During the past five years, sheriff’s deputies were summoned to 27 downtown clubs 227 times, but officers responded to 312 other incidents – including three homicides – at 26 clubs in south Augusta. The most reports were at the Peach Orchard Road saloon Coyote’s, with 66 criminal incidents – 28 for violent crimes – over that time.
After a New Year's slaying at Club El Fiesco on Peach Orchard Road, The Augusta Chronicle examined the frequency of crime at businesses licensed to sell alcohol. Open records requests provided data about who held alcohol licenses in Augusta over the past five years, and where crime was documented by authorities.
The analysis revealed that the clubs keeping police busiest exist across the city, from centrally located Club Argos on Walton Way, which had 21 crime reports, to Club XS Live off Washington Road, with 23. The Soul Bar, which had 23 reports over five years, was the only downtown club in the top 10.
Recent high-profile incidents have raised the focus on downtown crime. On May 2, a man was beaten and robbed after leaving the Riverfront Pub on Broad Street, which has had 12 reports over the five-year period. A day later, a couple was assaulted on the Riverwalk after First Friday.
However, the most crime reports over the period surveyed came from Coyote’s, owned by Charles and Randall Sconyers. The crimes include 17 assaults, 22 thefts and a sprinkling of drug, sex assault, fraud, forgery, obstruction and other incidents.
Charles Sconyers said he encourages deputies he hires as security to write a ticket or make an arrest every time patrons fight or use a fake ID in order to send a zero-tolerance message.
“If you start something, you’re going to pay for it,” he said.
He said another reason Coyote’s and The Country Club – another venue with numerous crime reports – have so many is they are among the largest clubs in Augusta.
Sconyers said he employs three or four deputies for security on Wednesdays and two or three on the weekends. The Country Club, a 1,000-occupancy honky tonk on Washington Road, employs nine or more uniformed deputies each night, including one dedicated to its large parking lot, according to Tommy Byrd, its assistant manager for promotions and bands.
The Country Club, where foul play is not suspected in the May 10 discovery of a man’s body in a vehicle parked in an obscured area of the club’s parking lot, was second in The Chronicle’s rankings, with 48 reports of crime over the past five years.
Byrd said his club’s zero-tolerance policy for fighting and fake IDs was likely to blame for the high number of crime reports. He said law-abiding patrons need not fear a brush with crime there.
“That is the absolute last thing I would worry about here,” he said. “We have safety issues 100 percent under control.”
Achieving that means keeping a large staff of uniformed Richmond County sheriff’s deputies employed on a regular basis. The club requires the deputies to sign a promise to treat patrons with respect and even takes several on an annual employee cruise, Byrd said.
While the club requires deputies check all IDs, it will soon implement an electronic system that scans IDs for fakes while recording every instance the ID is used at the club, he said.
The Finish Line on Wrightsboro Road had the third most crime reports, with 31 reported incidents that include 13 assaults, eight thefts and three weapons offenses.
While many clubs have had problems – 84 establishments had at least one incident in five years – they also create revenue for the city. Beverage taxes are expected to generate $2.9 million for the city this year, while an annual permit to sell liquor, beer and wine on premises, obtained with Augusta Commission approval from the city’s planning and development office, costs around $4,500.
About 232 establishments including restaurants are licensed for on-premises sales, while 61 bars and clubs are licensed both for on-premises sales and dancing.
Once licensed, however, an applicant’s status is monitored by the sheriff’s office, which could recommend commissioners consider revoking, suspending or placing on probation a club’s license.
In the case of Club El Fiesco, sheriff’s Sgt. Richard Elim cited the slaying of Edward Yancey, underage drinking violations and an adult dance offense when he went to the commission, which suspended owner Daniel Magna's license for 90 days. Other clubs still open after homicides in the past five years are Club 5150 on Deans Bridge Road and Alter Ego'z on Gordon Highway.
When crime doesn’t rise to the level of homicide, determining whether a club is a problem is a balance between the number of police calls, the number of substantiated incidents and the club’s ability to control its issues without requiring outside assistance, said Elim, who heads the vice division.
Last year, when the commission shut down Cloud Nine on Wrightsboro Road, the bar and grill had 148 incidents requiring police involvement, including 15 reports of underage consumption. That level of trouble, plus complaints from neighbors, raises a red flag.
“It’s an issue when we have to bring outside resources in and the environment reaches such a level and the club owner is not taking corrective action to manage it,” Elim said.
Other clubs such as Coyote’s and The Country Club “generate a lot of paperwork,” Elim said, but also take measures to manage the environment by hiring deputies at $18 to $25 an hour to keep things under control.
“As a whole, I think our bar owners are taking responsible action,” he said. “They try, for the most part, and the few that don’t, we take action and get them in front of the commission.”
Other measures used by the sheriff’s office include asking a club owner who is potentially “cutting corners” to review its security plan with the sheriff’s office, Elim said.
Sometimes it takes only a single incident to refer a club to the commission. Club Skittlez on Gordon Highway registered no police calls or reports in the Chronicle’s analysis, but it will soon go before the commission for review after an April incident involving an unpermitted adult dancer and an underage patron.
Despite the numerous incidents and expense of resources to process calls, make arrests and jail suspects, Commissioner Joe Jackson said rowdy clubs with fights probably don’t rise to the level of serious commission concern.
“Whenever you mix testosterone and alcohol, especially with the younger crowd, you’re going to have that,” said Jackson, an occasional patron at Coyote’s, but only when a band plays there he likes.
Jackson said limiting crime at clubs is society’s problem, not the club owners’. Young adults break the rules “more for sport now,” he said. “It’s the new accepted norm in society. How do you trim those incidents? I think it comes back to mommy and daddy.”