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The origin of the bullet that struck a disabled patron inside the Tunnel disco could be a deciding factor in whether club owner Peter Gatien gets his liquor license back. The State Liquor Authority suspended the perennially embattled club king's permit to sell alcohol after a shooting incident on February 7, during one of DJ Funkmaster Flex's popular Sunday night hip-hop jams. Around 3 a.m., Eric Simmons of Queens, often seen at the club in his motorized wheelchair, complained to security that someone had shot him in the thigh.
Gatien contends that detectives from the 10th Precinct who were called to the Tunnel told his employees that Simmons, who is paralyzed from the waist down, had shot himself. Gatien's camp believes that Simmons smuggled a gun into the club and then accidentally wounded himself. Michael Chan of Forensic Investigative Associates, an independent security firm that monitors the venue for any criminal activity, was present that night and says Simmons was searched at the entrance, but "in consideration of his disability, club security did not subject him to the rigorous examination to which other patrons are subjected."
Several employees say that Simmons was shot in the back of the calf and had a nasty-looking burn mark on his hand, which he complained about as he was being taken away by ambulance to nearby St. Vincent's Hospital, where he was treated and released. No gun was found and the alleged shooter was not apprehended. Simmons couldn't be located for comment, and the detectives declined to comment on an ongoing investigation.
In addition, the SLA claims Gatien lied in the original sworn statement he filed to secure a license in 1993. It allegedly promised that hip-hop events would not be held at the West Side dance hall. Gatien denies this, contending that what he really promised was not to turn the Tunnel into a full-time rap club.
The shooting could not have come at a worse time for Gatien. The SLA is currently holding hearings to decide whether to yank not only the Tunnel's license but the Limelight's as well, which would effectively put the Canadian entrepreneur out of business permanently. The city and state authorities have been attempting to close the trouble-plagued Tunnel ever since 18-year-old Jimmy Lyons died there of a drug overdose in January 1999. Last April, the city padlocked the Tunnel under the Nuisance Abatement Law after undercover police disguised as club kids bought drugs there. Gatien went to court, and after a lengthy hearing, it was revealed that most of the drugs the cops purchased inside the club were fake, containing no controlled substances whatsoever. As a consequence, Justice Paula Omansky ruled that the Tunnel could reopen, reasoning that "where you have young people, where you have the excitement of music . . . you are going to have drugs."
"We beat the pants off them in the Nuisance Abatement hearing and we're beating the pants off them in the SLA hearing," claims Gatien. "This is their way of getting back at me. Every time I can get the facts in front of a judge, I always win. The problem is that it costs a lot of money and makes it very difficult to operate. The more time goes on, the broker I get."
Despite the arrest of Puff Daddy after a shooting at Club New York, the stabbing allegedly involving rapper Jay-Z at the Kit-Kat Club, and the numerous drug arrests at both Twilo and Sound Factory, these clubsnone of them owned by Gatienstill have their liquor licenses. "We are not being closed because a guy shot himself in the leg. We're being closed because the Tunnel is owned by me," Gatien says. Nevertheless, he remains confident that he will ultimately prevail.
A source with intimate knowledge of the SLA hearings thinks otherwise, however. Damaging testimony about serious overcrowding at the Tunnel (which may have contributed to Jimmy Lyons's death) doesn't bode well for Gatien. Nor does the testimony of DEA agent Bob Gagne that over 50 people have been convicted of federal drug crimes committed at both clubs. In addition, a former employee told an SLA judge he saw Gatien under the influence of drugs inside the Tunnel.
"His defense during his federal trial was that he was so fucked-up on coke he couldn't have known about his employees dealing drugs and therefore wasn't criminally responsible has come back to bite him in the ass," says the source. "To keep a liquor license, you're required to be a sober operator. You can't be bingeing on coke for days at a time with hookers in hotel rooms while your clubs are out of control."