Drive-In Movie at the 902

On Saturday night, November 25, a crack dealer pointed his gun directly at sixty-year-old Patrick Walsh on West Van Buren in downtown Phoenix.

Gunning his car's engine, Walsh peeled out of the parking lot. As he made his escape, Walsh also tried to get the license plate number and a description of the dealer's automobile. Others might have panicked in a similar situation, but after twelve years as an undercover drug informant, Walsh is currently a volunteer with the Guardian Angels. The Angels have made a point of disrupting crack sales on West Van Buren.

Driving into the nearby alley of Club 902, where a Phoenix patrol car idled, the excited retiree blurted out his story to the two cops.

"I told them this kid, this dealer, pulled a gun, that he was driving a '70 or '72 Chevy Nova and that I had the first three letters of the license plate.

"The cops refused to take my statement or complaint. One of the officers said, `What do you want me to do about it?'" What Patrick Walsh wanted was the same thing that all the neighbors of Club 902 want. These people want the dope dealers who hang out in the 902's parking lot and who fan out into the neighborhood put away. These people want Club 902 closed down.

Instead, the 902 is open for business.
It is not surprising that the 902 remains beyond the reach of law enforcement.

The profits from Phoenix's most notorious crack bar flow directly to the Valley's top prosecutor, Maricopa County Attorney Richard Romley.

"The dope's still being sold," said an outraged Walsh last week. "I sat down there for three hours yesterday and watched it."

On November 29, Walsh filed a complaint with the Internal Affairs division of the Phoenix Police Department over the two officers' refusal to act. Although Walsh is satisfied that Internal Affairs followed up on his report and chastised the two patrolmen, today, almost two months after the gun-pointing incident, the cops still have not bothered to trace the license plate of the crack dealer.

As the crack merchants rake in the profits, so does our county attorney.
For the past five years, Romley has held two notes on the bar that generate nearly $1,000 a month in cash for the county attorney. Although he declined to be interviewed, Romley has said that he will not divest himself of his interest in the 902.

Romley's startling insistence on maintaining a stake in a crack hangout is all the more incredible given his position in the Valley's task force on drugs.

Cited by President George Bush in his recently declared war on drugs, Phoenix was held up to the rest of America by the White House as an example of how to wage that war. The Valley's "Demand Reduction Program: Do Drugs. Do Time." is run by County Attorney Romley and Phoenix Police Chief Ruben Ortega. Despite his position of responsibility and expertise, a wide-eyed Romley maintains he had no idea drugs were a problem at his bar. The prosecutor was confronted by Guardian Angels with the role of the 902 in crack sales during a December 11 Town Hall, a community discussion forum. The Valley's top drug prosecutor feigned astonishment.

Romley's pose struck Louisa Stark as astounding.
A nationally recognized leader for the homeless who has testified before Congress on their behalf, Stark is currently the director of the Community Housing Partnership and a neighbor of Club 902. Last Friday she witnessed a deal for herself in the saloon's parking lot.

"It was in broad daylight," said Stark. "They were passing a sandwich bag of a white substance and I don't think it was laundry soap."

Mary Wacker lives around the corner from the 902 and is the executive director of the Oakland University Park Neighborhood Council. Last week she, too, witnessed the dealing at the 902.

"My husband and I were coming back from his dental appointment and we saw these guys with a zip-loc bag full of white stuff. One guy handed over a wad of cash and was given the drugs, which he just stuffed into his pocket. They never even bothered to look up to see if there were any cops around. That's how nonchalant it is. I wanted to jump out of the car and smack them in the head."

Not surprising, the problems associated with the 902 are not confined to the bar or its parking lot.

"The 902 has had an incredibly negative impact on the neighborhoods to the north," said Stark. "We see the same guys we see in the 902 parking lot in our neighborhood."

Stark said one of her employees, Willie Garcia, was robbed of his groceries and shortly thereafter saw his assailant peddling the food in the parking lot at the 902.

Wacker fears the pushers have been trying to sell crack to local schoolchildren.

"I'm the mother of six children, so you worry. My kitchen window looks directly upon the school bus stop. That's where the bus from Kenilworth stops. Last May these three black guys started showing up just as the kids were getting off the bus. They weren't picking anybody up. This is primarily a Hispanic neighborhood. That was right around the time the Los Angeles gangs were supposed to be moving into Phoenix. These guys were just hanging out and talking with the kids."

