Editor’s note: This story includes a video of gunfire that may be disturbing to some readers.
ST. LOUIS — The city’s liquor control chief suspended a Washington Avenue nightspot's liquor license Friday, calling Reign Restaurant “a serious threat to the health and safety of the public.”
The suspension will last until hearings resume Sept. 27, at which point it could become permanent.
The decision followed months of complaints from residents and a Friday morning hearing in which the city mounted a dramatic case against Reign, including a startling video of a gunfight just outside the restaurant’s doors.
“It is difficult to imagine the scenes documented in the surveillance video occurred in this city,” liquor control chief Myles McDonnell wrote in his suspension order.
The decision was vindication for neighboring residents and business owners who for months have blamed Reign for fights in their streets, broken bottles on the sidewalks and gunshots waking them up at night. It was also a victory for new Mayor Tishaura O. Jones, as downtown struggles with homelessness, office vacancies and violence.
“The Excise Division is stepping up enforcement at multiple establishments, but enforcement is just one side of the coin,” Jones' spokesman Nick Desideri said in a statement Friday. “We need to create positive, engaging events and spaces for communities to enjoy downtown.”
Neither Reign owner Dana Kelly nor her attorney responded to requests for comment Friday evening.
But Kelly posted to Facebook a copy of a statement from Adolphus Pruitt, the president of the city’s NAACP chapter.
“If the opening of the City’s case against Reign Restaurant is a reflection of the City’s transparency than all black businesses are in trouble,” Pruitt wrote.
Charges against Reign date to last summer, just after Reign opened, when the venue was accused of flouting pandemic rules on masking and social distancing. The city ordered the bar to shut down again last October.
But on Friday morning, Deputy City Counselor Mike Garvin led with the events of Dec. 12. A surveillance video opened with a group of men arguing on the sidewalk just outside Reign’s front door. After a few moments, a man can be seen taking a punch, prompting multiple people around him to begin firing.
Another man begins firing shot after shot into the street, then gets hit by a bullet, falls to the ground and continues shooting for a few more seconds. He finally slides himself back behind Reign’s shattered front door, creating a trail of blood that shines in the streetlight.
Garvin noted that, after the shooting, a Reign security guard was toting a semiautomatic rifle.
Rebecca Vossmeyer, another assistant city counselor, presented video from inside Reign on Aug. 21 when gunshots could be heard as a man was shot out front. Another video recorded a shootout behind the establishment on Aug. 18, when two more people took bullets and a triggerman fired down St. Charles Street.
There was also footage from May 29, when liquor control officials said they found the restaurant open beyond its legal operating hours, were blocked from entering when they came to investigate, and caught patrons slipping out the back with drinks still in hand.
Two liquor control agents and two police officers testified against Reign.
“Other than Reign Restaurant,” said police detective Steven Strohmeyer, “we haven't had many shootings on Washington Avenue directly tied to a restaurant or bar.”
Attorney defends Reign
Reign attorney William Dailey picked holes in the city’s story.
After the city presented the Dec. 12 shootout, he pointed out that Reign security guards had tried to de-escalate the situation.
He also noted by the time the shooting started, Reign had already closed for the night, and that aside from the security guards, the men outside when the shooting began came from a cookie shop down the street and elsewhere. And when he asked police detective Abby Krull for her assessment, she agreed.
Dailey: “So we have two groups of individuals, none of which were patrons of Reign on this particular night, who got into a conflict in the street in front of Reign, and Reign security were de-escalating that situation. Was that an accurate view of what you saw before this footage?”
Dailey countered Strohmeyer’s suggestion that Reign attracted an abnormal amount of violence by having the detective read from a list of police calls that tallied shootings, holdups and fights at other Washington Avenue addresses.
And when Dailey got to liquor control officer Donna Wisdom, who testified about the after-hours incident in late May, he queried her on how she knew the people coming out of the rear entrance had alcoholic drinks: Did she confiscate any of the drinks? Did she test them? Could she smell anything on people’s breaths?
Wisdom said no each time. She also conceded she didn't know if people exiting were patrons or employees.
None of the shootings happened inside Reign, Dailey said. The nightspot, he added, could not be held responsible under liquor code for what happened outside its premises.
McDonnell, the liquor control chief, made his ruling late Friday afternoon.
“The shocking videos presented at the hearing, together with the police officers’ testimony, conclusively demonstrate that Reign is a ‘disorderly place’ as defined in (city code) and that continuation of the license would be detrimental to the neighborhood,” he wrote. “Indeed, Reign operations constitute a serious threat to the health and safety of the public.”
Reign faces a separate nuisance complaint with a hearing set for Sept. 20. If the city prevails there, it could close Reign completely and board up the building for up to a year.
Its landlord is also suing to force Reign to leave its premises, alleging it owes more than $150,000 in rent. Reign has denied the accusation.