It was just another Friday night at Stinger Cocktail Lounge at 19th Avenue and Camelback: September 24, and the serious drinkers were balanced precariously on their stools. Colleen Speed was tending bar when a regular named Russell, who everyone knew as "the Mexican guy with one arm," took a seat. Speed and Russell had had a long-standing feud about a $5 debt, and Russell started a harangue about why Speed didn't like him.
Speed's got the hardened gaze and harder voice of someone who's made a career of pouring drinks. "I just told him he was a punk and a piece of shit and get out and don't come in here when I'm working," she says.
According to Speed, Russell looked her in the eye, pointed a finger and said, "I'm going to put a bullet through your head." It was a simple exchange, but it escalated during the next 24 hours, until Speed feared for her life. And, ultimately, it raised a question about whether a bartender has the right to call 911 for assistance without first consulting the bar owner. Police responses, after all, require bar owners to file reports with the state Department of Liquor Licenses and Control. If a bar is the scene of too many violent incidents, it could lose its license.
On the other hand, if bars are reluctant to call police when trouble starts, what does that mean to the security of bar patrons?
Although the police rarely are called to the Stinger, it still resembles a set from the old TV series Hill Street Blues, a smoke-filled box, not the kind of place you'd take your mom. Its owner, however, is Phoenix's first mom, Yvonne DeLisle, mother of Mayor Paul Johnson, and she believes that if a bartender can't handle a tense situation, then she "probably can't handle the job."
Speed handled it that evening. Russell was asked to leave the bar--as on many prior occasions. "I had to throw him out of there every time he came in," Speed says.
The trouble started the next day. Speed went to work early on September 25, so she could throw some darts before her shift started. She was accompanied by her boyfriend, a well-spoken underachiever whose name, ironically, is Paul Johnson, but who is known to everyone as Pablo.
According to Speed and her boyfriend, Russell came in shortly after Speed went behind the bar, and as a conversation opener, Pablo asked, "How do you think you can get away threatening my lady?"
Russell contemplated his response. "Fuck you," he said. And once again, Speed asked him to leave, and several patrons stood up to show their solidarity with her.
A short time later, Russell came back and asked Pablo to step out the front door to fight. Pablo peeked out the back door, instead, and claims that Russell had brought two friends with him, one of whom was brandishing a brick and the other a club festooned with nails. Pablo says the latter spotted him and tried to entice him out by saying, "Come on, I want a piece of you."
Pablo, who once considered becoming a priest, recalls, "Instantly, my Jesuit training takes over, and I say, 'Oh, shit, call 911.'" Speed answered, "Can't." It is the bar's policy not to call the police until the last resort. Speed thought she could be fired if she dialed 911.
Pablo closed the door; the assailants opened it. A pair of bar patrons got up and blocked entry. Pablo begged Speed to call the police, and because she wouldn't, he called his lawyer, James Lagattuta, to come rescue him. Lagattuta drove down in a truck, came to the back door and whisked Pablo away. Russell and his friends had gone off somewhere, if only temporarily.
Speed was rattled by the encounter, and called DeLisle. "I said, 'If they come back, I am going to call the cops,'" Speed recalls of that conversation. "[DeLisle] said, 'No, don't do that. You call me and put Russell on the phone, and I'll talk to Russell.'"
Which is what happened. Russell came back, and Speed put him on the phone with DeLisle. DeLisle also claims that she told Speed that she would come down to talk to Russell if there was trouble, but that Speed said everything was under control. And DeLisle claims she gave Speed permission to call police if it was absolutely necessary.
To DeLisle's mind, the trouble only started because of Pablo's intervention. "I have a policy that no boyfriends or husbands are allowed," she says. Speed, in fact, had been fired once before, because her estranged husband would come into the bar during Speed's shift and run off customers.
Furthermore, DeLisle doesn't think Russell is dangerous, even if bar talk says he once went to prison for shooting someone in a bar. DeLisle says that supposedly happened in another state and over a wife, but nobody knows for sure.
Speed was afraid Russell would get even with her sooner or later, and Pablo was equally frightened. "He scares me to death," Pablo says. "Anyone who threatens to kill you and only has one arm is probably going to shoot you. If I were that skinny, that drunk and that stubborn and had one arm, I would not go out and get in a fistfight."
Speed claims that fights occur frequently at the bar, and that at least once, she has been punched in the face breaking them up.
Janet Spielman, a former bartender at the Stinger, explains: "It's a neighborhood bar, and everybody pretty much knows everybody else. And they get into fights just like families."
Police last visited the Stinger last September 1, when DeLisle couldn't get an irate drunk out of the bar. As she wrote in her "Act of Violence, Licensee's Report" to the liquor department, "I asked him a number of times to leave. He would not. I maced him. The Mace did not work on him. We called the Phoenix police and he went to jail."
As Speed recalls the incident, "Yvonne went to get him with the pepper gas and got everybody but him, because the swamp cooler just sucked it up." Furthermore, she feels it was far less threatening than her encounters with Russell, but because DeLisle herself was involved, the police were summoned.
There have been few acts of violence reported at the Stinger: two this year, including the pepper gas incident; none last year; three in 1991; three in 1990; one in 1989; one in 1988; and two in 1987. Most of the reported violence has been fights and muggings.
But, in fact, it is bar policy not to call the police. "When we've had our meetings, it's something we've all been told," says Spielman. "If it's absolutely necessary and it can't be handled and you can't get ahold of [DeLisle], you can call 911. But she'd rather be called first. I've worked in many, many bars, and with every bar owner, it's the same way."
Spielman recently quit in a disagreement with DeLisle about money; another disgruntled bartender turned DeLisle in for minor gambling violations, which earned the bar a letter of warning from the Liquor Control Board.
The night she tangled with Russell, Colleen Speed called DeLisle to say she was quitting. DeLisle admits that she called Speed "chicken shit" for quitting in the middle of her shift.
"I'm chicken shit?" Speed says, fuming. "Chicken shit is not being able to call the cops. Your employees and your patrons need to be able to get help if they need it, and she cannot help you from her easy chair at home."
DeLisle also admits that she avoids calling 911. "Oh, absolutely," she says. "We have a policy not to call police, because when you call the police, you have to go down to the liquor board and file reports to them and give them reasons why the police were called.
"This wouldn't even be a story if my son wasn't the mayor," she continues. "You call any bar owner in Phoenix and ask them if they try to keep down the number of times they call police, and they will tell you absolutely."
She's probably right. "There's no question that it's a common practice that needs to come to light," says David Gonzalez, Organized Crime Commander for the state Department of Public Safety, who adds that bar owners don't want to file "Act of Violence" reports. "A lot of licensees feel these are black marks against you."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
In fact, the first item on the Arizona Revised Statutes' list of grounds for revoking a liquor license reads, "There occurs on the licensed premises repeated acts of violence or disorderly conduct." Garry Shumann, compliance officer for the liquor department, agrees that bar owners probably don't call police as quickly as they should. Which means that you may have to wait out the bartender's discretion if you get in trouble.
Shumann also calls attention to item 10 on the list of grounds for revoking a license: "The licensee fails to take reasonable steps to protect the safety of a customer of the licensee entering, leaving or remaining on the licensed premises when the licensee knew or reasonably should have known of the danger to such person, or the licensee fails to take reasonable steps to intervene by notifying law enforcement officials or otherwise to prevent or break up an act of violence or an altercation occurring on the licensed premises or immediately adjacent to the premises when the licensee knew or reasonably should have known of such acts of violence or altercations."
Russell, meanwhile, still spends his evenings at the Stinger. When contacted there, he declined to make any comment that was printable.