Police call for emergency powers after stabbing shuts down bar

Police call for emergency powers after stabbing shuts down bar

The Arnold Street bar Jaragua has shut down after a stabbing took place there in October. (Breeze photo by Lauren Clem)

WOONSOCKET – A double stabbing in a local bar last month has city officials reassessing their authority over liquor licenses and the businesses that hold them.

On Nov. 6, Jaragua Lounge owner Francisco Mendez agreed to voluntarily terminate his liquor license after a stabbing on the property led to two being sent to the hospital in October. According to attorney Thomas Hanley, Mendez plans to sell the establishment at 33 Arnold St. and has several interested buyers with more experience in the business.

“My client got a little bit over his head,” he told city councilors during a meeting of the City Council sitting as the Board of License Commissioners.

On Oct. 26, police responded to reports of a disturbance outside the Arnold Street property. According to Chief Thomas Oates, when officers arrived, they found patrons from Jaragua Lounge fighting in the street. A short time later, they received a call from Landmark Medical Center that two people were being treated for stab wounds.

When police went to interview the victims, they were not cooperative and refused to give their names, but police managed to connect them to the earlier incident at Jaragua Lounge. Returning to Arnold Street, they found a trail of blood leading from the street into the bar. Officers knocked on the door of the bar, but were denied entry, according to Oates. While outside, they saw two people flee out a back door and drive off in a vehicle.

Police were not able to identify suspects in the stabbings, but the incident prompted them to request a show-cause hearing for the business. Oates said police had been prepared to testify before the board when Mendez’s lawyer called a meeting with city legal counsel earlier that day. During the meeting, the owner agreed to voluntarily terminate the license rather than go through the process of a showcause hearing.

Though the meeting closes the door for Jaragua Lounge, Oates said the incident raises concerns on the city’s process for addressing liquor license violations. In Providence, where he previously served as deputy chief, the Board of Licenses has the authority to temporarily shut down a business on an emergency basis. In June, Providence officials used that law to issue an emergency closure of Club Seven when a man was stabbed to death after leaving the Federal Hill nightclub.

At the moment, Woonsocket has no similar law. In the case of an incident like last month’s stabbing, city officials are required to hold a formal hearing for the business and give notice at least 72 hours in advance. For Jaragua Lounge, that mechanism allowed the business to remain open the following night and for several nights after, according to Oates.

The issue has come to the attention of City Council President Daniel Gendron, who said he plans to introduce legislation creating an emergency closure clause at the next meeting. The text of the ordinance, developed with the help of City Solicitor John DeSimone, would allow the council to call an emergency meeting of the Board of License Commissioners without providing advance notice to the business. The board could then shut down an establishment, but would only be able to enforce the closure for 72 hours before holding a formal hearing.

“It’s got to be because of an immediate emergency,” said Gendron.

The ordinance would allow the city to have more leverage over businesses like Jaragua Lounge, which has had several run-ins with police over the past year. In February, Mendez appeared before the council on charges he was illegally serving hookah after the tobacco pipes set off fire alarms in the building. Since then, Oates said, police have responded to several more incidents outside the building, though none on the level of last month’s stabbing.

“That location has drawn our resources even as of recently,” he said. “Every Friday and Saturday night, there’s been problems with patrons that were leaving.”

Before it was Jaragua Lounge, the bar was Backstreet Sports Bar, which was cited multiple times for underage drinking and other disturbances. Oates said the bar is known to police as a frequent hangout for gang members.