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The day after a small army of undercover narcotics cops infiltrated the Tunnel disco and arrested 14 people on charges relating to the sale and use of the popular dance-floor drug Ecstasy, the club's owner Peter Gatien is in deep denial. Speaking on the phone from his Upper East Side townhouse Sunday, he doesn't appear to comprehend that this could easily signal the end of his lengthy but rocky New York nightclub career. The Canadian entrepreneur, who beat the feds in a highly publicized drug-conspiracy and racketeering case last year, survived the Michael Alig club-kid-killer scandal, and has been investigated more times than Tony Soprano, really seems to believe that lawyers and loopholes will save him again. Either that, or he can spin his way out of trouble.
"Why are my clubs supposed to be the only nondrug venues in New York?," he asks, accusing authorities of highly selective enforcement. "Are you telling me there's no drugs at other clubs? What about all the pot people smoke at rock concerts at Madison Square Garden? I have my suspicions that somebody out there whether it's Giuliani or the feds wants to put a major hurt on me."
Gatien claims the 50 hits of Ecstasy the cops seized in the 3 a.m. Saturday raid do not constitute a major bust. "There were allegedly 10 Ecstasy dealers arrested," he reasons. "That's an average of five hits a dealer. So we're not talking about major drug traffickers here." But the 50 tablets are more than enough reason for the State Liquor Authority to refuse to renew Gatien's license for his other club, the Limelight, and to allow police to padlock the Tunnel which they reportedly intend to do this week under the nuisance-abatement law.
In the wake of the death of 18-year-old Jimmy Lyons from a drug overdose at the Tunnel in January, bouncers were instructed to be more vigilant in their search for drug use on the premises and to eject anybody caught napping in the club. But such measures proved too little too late.
Ironically, a few weeks prior to the raid, a spokesperson from the 10th Precinct's Office of Community Affairs and Crime Prevention assured the Voicethat drugs weren't a major problem at the Tunnel and other major clubs in his precinct; thanks to "good management," he said, there were only "a few isolated incidents." But following Lyons's death at the Tunnel, Amy LeBrecht, one of Lyons's friends who was present, told the Voice: "It seemed like everybody was tripping their faces off. The Tunnel is a big drug house. I know people who deal there." On one recent visit prior to the bust, drug peddlers were clearly visible lined up outside the bathroom, offering wares: "Wanna bump, wanna bump?" or "E. E. E."
Some of Gatien's employees are angry at their boss for not grasping the magnitude of the drug situation. "He sends out mixed messages. The promoters are told one thing, the security another," said one Tunnel insider. After a recent dispute at the now squeaky-clean Limelight, when bouncers tried to eject a promoter's friend who was smoking pot, Gatien took the side of the promoter, and the friend was allowed to stay. "Peter thinks he can finesse his way out of this," the above-quoted insider says. "He doesn't realize just how serious this is."
Still, Saturday's raid did have its comic moments, at least according to one of the arrested suspects. The arrestee improbably claims that, while sitting in the police van outside the club, one man busted for selling Ecstasy slipped out of handcuffs and provided hits of E to five or six companions, who wound up merrily "rolling" all the way back to the station house.
Gatien's private investigator and former Nassau County homicide detective John Damrowski responsible for running a team of former law enforcement officials who work undercover at the Tunnel and Limelight looking for drug dealers defends the work he does at Gatien's clubs. He claims that since the beginning of the year, the Tunnel has ejected as many as 250 people suspected of drug activity. He adds that his team meets regularly with 10th Precinct officers, who have assured him he's been doing a good job: "They're not giving us a fair chance," he protests. "They don't do this to any other club in New York. This is coming from the mayor's office. The cops have been told to get Peter Gatien at all costs."
In a related development, opening arguments are set to begin this Thursday in the federal trial of the Tunnel's manager and former head of security Ray Montgomery, accused of allowing drug peddling. According to sources, the government's main witness will allegedly testify that he gave money to Montgomery to be allowed to deal drugs at the cavernous club.
Additional reporting by Lou Bardel