Trying Times for Twilo

Superclub Battles the City While Banking on Going National

"Nightclubbing is not a crime," reads a promotional t-shirt for Twilo's monthly techno night, Respect is Burning. Maybe not, but for the line of clubbers outside the popular venue earlier this month, it must have felt that way. A dozen or so cops formed their own line in front and casually surveyed the crowd while the patrons submitted to the complicated security checks required for entry. Above the cash registers, a huge banner blared in capital letters: "UNDERCOVER POLICE NOW ALWAYS ON PREMISES."

These are trying times for the Chelsea superclub. As the establishment embarks on a bid for international fame with the launch of a CD series, a national tour, a magazine, and the startup of its own label, the city is trying to close Twilo's doors for good. On October 30, Judge Jane Solomon will begin hearing a case to determine whether the city can refuse to renew the club's cabaret license.

Prompted by two deaths in the last two years, a series of undercover drug buys at the nightclub, and an October 8 incident involving the alleged cover-up by the club's security of three unconscious patrons, the city is suing the club, hoping to shut it down under the Nuisance Abatement Law—a regulation generally used to padlock doors of places involved with prostitution or drug dealing. Under the law, a club can be closed after three arrests—a technicality that police initially used to their advantage against Peter Gatien's Limelight and Tunnel, and against the old Sound Factory in recent years.

Twilo GM Mike Bindra: up against a wall
photo: Hiroyuki Ito
Twilo GM Mike Bindra: up against a wall

Since it opened in 1995, taking over vacant Sound Factory warehouse space on West 27th Street, Twilo has dominated the local superclub circuit, counting Sasha and Digweed, Paul Van Dyk, and Carl Cox as regulars. Boasting the city's biggest sound system (the self-built Phazon Integrated system, which also pumps up U.K. clubs like Cream, Home, and the Guvernment), Twilo quietly mopped up the competition with its unrivaled lineups, garnering worldwide attention.

But this fall, at a decidedly pivotal moment for New York nightlife and for the club itself, Twilo general manager Mike Bindra and the venue's two owners find themselves up against a wall. In the same two months that the club launched a record label, a CD series, and a pop culture publication called Magazine, the cover-up allegations have reinvigorated the city's case. Two years ago, State Supreme Court Justice Solomon ruled that the city lacked justification to shut Twilo down, and instead issued a restraining order prohibiting the sale of drugs on the premises. Citing a need for further investigation, the city failed to renew the club's cabaret license, which expired in late September. Without such a license, no dancing is allowed. Court documents indicate that, though the club submitted proper renewal forms on time, the city effectively stalled in dealing with the paperwork. On September 27 Twilo filed an Article 78 petition, asking the judge to expedite the city Consumer Affairs Department's processing of cabaret license paperwork. The club's lawyer, Peter Sullivan, says, "We have every right to operate a cabaret. The city improperly failed to renew the license. We did everything we were supposed to do."

Neither the June 1998 death of Brigette Murray from an Ecstasy overdose nor the alleged 18 undercover drug buys that police made at the club within an eight-month period in 1998 (resulting in two arrests) were enough to halt Twilo's bid for world disco domination. But the recent alleged cover-up, and the Ecstasy overdose of Johns Hopkins student James Wiest this past July, might provide further ammunition for the city. "There are a series of serious public-safety issues that are of grave concern," says Daniel S. Connolly, special counsel for the New York City Law Department. "We believe we are able to convince the court that this is not a responsible organization that should continue to operate. The fact that people are dying inside of there [demonstrates that] there is a pattern of reckless disregard of the safety of the clientele."

Twilo lawyer Peter Sullivan says that, while Brigette Murray's friends told police she had been at the club earlier that evening in 1998, she did not actually die on the premises. "No one is dying because of Twilo," he insists. "And this problem could be solved if the police department had the courage to work with the nightclub industry rather than simply blaming the nightclub industry.

"Every citizen in New York has the right to call the police department for help," says Sullivan. "Our industry is the only group of citizens that the police department refuses to help."

On Monday, October 9, Twilo bouncer Joseph Murray was charged with reckless endangerment and obstruction of government administration for failing to report that three passed-out patrons remained inside after closing time. According to police spokesperson Officer Louis Cruz, police arrived in response to 911 calls, and, once lights were finally turned on, found the three clubbers in a back room near a bar. The three were taken to St. Vincent's Hospital at nine the next morning.

But not everyone agrees on what happened that night. Reports in the New York Post stated that Twilo bouncers allegedly tried to block the cops' entrance, which Sullivan denies. As does Cruz, who says police "were able to get into the club, but couldn't find the bodies." Cruz was also unable to confirm Post reports that the two men and one woman told cops they had taken "Liquid G," presumably GHB (gamma hydroxybutyrate), an antidepressant that can cause unconsciousness and, in some cases, death.

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