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Azusa Loses in Court but Wins Battle to Shut Crime-Plagued Tavern

March 23, 1989|CRAIG QUINTANA | Times Staff Writer

AZUSA — A Superior Court judge has blocked the city's attempt to close a tavern that officials had sought to padlock because of allegations of drug dealing and other illegal activity.

JJ's Cocktail Lounge, however, will no longer be a thorn in Azusa's side because the landlord has evicted the bar operators and has pledged to convert the building to another use.

On Tuesday, Pomona Superior Court Judge Thomas F. Nuss denied Azusa's request for a preliminary injunction preventing the sale of alcohol at the bar. Nuss also dissolved a temporary restraining order he granted the city in February to curtail the bar's operations.

Because of the judge's decision, city officials said, Azusa may have to absorb its own legal costs, estimated at $10,000, and those of the landlord, Dr. James Joseph Femino, a San Gabriel physician.

A Strong Indication

While the city may still pursue the case, both City Atty. Peter M. Thorson and Femino's attorney, Robert L. Bacon, said the decision is a strong indication of how the court might eventually rule.

Thorson said the Azusa City Council will make the final decision on whether to drop the case.

"Usually, you win or lose this type of case at the preliminary injunction (stage)," Bacon said. He said the judge's ruling indicated that the court agreed with Femino's position that the landlord should have been given the opportunity to rectify the situation without the threat of litigation.

"He didn't know," Bacon said. "Had he known, or had the city made a phone call to him, we would have taken steps to evict the tenant. We don't want to have that conduct any more than the city of Azusa does."

City officials have expressed doubt that the necessary changes would have been made if the landlord and bar operators had been contacted before the complaint was filed.

The city's complaint detailed a wide range of criminal activities in or around the bar. In 1988, police reported 65 arrests of patrons at JJ's, 23 for drug-related offenses and the remainder for assault, battery, possession of stolen property and other offenses.

City Administrator Julio J. Fuentes said the city is generally pleased with the outcome of the case, adding that the litigation was necessary to prod the landlord into acting.

"I don't really believe that we would have received that kind of quick action if . . . we didn't take the legal route," he said.

City officials say decreased police activity needed at the bar will eventually more than offset the legal costs.

"I think we accomplished our end," Fuentes said. "It may have been a costly solution, but in the end, the costs justified the results. I would say that our action was certainly one that, if we had to do it all over again, we would pursue."

Thorson said the case turned against the city because Femino showed good faith in evicting bar operators Reynaldo and Victoria Virvia and pledging not to allow another cocktail lounge on the premises. The operators could not be reached for comment.

'I'm Satisfied'

"I would have rather had the order granted, but what we have is a bar that was terrorizing the city which is now gone," Thorson said. "I'm satisfied that the 500 block of Azusa Avenue is a better place now that JJ's is no longer there."

In February, Azusa officials took the unusual step of asking the court to close JJ's and the La Villa Bar, also in the 500 block of Azusa Avenue, because of criminal activity that police said they were unable to stem. Such a legal approach has been used successfully in Los Angeles and San Diego but is relatively new in smaller cities, officials said.

Using a section of the state Health and Safety Code, the city persuaded Judge Nuss to grant a temporary restraining order against the landlords and tenants of the bars, forcing them to curtail the narcotics trade among patrons and physically clean up the establishments.

Among other conditions, Nuss' original order compelled the landlords and operators to report all illegal activity to police, hire security guards and provide high-intensity lighting around the exteriors of the buildings.

Neither the landlords nor the bar operators have been arrested for any crimes committed within the bars, police said.

$25,000 Fines Sought

Originally, the city requested that the court close the taverns for one year, auction off their furnishings and use the profits to reimburse the city for its costs. The city also requested that each landlord be fined $25,000.

On April 11, Nuss is scheduled to consider Azusa's request for a similar injunction against La Villa. Thorson said both the landlord and the tenant have indicated a willingness to fight the city in court.

At La Villa in 1988, police reported 20 arrests of patrons for drug-related offenses and 24 arrests for other crimes, including a shooting, battery and possession of stolen property.

Neither the landlord, Mark Chapin Johnson, nor his attorney, David R. Nissen, was available for comment. Previously, Nissen argued that the lawsuit would not have been necessary had the city contacted the landlord about the problems.

La Villa operators Jose L. Gonzalez and Manuel Vargas had no comment when the city filed its action and could not be reached for comment this week.

Thorson said the city has a stronger case against La Villa because bar operations have continued there.

"We're not dealing here with a situation where the problem has been eliminated," Thorson said. "I don't think you can say that because the order on JJ's wasn't issued, that we're going to meet the same fate with La Villa."

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