In the wake of the conviction of former Peter Gatien aide Steven Lewis on drug charges two weeks ago, speculation persists that Gatien continues to be the target of federal and/or state prosecutors. Will convicted felon Lewis— a downtown fixture for 20 years— now cooperate with authorities against his erstwhile boss, in an attempt to end what Lewis calls the Canadian club owner’s “reign of terror”?
While Lewis would neither confirm nor deny the rumors, one confidential source conjectures that— assuming it’s not too late— Lewis may be trying to cut a deal with authorities in return for a reduced sentence, bartering information he might have about Gatien allegedly cheating on federal taxes. Gatien has already pleaded guilty to state tax charges and will serve a 90-day sentence beginning this September. Forty-six-year-old Lewis— found guilty of conspiracy to distribute narcotics, as well as aiding and abetting drug dealers at Gatien’s discos— faces up to 20 years in a federal lockup, a long stretch for someone used to rubbing elbows with celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio and Prince at the Bleecker Street nightspot Life, where he worked until recently.
There has been talk in the club world about why Lewis— known as “Dr. Lewis” for his ability to turn around ailing clubs— didn’t take a cooperation agreement offered by the government at the beginning of the case and testify against his former boss. If he had, he would have been the federal government’s star witness at last year’s Gatien trial, where the club owner was found not guilty. “If someone had asked me the right questions back then, I probably would have cooperated,” said Lewis after his verdict. Questions might have included the following:
Gatien addressed these issues in a statement released to the Voice Monday: “While I feel sorry for Steve Lewis and I am saddened by . . . his conviction, I recognize how desperate he must be, and how eager he obviously is to try and help himself out of his legal difficulties, even if it means that he has to peddle information which he knows to be totally false . . . These are old allegations that Lewis has made before; nobody believed him then, and nobody in their right mind will believe them now.”
Lewis— who has toiled for every major club owner in recent memory, including Steve Rubell, Rudolf, and Frank Roccio— is immediately recognizable to Manhattan nightcrawlers as the bug-eyed, tuxedo-clad hardass who ruled with an iron fist the velvet ropes at such world-famous clubs as Danceteria and the Palladium. The federal jury convicting Lewis bought the government’s argument that, while working the front door at the Tunnel, Lewis allowed dealers access to the club, thus making him a key part of the narcotics cabal at Gatien’s hot spots.
“Somebody had to be the scapegoat,” said Lewis. “The jury basically concluded there were too many drugs in the clubs and I didn’t do enough about it. I think they were good people who listened to all the testimony intently and saw me as a person who was in a position to stop the drugs. Society as a whole is sick of hearing about drugs, drugs, drugs in nightclubs, and it’s lashing out.”
Lewis was hurt badly by negative publicity surrounding the recent closing of the Tunnel, even though he hadn’t worked there for four years. Though he says he has evidence that would have exonerated him had it been presented in court, he isn’t bitter: “I just felt it was very difficult to present my position in the current climate.” During the trial, Mayor Giuliani appeared on TV branding the Tunnel “an abomination.”
Lewis— who got his start in the nightclub business when he threw a late ’70s birthday bash for Dee Dee Ramone at Max’s Kansas City— reserves his real animosity for Gatien, who he calls “one of the most evil men I’ve ever met.” According to court documents, when the DEA first contacted him via phone in 1996 and told him there was a warrant out for his arrest, Lewis expressed fears that this was “a setup” by Gatien “to have me killed.”
After he left Gatien’s employ, Lewis had tried to contact the Manhattan D.A. in an effort to assist the office in its investigation of Gatien, but the potential deal fell through once Lewis was arrested by the Drug Enforcement Agency. He had quit the Tunnel when world-renowned DJ Junior Vasquez moved over from Twilo in 1995. Testimony at the trial suggested Lewis was forced out because Vasquez disliked him personally. A confidential source contends the real reason for his departure was that Lewis objected to the vicious Latin King drug dealers who came from Twilo; previously, Lewis had suffered several “beat-downs” from other drug dealers he refused to let in.
Gatien vehemently denies he tried to have Lewis murdered. And a confidential insider who knows both men well said: “I do not believe that Gatien tried to have him killed. Steve occasionally suffers from paranoia and flights of fancy.” But a colleague of Lewis’s, who requested anonymity, confirms there were “indirect threats” made against Lewis by Gatien associates.
The prosecution’s main witness, former party promoter and drug peddler Baby Joe Uzzardi, hired by Lewis in spring 1994, testified that in the summer of 1995 Lewis came into the Silver Bedroom— a VIP section at the Tunnel where Uzzardi threw parties— looking for Ecstasy pills. Informed that there were no dealers around, Lewis became angry. Uzzardi testified to then taking a more active role in insuring dealers were always present in the Silver Bedroom. He also claimed Lewis once said that “good music and good drugs is what makes a good party.” He told the court that he took this to mean Lewis wanted more dealers in the club. Ron Allen, who worked closely with Lewis since 1992, first at the Tunnel then at Life, says, “I can’t fathom that comment ever coming out of Steve’s mouth.” But the government reasoned that Lewis was guilty since, it alleges, he hired Uzzardi, was aware of the drug operation Uzzardi was running and doing nothing to prevent it, and on several occasions warned Uzzardi of undercover narcotics cops in the Tunnel.
Further damaging testimony came from Uzzardi’s roommate Jason Tillotson, who asserted that, after being thrown out of the club by bouncers for dealing drugs, he was let back in the same night by Lewis. (Lewis counters he did so because Tillotson was so drugged that he was a danger to himself.) Tillotson did admit, however, that Tunnel drug peddlers would hide from Lewis when they saw him approaching.
Another drug pusher, Ann Marie Pepe, claimed under direct examination in the Lewis trial that she dealt drugs in front of Lewis in the Silver Bedroom; under cross-examination, however, she admitted she may have walked out of Lewis’s line of sight to complete the deal.
Lewis’s colleague Allen refutes the popular club-world notion that his mentor is taking the rap for Gatien. Instead, he believes Lewis is taking the fall for self-confessed druggies who testified for the government, most likely in return for probation or short prison terms.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that Steven Lewis is innocent,” says Allen, who was supposed to take the stand as a character witness for his friend until Lewis’s lawyer made the decision not to mount a defense. “The notion that Steve’s job was to let drug dealers into the club is so ludicrous it makes me furious,” Allen insists. “In all the years I worked with Steve, I never saw him do drugs or be around drug activity.”
Another clubland denizen who was shocked by the verdict is John Davies, the man behind Body & Soul, recently named best New York club by The Face magazine: “It’s a tragedy. Of all the people, how could Steven Lewis be the one put in jail?”
Additional reporting by Steph Watts