News & Politics

Flunking a Bar Exam


Michael Dorrian was pacing back and forth inside his now infamous Falls bar in Soho, stopping occasionally to peer through the curtains at the media circus parked on his doorstep. It was Friday, March 10, two weeks to the day since Imette St. Guillen, a dean’s list student at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, had her last drink in Dorrian’s place before her ravaged body turned up near the Belt Parkway in Brooklyn.

Now Dorrian’s whole block was lined with TV news trucks, come to see the dozen protesters demanding the bar answer to charges of misleading police and hiring Darryl Littlejohn, a seven-time violent felon who is now the prime suspect in the rape and murder of the 24-year-old St. Guillen. It’s illegal for bars to employ felons.

“The Dorrian family hired a career criminal for a bouncer. Why?” demanded one of the neon-green signs demonstrators waved for the cameras. Another took a shot at Michael Dorrian’s younger brother, who was managing the bar the night St. Guillen was killed.

“Daniel Dorrian, why did you lie to police? What are you hiding?” the sign demanded. According to news reports, Daniel first told police he hadn’t seen St. Guillen that night, then claimed she’d left the bar alone. Police sources quoted in the press said Daniel waited nearly a week before telling detectives he’d ordered Littlejohn to escort St. Guillen out the bar’s side entrance just after closing time. He reportedly heard arguing outside, then a muffled scream.

“Anyone who would stonewall police has a lot to answer to and certainly does not deserve a liquor license,” Sean Sweeney of the Soho Alliance told the news crews, before launching into a tirade about the proliferation of rowdy and irresponsible bars in his district.

Inside the Falls, about 20 regulars and family faithful did their best to ignore the fracas, tipping back pints and watching basketball on the widescreen TV as generic ’80s rock thumped from the speakers. Michael Dorrian huddled at the end of the long wooden bar with a group of male friends who were joking with him and slapping him on the back, as if keeping their chins up could dispel the ignominy of this crime and the mounting demands to shutter the bar.

“I can’t say anything about anything,” Michael responded with an exasperated shrug, his face flushed, when asked about the public crucifixion of his family’s bar dynasty.

State Liquor Authority records, though, have plenty to say. The files for the Falls and other bars and restaurants owned by members of the Dorrian family reveal that since 1996, the SLA has fined the family’s enterprises a total of $29,500, for 19 offenses.

Nine of the incidents took place at Dorrian’s Red Hand, the Upper East Side drinking mill made famous by the so-called “preppy murder” in Central Park. As many have noted, that 1986 killing bears an eerie similarity to the police’s primary theory about St. Guillen’s; it involves yet another beautiful young woman—Jennifer Levin—who was strangled by a man she’d met at a Dorrian-owned bar.

Family patriarch Jack Dorrian courted controversy when he put his family’s East Side townhouse up as collateral on $150,000 bail for Robert Chambers. Chambers was 19 at the time he killed Levin, but was nonetheless considered a regular at the bar. Three months after the killing, the SLA suspended the Red Hand’s license for 10 days when the bar was caught serving minors; that suspension was eventually overturned. A decade later, without acknowledging wrongdoing, the family paid a $100,000 out-of-court settlement to Levin’s parents, who’d sued the bar for illegally serving alcohol to Chambers.

SLA records indicate a continued slew of offenses, some standard for a bar, others more likely to halt a raised glass. The Red Hand has been popped numerous times for noise and disorderly premises—no big surprise for a saloon—but in 1998 was also cited for a violation known as “improper brand label.” An SLA spokesperson explained that the bar had substituted one brand for another. The bar was cited for operating outside of licensed business hours in 2000 and 2003. And in 1997, it paid a fine of $10,000 for filing false tax returns.

Rebar and Suite 16, two former Chelsea nightclubs that Michael and brother John Dorrian operated at 127 Eighth Avenue under the corporate name Mac Daddy Inc., were together cited 10 times for violations that included “refilling/contaminated bottles” and selling to a minor. Rebar was cited for four assaults or altercations there
between January 1998 and November 1999.

The family’s trendy Park Avenue eatery Barna came out clean, as did Il Posto Accanto, the wine bar Michael recently sold in the East Village.

