A former University of Washington football player who claims that he was racially discriminated against when he was forced to leave a Santa Ana disco last winter faces trial next week on charges of assaulting the police officers who escorted him out.
Police said that Kevin Conard, who was in Orange County last December with his team to play in the Freedom Bowl game, challenged officers to a fight when they told him and a fellow black teammate to leave the Red Onion disco because they didn't meet the club's dress code.
A shouting match ensued, escalating into a police chase. In the end, police said, five officers held down an angered and bleeding Conard to make an arrest.
Lost Place on Team
After the struggle, Conard received 10 stitches in his head to close a wound and spent the night in jail. Despite his plea of not guilty to four misdemeanor charges, the incident cost the 21-year-old Compton native his place on the University of Washington Huskies team and his football scholarship.
The case is due to go to trial next Monday. But attorneys for both sides said that the case is clouded by three recent lawsuits and more than 50 formal complaints to state and county agencies, alleging that the Red Onion discriminates against minorities.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Jim Hicks, who is prosecuting Conard, said the allegations and pending investigation by the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing into the Red Onion's admissions practices will be a "big factor" in determining whether he pursues the case or ultimately decides to drop the charges against Conard.
'It Would Distress Me'
"I would have to talk to people at the Red Onion, get a look at how the defendants were dressed and make an independent decision as to whether discrimination was what was going on in the case," said Hicks. "It would obviously distress me greatly if that was what was going on."
Following complaints by minorities that they were denied entrance to Red Onion discos because of their race, former and current employees of the Southern California restaurant and discotheque chain came forward to say that they had been told by their bosses to "clean up the crowd" when it became "too dark," or limit the number of blacks and Latinos by "finding something wrong with (minority) customers' IDs or clothes."
The allegations have been denied by Red Onion attorneys and officials. But in response to what the company calls the "perception of a problem," Red Onion President Ron Newman hired a consultant in May to design non-discriminatory hiring and training policies for the company and create a scholarship fund and outreach program in the minority communities of Orange, Riverside and Los Angeles counties.
The incident involving the football players took place on the night of Dec. 22. Conard said that he and teammate Vincent Fudzie went to the Red Onion on the advice of a hotel clerk, who told them it was a fun place.
When the two stepped up to the door, they were turned away because Conard--who said he was dressed in a sweater, burgundy slacks and dress shoes--did not have a collared shirt, a Red Onion requirement. Conard recalled that they changed clothes in the parking lot and were subsequently allowed inside by a different door host.
About 45 minutes later, just after Conard had ordered a drink and Fudzie an iced tea, a Red Onion manager approached the two and accused them of sneaking into the bar after they had been refused entry, Conard said.
"I kept asking them to go talk to the door host who just let us in . . . but they wouldn't listen," Conard said in a recent interview.
According to a Santa Ana police report, Officers Scott Zimmerman and Anthony Bertagna, who were inside on a routine check, were called over by Red Onion managers and overheard one manager politely say to the two players, "I am sorry that you don't understand, but this is the policy of the establishment."
Police said that Conard became loud and belligerent. Police said that as the officers tried to escort the two outside, Conard challenged them "six or seven times" to fight.
Police said that they decided to arrest the two, but added that because they were intimidated by the athletes' size and manner, they allowed Conard and Fudzie to leave the parking lot near MacArthur Boulevard and Main Street while they waited for backup units.
A block away from the Red Onion, several police cars surrounded Conard's car. A scuffle began as officers tried to get the men out of the car. Police said that Conard struck Zimmerman in the face before he fled on foot. Bertagna said he was hit in the ribs while trying to take Conard into custody.
Conard denies hitting the officers. He said he ran because he feared for his life, but finally gave himself up after jumping into the front seat of a passing car and telling the unwilling motorist to drive away.