Monday, June 24, 2024

‘Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide’: DAs Ben and Jon David cracking down on illegal nightclubs

“We’re here today to send a very important message: nowhere to run, nowhere to hide,” New Hanover and Pender counties District Attorney Ben David said, referring to businesses allowing illegal operations that could result in nuisance abatements.(Port City Daily/Caroline Horne)

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — With several shootings, a homicide, drug violations, illegal alcohol sales and gang activity all taking place on the property of Edge Lounge at 1219 S. 5th Ave., its closure was inevitable. 

READ MORE: SBI to investigate WPD use of force in search warrant execution

“We’re here today to send a very important message: nowhere to run, nowhere to hide,” New Hanover and Pender counties District Attorney Ben David said, referring to businesses allowing illegal operations that could result in nuisance abatements.

David said the nightclub caused the surrounding community to “live in fear.”

The DA joined his brother, Jon — the district attorney for Columbus, Bladen and Brunswick counties — at a press conference Wednesday at Dram Tree Park. With Wilmington Police Department and Columbus County Sheriff’s Office, they announced nuisance abatement action has been taken against two clubs. Ballz Nightclub, located in Evergreen in Columbus County, will permanently close and be demolished, along with the closure of Edge Lounge.

“When I was supervising patrol, we had numerous fight calls there, shots fired calls there in the past, large crowds, things like that would bleed over into the residential area,” Wilmington Police Department Lt. Greg Willett told Port City Daily. “I would definitely, totally be comfortable saying there’s a significant amount of police specific calls to that establishment.”

Alcohol sales are banned on the 5th Avenue property for the next five years and it will not be allowed to operate as a nightclub again, though the owners would be able to sell wine and malt beverages following the five year restraint. 

A search warrant was executed by the North Carolina Alcohol Law Enforcement division, the Wilmington Police Department and the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office on Jan. 20, and resulted in the seizure of non-tax-paid liquor, illegal drugs, and a firearm and two arrests, one including an Edge Lounge employee.

A shooting a few years earlier, on Feb. 26, 2022, resulted in one homicide at the club as well. However, Ben David said problems with The Edge go back as far as 1999, when another nuisance abatement was filed against the nightclub. 

State law defines a nuisance as the “erection, establishment, continuance, maintenance, use, ownership or leasing of any building or place wherein or whereon are carried on, conducted, or permitted repeated acts which create and constitute a breach of the peace.”

If a business is found to be repeatedly breaching the peace, civil action can be taken against it, though many municipalities can work with the business owner on agreements to mitigate the problems without going to court.

David added community involvement is crucial to nuisance abatement cases since they often drain law enforcement resources. 

“What we found with the Edge nightclub, for instance, is that there were five community members immediately around that club, who did cooperate and file affidavits,” he said.

Wilmington property owner Greg Wessel has agreed to not operate business at 1219 S. 5th Ave. between the hours of 9 p.m. and 6 a.m., and cannot reopen the nightclub in a different location. 

Both Wessel and club operator Howard Delts signed consent agreements on May 6. The property will be visited by the fire marshall or a building inspector 30 days after signing the agreement to inspect compliance with the agreement. 

David noted the nuisance abatement consent judgment on The Edge was signed by Superior Court Judge Frank Jones and requires the restrictions remain in place, even if the owner decides to sell the land to someone else. 

“We’re going to engage property owners to say: ‘If you want what’s best for your property in your neighborhood, you should have no problem with these terms.’ And if you don’t, we’re going to take that property, we’re going to demolish it, and we’re going to start over because we are not going to have this blight in our community,” David said.

DA Jon David stated Ballz, a residential structure converted to an unlawful use, had three separate shooting incidents in the past year. As well, the owner broke restrictions he had previously consented to in 2012 following a murder on the property. It will now be demolished and burned in a structure fire by the Columbus County Fire Department in the next 60 days.

“Law enforcement is not in the property management business; it is not our goal to take people’s property from them,” Jon David said. “We simply want to ensure that people are using it in a lawful purpose, and not creating an environment such that bad things occur.”

He also commended the five-member nuisance abatement team for their help with investigations in the southeastern region of North Carolina, noting that they were “stretched thin” across the state.

In North Carolina, there are 111 ALE agents covering 100 counties, yet only five agents specially trained in nuisance abatement, according to  ALE director, Bryan House. 

“They are very good at applying civil law to affect change at locations that have been operating as a detriment to communities across the state,” House said.

There are several other locations throughout New Hanover and Pender counties currently under investigation by law enforcement, the DA said but did not name any specifically.

Just last month, Wilmington City Council member Luke Waddell cited a problem with a downtown nightclub, Pravda, following a shooting and the subsequent arrest of Antonio Beatty

Waddell requested staff compile recent crime data on “these establishments that have become a nuisance” to downtown. He said the council could decide how to take action on problems found.

The ALE confirmed it was conducting an investigation into Pravda in April.  

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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