Wacker called the police, who were concerned enough about the visitors to send a patrol car out when the bus dropped off the schoolchildren. The strangers stopped showing up.

There is no proof that anyone who dealt drugs at the 902 actually sold crack to neighborhood schoolkids, but there have been enough arrests at the bar that there is no longer any pretext for Romley to deny where his money comes from.

Lieutenant Ron Hergert of the Phoenix Police Department's drug enforcement unit said his officers have made busts at the 902 for years. Yet there is no movement to shut down the 902, and neighbors wonder why. Every day they are bombarded by Chief Ortega's and Prosecutor Romley's ads that warn, "Do Drugs. Do Time."

What's more, neighbors remember how quickly Chief Ortega shut down a similar crack problem at Keys Market in South Phoenix. Of course, County Attorney Romley wasn't getting cash payments from Keys Market.

Police Chief Ortega's public position is that there is nothing wrong with Romley's financial interest in the 902.

You don't have to be a police officer on the beat to smell a rat, but it helps.

"This policeman told me he didn't understand how the 902 stayed in business," said Bonnie Towles of the Capitol Mall Property Owners Association. "The officer said, `It's odd. Everytime we try to do something, the order comes down from the top to lay off."

Chief Ortega depends upon County Attorney Romley's office to prosecute the arrests made by the police officers. Good will between the two departments is critical.

A close examination of the records at the State Department of Liquor Licenses and Control shows just how much good will exists between Chief Ortega and County Attorney Romley.

In order to shut down a bar as a public nuisance, the state liquor department must hold a hearing to yank the saloon's liquor license. In order to act, the state agency must have a file of complaint forms filled out by the police.

Arizona law requires that the police file a report with the state agency whenever they make an arrest or are called to the premises.

Since Romley's election victory in the fall of 1988, the Phoenix Police Department has not entered a single narcotics complaint against Club 902 with the state liquor department. In fact, since 1984 there are only twelve police reports of any violation and none of those are drug cases.

In contrast, the police told neighborhood activists that they had 75 arrests/incidents at Club 902 in 1987 alone. "Our reports show it's a normal place, nothing abnormal about it," said Harold Pershall, assistant superintendent of the liquor agency. "Any arrest, anytime they get called, we are supposed to get a report in our office. Only action we can take is if the police have generated reports, and we haven't received reports."

Pershall said that his agency yanked the liquor license of the infamous Keys Market but that the revocation in 1988 was a different matter entirely.

It certainly was. Chief Ortega arranged to rent buses to transport the media to Keys Market so that the television stations could film police raids. The chief personally targeted Keys Market, and before long it was out of business.

Were there police reports in the file of Keys Market?
"Absolutely," said assistant superintendent Pershall.
Indeed, the state file on Keys Market towers over the relatively slim volume on Club 902.

Will the state move to revoke the license of the 902?
"I think it's an undesirable place," said Pershall, "but we need police reports for us to have any kind of hearings on it."

Since the December 11 Town Hall where Romley's financial ties to Club 902 were revealed, the county attorney has referred all prosecutions related to the bar over to the Attorney General's Office in order to avoid the appearance of conflict of interest. Since that date, Deputy County Attorney Ed Cathcart said he has passed nine narcotics cases involving Club 902.

The police have not filed a single one of those cases with the state liquor department. Repeated calls to Chief Ortega's office to inquire how it was that narcotics enforcement in the 902 and its parking lot was not reported to the state liquor department were not returned.

County Attorney Richard Romley also refused to be interviewed, though he was not entirely incommunicado.

Last Wednesday he sent a response to Louisa Stark, who'd written Romley on Monday regarding drug sales at Club 902.

"Please be assured that I am personally and professionally dedicated to the war against drugs in our community," responded Romley. "When appropriate, my office will aggressively prosecute persons accused of illegal drug activity of any kind.

"I am forwarding a copy of your letter to Ruben Ortega, Phoenix Police Chief, to make him personally aware of the problems in your neighborhood. Effective law enforcement begins with citizens, such as you, who take the time and effort to voice their concerns and to report crime to the police department.

"I thank you for your well-written letter and I have every intention of justifying the faith of the electorate in me as Maricopa County Attorney."

The letter was signed, "Sincerely."


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >