There are several thick, three-ring binders that sit on a bookshelf in Middletown Police Lt. Jimmy Cunningham’s office.
The volume of pages in the binders shows how much evidence must be collected before a business can be declared a “nuisance” property, a move that may eventually shut it down.
In 2015, Middletown passed a Chronic Nuisance Ordinance that states property owners who receive three nuisance activities or two drug-related charges at the same location will be billed the cost of the public safety responses by the city.
Cunningham said he remembers four Middletown businesses that either were closed or demolished after they were declared nuisances. Miller’s Lounge on Charles Street, B&R Cafe on Crawford Street, and the VFW on Young Street were closed by the city, he said, and after being under investigation, the Grand Illusion bar on Grand Avenue, was sold, then demolished.
Nuisances properties are back in the news after the recent violence and arrests at Bar Boca on Charles Street.
After Miller’s Lounge was closed in 2014 due to repeated nuisance violations, Bar Boca opened in the same location last fall, and neighbors and police say the illegal activity has continued, despite the new owners. There was a shooting outside the bar 10 days after it opened, police said.
Bar Boca is managed by Joe Ruscigno, who also was associated with Doubles Bar in Hamilton, a bar that was closed after a fatal shooting last summer. The bar was razed with hopes of creating a new, more positive business there, the property owner said.
A 22-year-old Hamilton man was fatally shot at about 2 a.m. July 24, 2016, near the Doubles Bar property, where seven others were wounded by gunfire in the same incident. Doubles also was the site of a double shooting in August 2015.
Ruscigno could not be reached for comment.
While considering whether a business can be declared a nuisance, Cunningham said he investigates the number of times police were called there for service. If there “is a problem” he said, police contact the bar owner and arrange a meeting to discuss possible solutions to the violent offenses and drug activity.
The initial meeting, Cunningham said, serves a dual purpose: the first notice under state law and allows police to offer ways to correct the issues.
Cunningham said some bar owners have been receptive to police and have “developed a plan of action” so it complies with state and local laws.
“We give them cooperation because they’re trying,” Cunningham said.
But others, he said, refuse to comply.
That seems to be what’s happening at Bar Boca, Cunningham said.
He said officers have responded to the bar 37 times this year, and those calls are draining public safety resources and putting patrons and neighbors at risk.
There have been times when six Middletown police officers — the entire shift — have responded to Bar Boca because of the violence and illegal activity.
In June, Middletown police and the State Investigative Unit raided the bar. Middletown Police Chief Rodney Muterspaw said the agencies found six liquor violations, including drug use that led to one arrest, at the downtown bar located at 124 Charles St.
“We don’t want it open,” Muterspaw said. “The community doesn’t want it open. It’s not fair to the residents who live there. It’s a bad place in that neighborhood. I know that sounds harsh, but I’m tired of being nice to people who don’t care about the city.”
Cunningham called the atmosphere inside the bar “unbelievable,” and added the bar was cited for liquor and health violations because patrons were permitted to leave the bar with open containers and bugs were found inside liquor bottles.
Cunningham said the city hopes to have the bar shut down sometime this summer.
Neighbors who live near the bar have called Middletown police, including Ronnie Perkins, who has installed a security camera on his property after he said patrons destroyed his property. Another neighbor, a woman, said she places a 2-by-4 across her front and back doors before she goes to bed.
Perkins said he wants Bar Boca closed permanently.
The community is “sick and tired” of bars that are breeding grounds for illegal activity, Cunningham said.
“It’s a quality of life issue for people around there,” he said of the neighborhood. “It’s not fair for the community, a neighborhood like that has to fear for the fact that a bar operates illegally. It’s not right.”
In recent years the Hamilton Police Department has shuttered one business, the former J&J Bar on Third Street, following the state’s nuisance property injunction process, according to Capt. Marc McManus.
That bar was padlocked in February 2016 by police after an injunction was obtained in Butler County Common Pleas Court. The bar had been a hotbed of criminal activity and violence, including drug complaints, a shooting, a stabbing, and strippers, police said.
From 2011 to 2013, police responded to the bar nearly 60 times for offenses like fighting, shots fired inside the bar and a stabbing and a shooting. When the bar’s liquor license was not renewed, it led the way for police to take permanent action.
The bar at 314 Third St. has since been sold and will be under new use.
A Hamilton bar that was the site of a fatal shooting last summer in Hamilton’s West Side has been closed and razed, but it did not take nuisance laws to make that happen. On July 24, a 22-year-old man was shot and killed in the lot of Doubles Bar, 1555 Main St. Seven others were wounded by gunfire.
Within hours of the shooting, police and city officials had contacted owners of the building.
“They said they didn’t want to be part of that type of business and took steps to end it,” McManus said.
“We are not interested in managing other people’s business, we have enough to do,” he said, but if a business is a constant source of violent felonious activity, it has to be addressed for the good of the community and because it is a burden on police resources.
“We will meet with the owners and offer suggestions,” McManus said. “We would prefer the owners do it.”
He noted they have had successes, noting one establishment, the Grub Pub, was once a haven for police calls. In December 2012, a man was fatally shot outside the Hancock Street bar.
“We had issues with the Grub Pub. We met with the owner and said we are not going to put up with the criminal activity. And he took charge of the situation,” McManus said. “I don’t know what the owner has done, but is seems to have worked.”
McManus said there are a couple of business owners the police department is working with now, including Hard Times Bar, where a couple shootings, one fatal, have occurred outside.