Just How Easy Is It to Smuggle Drugs Into a New York City Nightclub?
With the biggest party night of the year, New Year's Eve, coming up, to get the real skinny on security, the Voice went straight to the source.
Standing just over six feet, Leesa Harrington-Squyres has the kind of body and "don't fuck with me" attitude that needs only the all-black garb to complete the image of a nightclub security guard. When she's not overseeing the crowd from the floor, she's doing it from the stage as the drummer for cover band Lez Zeppelin, which toured France, Switzerland, and Belgium in the fall. Having herself overcome a substance abuse problem several years ago — one that ran the gamut from meth and coke to heroin — Harrington-Squyres knows both sides of the drug culture. She began working as a bouncer in her native Houston in 1993 before moving to New York in 2001. Her first gig was at the old Copa on West 47th Street, which, she says, "taught me a lot about searching. Texas was different. There wasn't a lot of that, because the clubs all close at 2 a.m."
Like most female security guards, she's usually doing pat-downs at the door. For small amounts of drugs, "the difficulty of pat-downs is that they are very hard to detect," notes Donald Bernstein, widely considered the go-to attorney for club owners. "I have had clubs put in scanners, pat-downs, everything I can. But the fact is, if someone really wants to bring something in, you can't do a strip search."
Maybe so, but that doesn't stop Harrington-Squyres from looking. "Sure, I search women's bras. I reach around, then under, then through and in between." Nor are men immune from her venturesome hands. "One time, I found a big sack of Molly a guy was trying to bring in," she says, "a bag of about forty, by hiding under his balls."
Last year she found herself working the dance floor at Time Warp, a weekend-long techno festival in a Brooklyn warehouse. "I walked through as inconspicuously as possible," she says. "If I saw someone smoking pot, I'd tell them to take it outside. Outside, pot was OK. If I caught someone doing Molly, coke, K2, they were out."
The drug Harrington-Squyres most often uncovers during pat-downs is perfectly legal and available at the bar. "People are always trying to sneak in tiny bottles of booze," she says. "Do you know how many flasks I have in my freezer? At least half a dozen — and that doesn't count the ones I give away. I empty the flask and confiscate it."
A much bigger problem these days is gun violence. One of the first clubs where Harrington-Squyres worked was SRB, a venue (now closed) in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn that hosted techno parties when she started. "Then," she notes, "it moved to hip-hop, a totally different ballgame: lots more grass. But what I'm really looking for at those parties are weapons."
Working in the city's clubs can indeed be dangerous. In February, a security guard was shot in the neck during a fight at a club in Inwood, in Upper Manhattan. Two months ago, three people were shot outside the Flatiron's Motivo after a man got into a dispute with security guards.
Such incidents are graphic reminders of the flak security guards face every night. Harrington-Squyres can recount several instances where "guys get all macho, like, 'Don't put your motherfucking hand on me.' " In such situations, she calmly points to two burly male guards in the corner. "I tell him, 'You either walk out quietly with me, or you'll be thrown out on your ass by those two guys.' He'll just say, 'Oh, shit' and leave."
Security guards came under tighter city control in 2006, after a bouncer who raped and murdered a patron was found to have previously done time for drugs and robbery. On February 26 of that year, Imette St. Guillen, a student at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, was last seen at 4 a.m. at the Falls, a bar on Lafayette Street in Noho. Several hours later, police were tipped off that there was a body which matched the description of St. Guillen. An autopsy revealed she had been brutally beaten and raped. Darryl Littlejohn, one of the bouncers at the Falls, was found guilty — but adding to the horror, it was discovered that he had spent more than twelve years behind bars. Strict new rules followed, requiring fingerprinting and a background check as well as a compulsory eight-hour course (plus a yearly refresher) covering topics such as crowd control and self-defense.
Underpaid and overworked, security guards have long been suspected of reselling drugs or keeping them for personal use. "Depending on circumstances, I give them to the club owner," Harrington-Squyres says. "Presumably, he throws them out." Sometimes, however, "I'll be about to pat down someone and I'm told, 'No, he's OK.' "
She has also worked rented party boats that circle Manhattan, which presents an entirely different set of rules. "Depending on the promoter," she notes, "anything goes. Sometimes they just say, 'Let them do what they want.' "
Back in 1996, club king Peter Gatien was accused of running a "drug bazaar" at the old Limelight. He beat the rap, but the legal fees nearly bankrupted him. Finally, two years later, he was convicted of tax evasion. The last sting operation occurred in 2008, when Pacha closed for a brief period after an exhaustive undercover dragnet turned up a few Ecstasy tablets. Harrington-Squyres maintains that she regularly witnesses the NYPD quietly escorting someone out of a club after an undercover cop makes a drug buy and then texts uniformed officers waiting outside. (She says, by way of example, that it happened at the Sullivan Room following an Electric Daisy Carnival event.)
"There are instances of [officers] going undercover in a club and doing their own investigation," Bernstein confirms. "If they find illegal drug sales, they'll contact the officers outside."
A spokesman from the New York bureau of the Drug Enforcement Administration told the Voice that the feds are more concerned with dealers than with casual users. The agency responds to formal complaints about drug dealing inside clubs but hasn't been involved in such an operation for several years. Even so, it's hard to overcome an incident like the 2012 death of a man who fell from a balcony at District 38, which closed its doors not long after. As reported in the Voice last year, the massive Electric Zoo festival, held over Labor Day weekend on Randalls Island, instituted a get-tough policy that included compulsory viewing of a brief video depicting a man losing it on Molly — this on the heels of a pair of drug-related deaths and several hospitalizations the year before.
Problems can arise when a club hosts a party outside of its personnel's comfort zone, as happened several years ago at a Times Square pro-wrestling-themed restaurant-club. From the nervous titters at coat check, it was clear that the leather-and-fetish gay crowd was far different from the usual out-of-town tourists. Things deteriorated from there, with overzealous security guards pouncing on people for popping Tic Tacs.
Most of the time there's a tacit understanding that, if guards aren't exactly looking the other way, they're not peering over bathroom stalls or aggressively scanning the dance floor, either. As long as people don't get sloppy, it's a "see no evil" situation.
"Listen," Harrington-Squyres says. "People want to have a good time. For some people, drugs plus people equal a good time. The guards posted around the perimeter of the dance floor don't really see too much. They're not even really looking for that. It's hard for them to see people doing bumps. There might be roaming guards on the dance floor. The perimeter guys can't leave their stations. They have to alert the roaming guards. And remember, we have to catch someone in the act."
At least once, Harrington-Squyres has been confronted by a patron angry that a dealer sold him shit. "I had a guy in a club come up to me and point out a woman," the bouncer recalls. "He said, 'See that gal? She's selling bad Molly.' I asked him, 'Man, you're telling me you bought bad Molly, so you want the dealer busted?' "
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