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Concerned that another criminal probe of Peter Gatien’s teetering operation would look like harassment, police officials were initially hesitant to investigate informant reports that drug dealing at the Tunnel nightclub was rife and occurring “out in the open,” a well-placed law enforcement source told the Voice Sunday.
But this reluctance vanished in late January, following the death of an 18-year-old who overdosed on a cocktail of the club drugs Ecstasy and Special K. Freed from relying on snitches to trigger another Gatien probe, police used the death of high-school student James Lyons as the basis for the two-month investigation that culminated with 14 arrests Saturday morning.
Beginning late last year, Drug Enforcement Administration informants reported that Ecstasy sales were booming at the West 27th Street club. In fact, informant coverage of the nightclub has been so extensive that, on the evening of Lyons’s OD, several DEA sources were present in the Tunnel. Since federal investigators— who failed to convict Gatien on drug-distribution charges— were not particularly interested in taking another run at the club owner, the informant reports were instead channeled to the NYPD’s Manhattan South narcotics squad.
Starting a few weeks ago, undercover narcotics officers began visiting the Tunnel to familiarize themselves with the sprawling club and its assortment of drug dealers. As opposed to the more structured distribution network of past years, cops discovered a more ad hoc assemblage of young— sometimes underage— dealers, some of whom appeared far from sophisticated.
One dealer arrested Saturday used an intermediary in his transaction with a female undercover officer— as if this method legally shielded him somehow. The dealer dropped an Ecstasy pill in one of the middleman’s hands while the undercover cop placed cash in the man’s other hand. The intermediary then crossed his arms, delivering each side the other’s offering. Despite the nifty choreography, both men were arrested.
One man nabbed Saturday for selling Ecstasy told the Voice that the demand for drugs inside the Tunnel was heavy. “I get hundreds of people a night . . . looking for drugs,” said the source, who asked not to be identified. After Lyons’s death, Tunnel management warned employees and promoters that they would be fired if found dealing or using drugs, said the suspected dealer. “Even those that I did know that were selling, that were actually legitimate employees, they stopped because they did not want to lose their jobs.” Others were not deterred: “There are still those . . . who continue to do their business. This is their lifestyle, this is their job.”
Inside the Tunnel early Saturday, a pair of Voice reporters observed security personnel frisking some, but not all, patrons entering the club. Though signs were posted throughout the Tunnel warning against drug use, some of the
smaller dance floors and private rooms reeked of marijuana. Around 2 a.m., the Voice saw security guards searching two young women in a space known as one of the club’s “strip-search rooms.” As a female guard patted them down, the women were directed to remove their knee-high boots and socks, which were then inspected.
Two other female clubgoers complained to a Voice reporter that security at the club had recently been extremely tight and that, a week earlier, guards had confiscated two Ecstasy pills and a small bottle of absinthe from them. During the seizure, they added, a friend of theirs was struck by guards who suspected him of hiding additional drugs.
Outside the club, a third reporter watched as a steady stream of young people— many of whom appeared underage— lined up to have IDs checked before being allowed in to pay the $25 admission. A clutch of scantily clad girls, who had initially been turned away at the door, loitered in the cold for nearly two hours before Tunnel personnel admitted them. Another group of teenage girls didn’t even attempt to enter the club, content to ogle the scene from the sunroof of a white stretch limo, occasionally entertaining the waiting crowd with their best Britney Spears imitations.
But like Gatien— who departed the Tunnel by cab around 11:30 p.m.— the girls missed the real excitement when cops, wearing NYPD windbreakers and carrying high-powered flashlights, arrived after 3 a.m. and began whisking more than 1000 patrons out of the nightclub. Lining up patrol cars to funnel clubgoers past undercover officers, police were able to pluck some suspects from the departing throng.
Those arrested were taken to the 10th Precinct and subjected to NYPD strip searches, a far more rigorous examination than the one they encountered at Gatien’s club. One sensitive young suspected drug dealer even complained to the Voice, “I felt so violated.”
Additional reporting by Soo-Min Oh and Michael Zilberman