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By Erin Sherbert
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"There were a lot of employees around here who were excited to have a place to go and have lunch," said Sesilia Pahulu, the operations manager at a logistics and transportation business in a nearby office building. "We went once or twice. The food was good, but it was too expensive. Most of the people who work down here just can't afford to spend $12 or $15 for lunch."
Within a few weeks of Fanatics' opening, neighboring workers at the end of Cesar Chavez noticed it was closed during the day and thought it had gone out of business. Then they began to see liquor bottles and other garbage on the street. "Sometimes, if you came in on a Saturday, there were so many broken bottles, you had to be careful where you parked," Pahulu said. Some businesses had windows broken, along with other property damage. One morning, a Trans Metro Express manager arrived at the company parking lot across the street from Fanatics to find two charter buses with their windows shot out.
By the late fall of 2006, it was apparent that Fanatics Sports Bar (now sometimes referred to as Fanatics Ultra Lounge on dozens of MySpace pages) had morphed into a hip-hop and gangsta rap club catering to the "18 to party, 21 to drink" crowd. Police responded regularly to calls of fights, public drunkenness, and sideshows, a popular activity that consists of burning rubber while spinning doughnuts, often in stolen cars.
The first shooting occurred on January 15. According to police reports, an unknown suspect fired numerous times at the front of Fanatics, hitting 36-year-old Quintin Morris in the chest as he left at 2 a.m. with friends. For police, the club was now a serious concern.
Underage drinking, vandalism, and gunplay are bad enough on private property, but when they happen regularly on public land, they become a political embarrassment — particularly to the mayor's office, which has failed to reduce violent crime in the city despite numerous heartfelt pledges.
It's hard to say for sure whether Butler planned all along to operate a hip-hop nightclub. But it is certain that had he presented the hip-hop plan to the Port of San Francisco, officials would have scuttled the project long before the ribbon-cutting celebration. "What the port approved was a bar and restaurant with entertainment for the 35-and-over crowd," said the port's real estate director, Susan Reynolds. "Had we known what Mr. Butler had in mind, we never would have approved it. Absolutely not."
Reynolds echoes other city officials around the Bay Area who have begun to restrict hip-hop clubs when a pattern of violence emerges. San Jose shut down the Ambassador's Lounge after repeated shootings outside. Gilroy recently closed the Krazy Koyote for shootings and stabbings in the club's parking lot. In March, Oakland denied a permit application for Tycoons, which would have been operated by Ed Pope, a former owner of Ambassador's. Using a standard hip-hop impresario tactic, Pope claimed in his application that he planned to stage comedy shows and gospel artists.
Butler's cabaret application to the San Francisco Entertainment Commission — which was submitted almost a year before Fanatics opened — listed entertainment as comedy, poetry, jazz, rhythm and blues, and DJs. Butler says the switch from restaurant to hip-hop club was unplanned, and simply a survival tactic. "There were certain financial realities, and I had to do whatever I could to keep the doors open," he says. "At least until the restaurant became known. It takes time." Butler pointed out that he has also held boxing matches, domino tournaments, and several community-based parties and celebrations at Fanatics.
But if Butler did mislead city officials about his plans for the city-owned property, it would not be the first time he had attempted to profit by deception.
In December 1996, on a bitterly cold and wind-bitten day in Chicago, Butler, who was using the name Gary Bresee, was holed up in a hotel room tearing up thousands of dollars' worth of phony Bank of America Visa travelers' checks. He was frantically flushing the shreds down the toilet as police kicked in the door to arrest him for heading a three-state counterfeiting ring.
A few weeks before, Butler had used a high-end copy machine to make the bogus $100 checks in a dingy West Oakland apartment building next to the New Hope Baptist Church. By December, Butler had made between $300,000 and $500,000 in travelers' checks and printed up another $10,000 in U.S. currency, according to court documents.
Butler transported the fake checks to Chicago, where he distributed them to four underlings. They then purchased thousands of dollars' worth of shoes, toys, body lotions, and gourmet coffee beans from retailers in Illinois and Kentucky. The counterfeiting ring profited by selling the merchandise and collecting change in cash for the phony $100 checks.
The money kept rolling in until one of Butler's accomplices was busted and gave up Gary Bresee's real name and the Chicago hotel where he was staying. Butler was charged with two counts of counterfeiting, to which he pled guilty in 1998. He dodged a two-year prison sentence by giving federal prosecutors enough information to leverage confessions from his cohorts. Butler also flipped on the counterfeiter who helped him print the currency, according to court documents.