstasy, cocaine and verve. In all, 13 or 14 drug items were found.
Two weeks ago, the criminal case against Heller who was charged on one count of distribution of ecstasy was dropped when it was determined there wasn't enough evidence to convict him. Shortly before that, the Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney's Office was unsuccessful in its attempt to get a civil injunction declaring Cafine's a common nuisance, a move that could have closed the club.
An ABC hearing officer recently did revoke the club's liquor license, giving the owners 60 days to operate with its current license and 30 days to make an appeal. After hearing this, a judge determined that the representative for the landlord was justified in using a clause in the lease to evict Cafine's from its Grace Street home.
So now, after more than four years of business in Richmond, Cafine's is shut down, and its reputation ruined, by what Boyd and Heller call a situation in which the "end doesn't justify the means."
What's more, they assert the public frenzy never should have happened.
Boyd and Heller stick to their claims that they never contributed to any unlawful activity at Cafine's, including having knowledge of any drug distribution at the club. In fact, they say they asked the Richmond Police and the ABC for advice on how to respond if they suspected drug use by individuals there.
Now that their business has closed, Boyd, who never was implicated in any of the mess, and Heller say they'll pursue whatever avenues it takes to prove Cafine's innocence.
They're not holding back. Most notably, Boyd and Heller claim rampant abuse and shady tactics on the part of the ABC. The duo are having their attorney, David Epperly, file a civil lawsuit against the ABC and "certain individuals" (they won't say who) for evidence tampering and other things.
By the time Cafine's was caught up in the furor over ecstasy, the drug had been making headlines. The euphoric "club" drug had captured the attention of national and local media alike. And the groundswell in reported use by teen-agers and young adults was in critical need of a swift effort by law enforcement and parents to stop it. The drug's presence in Richmond dates at least to 1991.
On Jan. 30, a multijurisdictional grand jury indicted nine local men for distributing or conspiring to distribute ecstasy, cocaine and verve (verve was legal in Virginia as a bodybuilding supplement until July 2000).
But early this year there were a number of dramatic reports that ecstasy had made its way out of the club scene, to which it has been repeatedly linked, and into a local suburban public high school. Subsequently, Channel 6 ran a two-part series on the drug and its increased prevalence in Richmond.
This was the climate in which the five-month task force of local and state narcotics investigators was operating. And it was this undercover investigation that resulted in the multijurisdictional grand jury that led to the arrests of Heller and eight others.
But after the bust the story about ecstasy, says Boyd, "really became a television top story about drug activity exclusively at Cafine's."
Other clubs were involved in the investigations, Heller notes, but the news media repeatedly only mentioned Cafine's name in respect to the arrests. What's more, the club's owners say Channels 6, 8, and 12 sensationalized the story by using misleading and even incorrect information.
For example, more than one station broadcast images of mountains of pills to accompany their stories about the Cafine's busts. In fact, fewer than a dozen ecstasy pills were found on the nine individuals arrested during the five-month investigation. Additionally, Boyd and Heller say the situation was exaggerated by "inflammatory" and misleading language.
"One of the most disturbing things is the media and the ABC redefined Cafine's as a drug haven and open-air drug market," says Boyd.
"You've seen me portrayed in the media as a kingpin," says Heller. "It's basically ruined my life."
Style attempted to reach Bill Foy and Mark Neerman, news directors for Channels 8 and 6 respectively, for comment. Channel 8 could not be reached by presstime. Channel 6 did not return calls.
Nancy Kent, news director for WWBT Channel 12, says she stands by the way her reporters covered the Cafine's story, adding that the station gave equal time to cases such as Heller's that were thrown out of court.
Channel 12, Kent says, covered news about the February drug arrests and what followed like it would any other story. Still, because ecstasy is the subject, the news is likely to attract attention. "Ecstasy being the rising problem that is, it's a big issue now," she says.
Obviously, John Dominy, Cafine's general manager, disagrees. "It was set up to be a media hype," he says.
And now the lawyers are firing back. "My take on it is if the ABC were truly in it for the law enforcement and not for publicity they would not have arrested them the way that they did," says David Gammino, a defense attorney who represented one of the nine men arrested and later acquitted.
Gammino points out that the arrests were made in the middle of the day on Feb. 9, a Friday; in addition, some arrests including Heller's were made in highly public places. The media, he suggests, took the bait. "The media, the news stations, did a terrible job reporting," says Gammino.
That reporting took its toll, says Boyd. Two weeks after Heller's arrest, Cafine's saw its business drop by 70 percent.
A Channel 6 report illustrates that: In it, a young-looking group of adults waits outside Cafine's to go in. But after the reporter tells the would-be patrons about the arrest of Heller and alleged drug use at Cafine's the club-goers say they've changed their minds about going in.
"Because of the media attention, we were presumed guilty," says Heller.
Boyd and Heller are working to get their lives back, they say. They declined to have their photograph taken for this story. They've had enough notoriety, they explain. And they have appealed the ABC's decision to strip the club of its liquor license.
Nonetheless, there are signs the long-embattled Cafine's owners may be tired of the fight. Before the drama and the attention, Boyd and Heller had discussed selling the business. They're talking more about that now. The momentum the club gained after more than four years in Richmond has come to a halt. And Boyd says it would be impossible to win back positive public opinion.
"I have witnessed the media using sensationalism. The end result is not necessarily a true story," says Boyd, "but a big
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