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.

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Michael Kiefer