The Falls, which Michael opened with Daniel and chef John Kekalos in 2004, was cited on January 14, 2006, for selling booze to a minor. It has until March 29 to answer this charge. Meanwhile, outrage over management’s conduct in the investigation intensified last week with the revelation that a second bouncer working at the club had a violent record. That bouncer, now a key witness for the prosecution, was also on duty the night St. Guillen disappeared.

The NYPD has asked the SLA to suspend its investigation of the Falls while the criminal investigation of St. Guillen’s death is under way. Police have not said yet whether the bar or Daniel Dorrian could face charges.

As owners, Michael, Daniel, and Kekalos could face penalties for not hiring licensed security guards, in addition to SLA violations for hiring convicted felons. If the Falls’ liquor license were revoked, Michael and his partners could be barred from holding a liquor license anywhere for two years.

The Dorrian family’s attorney, Daniel Gitner, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

In any case, the Alcohol Beverage Control Law says only that bars can’t “knowingly” hire a felon, and they’re not required to run background checks. Jack Dorrian told the New York Post that Littlejohn posed as a former U.S. marshal and showed them a fake badge when he applied. The other bouncer, Tim Catella, was charged in 2001 with two counts of assault and criminal possession of a weapon for beating a man with a bat and a flashlight. In a plea deal, he spent three years on probation.

One well-placed liquor industry source said he doubted that failing to hire licensed staff would prompt the SLA to shut the Falls. “It’s like a slap on the wrist,” he said.

This well-connected family, whose history as barkeeps dates back to grandfather “Red” Dorrian’s bootlegging days in the 1920s, has managed to dodge trouble for many years.

“It’s like they see themselves as above the law,” says Soho resident Sean Brady, who lives behind the Falls. Brady says he spent months complaining about the Falls’ loud and “egregiously bad” music, which he hears all night long because his loft shares a side wall with the bar.

Brady says Daniel promised repeatedly to hire sound and stereo experts to fix the problem. “They strung me out for months,” he charges. “It was a total stonewall.”

If the Dorrians are taking shelter behind a stone wall, it’s a well-defended one. Their present attorney, Gitner, is the former assistant federal prosecutor for Manhattan who put Lil’ Kim behind bars for perjury. Jack Dorrian’s youngest daughter, Carol, is married to Anthony Carbonetti, former mayor Rudy Giuliani’s chief of staff and current business partner at Giuliani Partners LLC. That helps explain why, in the initial days of the murder investigation, the Dorrian family was being advised by Daniel Connolly, a founding member of the firm, who was a top lawyer for the city during Giuliani’s second term.

Jack’s youngest son, Chris Dorrian, was a community liaison to the mayor’s office during the first Bloomberg administration. And the two-story building where the Falls is located, 218 Lafayette Street, is owned by the family of former vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro and her husband, real estate mogul John Zaccaro. They’ve long been close to the Dorrian clan. Zaccaro’s real estate office is on the second floor. Zaccaro and Ferraro’s daughter runs a Web-based charity there.

Mother Carol Dorrian did her best to defend her son Daniel in a fawning interview with New York Post columnist Steve Dunleavy, who is also a family friend. “Little Danny,” as she called him, donated a kidney to his father and raised $85,000 for Hurricane Katrina victims.

Twenty years after the Chambers case, Dorrian’s Red Hand is thriving. These days bar reviews even cite the “preppy murder” as a tourist draw.

But serving a 19-year-old is one thing. Allegedly obstructing a police investigation of a murder is quite another. And Daniel’s alleged misstatements to police last month could have given the guilty time to destroy vital evidence. Littlejohn’s lawyer says his client is innocent, despite what police claim is DNA evidence linking his blood to the ties binding St. Guillen’s wrists.

The backlash against this gruesome crime has prompted calls for an “Imette’s Law” requiring bars to install video cameras, along with a City Council bill to allow cops to moonlight as bouncers again. A separate online campaign,, seeks mandatory licensing and background checks for New York bouncers. Jeff Ragsdale, the Upper West Side writer for whom “Justice for Imette” has become a full-time crusade, joined the protest outside the Falls again last Friday. He and the others have vowed to hold weekly picket lines until the bar is closed down. “If they’d done a simple background check, Imette would still be with us,” says Ragsdale.

Or maybe an even simpler step could have saved her. “If she was a young woman drunk and alone,” says John Jay student Moncy Mathews, “they should have helped her catch a cab.”

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