Good times at Lake St. bar marred by drug deals

  • Article by: MAYA RAO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 27, 2012 - 5:48 AM

Champions bar has lots of police calls, and plenty of defenders.

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Carlos Pinos and Crystal Collins, both of Minneapolis, danced last week at Champions Bar, whose liquor license is up for renewal in July.

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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Rick Nelson learned about the big drug bust at his Minneapolis bar, Champions, while watching the 5 o'clock news on his couch. He fumed that the cops had released the news to the press before telling him. Wasn't it enough that he paid several off-duty police officers to work security there on busy nights?

But he had a job to do that night last week, so he put on a cheerful face and headed out to man Champions' evening game of Bango.

As customers downed two drinks for the price of one, he rattled off numbers on the bingo-like pastime whose name keeps him on the up-and-up with state gambling laws. "Bingo!" yelled one man. "It's not bingo, it's Bango," said someone else. Disqualified.

Finally someone won for real, and the crowd at 105 W. Lake Street went wild.

"Congratulations, all right," said Nelson. "Good job. We'll be back."

It is the kind of event that creates camaraderie in this neighborhood dive that keeps patrons coming back for years and gives its owner a reputation among the regulars as a guy who knows many of them by name.

But authorities paint a far grimmer picture of Champions, and charges filed against 14 people on March 19 have renewed the discussion over why the corner of Lake Street and Blaisdell Avenue S. has hosted so many drug deals and how much the bar plays a role -- and has a responsibility to stop them.

The latest bust comes five years after Minneapolis forced Champions to shut down for two weeks in the aftermath of an earlier drug bust. But the bar has since won an award for fighting drug dealing in the neighborhood.

"Every person who works here is offended and feels betrayed by police," Nelson said.

Tom McNamee, who opened Champions in the 1950s after returning from the Korean War and remains a "consultant," is equally adamant: "Dammit, I want to stay on this corner. And we've done everything they asked us to do."

Officials plan to meet with Nelson to discuss the problems and talk about how they could affect Champions' liquor license, up for renewal in July.

After the 2007 controversy, the bar added several off-duty cops to their corps of security guards. And its efforts to turn around were recognized by the National Restaurant Association, which named the bar a finalist in its "Restaurant Neighbor" awards for helping prevent more than 30 drug deals in the area by giving out $2,000 in rewards to those reporting illegal activity.

Mark Hinds, executive director of the Lyndale Neighborhood Association, said the number of complaints about the bar has fallen dramatically since his group worked with the bar, police and licensing staff to craft a new security plan after the 2007 shutdown.

Champions is one of the few businesses that attend most of their crime meetings, he said.

But the cops keep getting called. In the past two years alone, more than 350 reports to police were made from 105 W. Lake Street for assaults, disturbances, customer trouble and loud music, among other complaints, though that figure may inflate problems at Champions because the bar's address is sometimes used for reports of activity on surrounding property or a nearby bus stop.

Police say they were responding to neighborhood complaints when they conducted an undercover probe between September and January. Officers made five drug purchases inside the bar, seven that started on Champions property but were finished elsewhere and six from the bus stop and on nearby sidewalks -- all for crack and powder cocaine.

In one instance, officers met a woman at Champions who told them she had "hot" crack and sold it to them from her apartment shortly afterward for $20.

On another night, investigators observed a man and woman who appeared to be doing a drug deal outside the front door of Champions. The woman asked the officers what they were looking for. When an officer said they wanted to buy $20 worth of crack, the man and woman began to argue about who was going to make the sale. Both did.

A Police Department analysis found that 105 W. Lake Street ranked as a "violent crime hot spot" in the Fifth Precinct during 2011. That pattern has continued this year, according to Sgt. William Palmer.

At bar closing on a Sunday this month, three females robbed a woman in the parking lot and the victim had to be taken away in an ambulance, according to police.

In February, three teenagers were arrested in the Champions parking lot after a fight with two middle-aged men, leading to another ambulance call.

Sgt. Marv Schumer, one of at least four off-duty officers working security at Champions, said he supports his department's investigation but like the owners, attributes much of the trouble to the bus stop: "You get rid of the bus stop, you get rid of the narcotics problems."

Inside Champions, the bartenders know to give Michael Mack a glass of E&J brandy without even asking him. He comes here because he likes the atmosphere and thinks they have the best chicken wings on this sde of town.

"This is a damn great bar," Mack said recently. "No one ever offered me drugs. They offered to buy me a drink."

Customers can also receive the Lord's wisdom from part-time bartender Dean Spies, who managed Champions for a decade before quitting a few years ago to seek a master's degree in biblical studies. He returned so he can counsel customers about their troubles and spread the gospel to those who want to listen.

"The Lord says be in the world, not of the world," he explained as Snoop Dogg's "Who Am I?" blared from the speakers. It was Wednesday, ladies' night, when women crowded into the bar between 9 and 10 p.m. for $1 drinks.

Nelson was there on ladies' night, too, traditionally one of Champions' busiest. Being there often allows him to know most of the customers, which is why he was so surprised to see his bar depicted as a drug den.

Said Nelson about the suspected dealers: "I don't know these guys from jack."

Maya Rao • 612-673-4210

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