SNOW HILL — A local business received a severe sanction from the Board of Liquor License Commissioners (BLC) Wednesday after an incident involving underage individuals being hidden in the bar’s kitchen while Ocean City Police Department (OCPD) officers searched the premises.
On Dec. 30, 2010, the OCPD received an anonymous call that underage drinking was taking place at the Pirate’s Den in Ocean City. When officers responded, they discovered a much larger crowd than expected.
“I’d never seen the place this busy,” said OCPD Sergeant Doug Smith. “It was literally a zoo.”
Michael Lawson, owner of Pirate’s Den, attributed the unseasonably large gathering to the bar’s “Thirsty Thursday” promotion. Lawson told the board that it was one of the bar’s most popular events, and given the fact that the coming weekend would be New Year’s, a big crowd was possible. Still, he claimed that the actual number of patrons was incredibly unexpected during the offseason.
“It was as busy as it has ever been on a July or August night,” he said.
Lawson claimed that the rush caught the bar completely off-guard and understaffed. He was out of town on vacation and the bar’s manager, Ben Green, was not working that night, leaving two bartenders to deal with the mass by themselves.
“It was wall-to-wall packed,” said Phil Spinuzza, one of the bartenders on duty. When asked if it was one of the busier nights he can remember, Spinuzza claimed it was “the busiest.”
Without the aid of managers or a doorman, Spinuzza informed the board that the only way to effectively card people was at the bar when they ordered drinks. Consequently, he said that there was no way either he or the other bartender could have known if underage kids had slipped into the bar unless they tried to order a drink.
When police officers arrived to investigate the anonymous call, Spinuzza met them outside of the bar. He expressed surprise that someone had called about underage drinking and agreed to cooperate with the OCPD.
Officers then entered the bar and began checking ID’s. In total, 10 underage individuals were found during the sweep. There was nothing major in terms of violations at that point. Shortly after clearing most of the bar, though, officers realized that Spinuzza was missing.
“He really, really disappeared,” said Smith. “None of the officers were able to find Mr. Spinuzza anywhere.”
A more detailed search revealed that he and eight underage individuals were hiding in the bar’s kitchen and cooler area, attempting to wait out police.
“I made a poor decision to try and keep them [the underage kids] quiet back there,” Spinuzza admitted to the BLC.
After being discovered, Spinuzza told the officers that he “did what anyone else would do.”
At the hearing, however, he expressed regret at his choice to attempt to hide them.
“I recognize it was a poor decision,” said Spinuzza.
According to Spinuzza, he panicked when he noticed several people slipping away from the main bar area once police arrived. He then tried to keep them from attracting the officer’s attention.
PFC Michael Kelly, however, expressed belief that Spinuzza was more aware of the underage drinking that occurred that night than he was letting on.
“If he [Spinuzza] didn’t know these people, he knew they were under 21,” said Kelly.
Spinuzza disagreed, claiming that he only realized the individuals were under 21 after they snuck off towards the kitchen.
After officers located Spinuzza and the group of eight, they also noticed several 24-ounce cans of still cold, partially consumed, beer in the immediate area. When the individuals were questioned, only three admitted to drinking and only one of those three claimed to have been served at the bar.
“Their responses led me to believe they were all friends … trying to protect each other,” said Kelly.
While he didn’t accuse either Lawson or Spinuzza of knowingly allowing underage drinking in the establishment, he did question a comment made by Green after the incident.
“Thursday night has turned into kiddie night,” Green said in a conversation with Smith.
Lawson defended the comment, claiming that, while the Thirsty Thursday promotion did “appeal to a younger crowd,” the target audience was college students over 21 and that his bar in no way endorsed underage drinking.
In regards to Spinuzza attempting to hide underage individuals from police, Lawson expressed disappointment and frustration, though he blamed himself for not having more staff on hand to deal with the crowd.
“It goes without saying, this was a mess,” said attorney Mark Cropper, who was representing Lawson.
Cropper admitted that his client could have been more responsible and had doormen or extra bartenders on duty during a special promotion night. However, Cropper argued that there was no way that Lawson could have anticipated the crowd, and more importantly, that he would never have allowed Spinuzza to attempt to hide people from the police.
“I regret what happened very, very much,” said Lawson in closing. “I hope that this board will allow me to continue my business.”
“I’ve never seen anything of this magnitude before,” said BLC President William Esham.
Esham explained that Pirate’s Den faced the real possibility of losing its liquor license. He did, though, admit that Lawson’s apologetic attitude and Spinuzza’s confession were approved of by the board.
“His [Spinoza’s] honesty is helping him…we take honesty very seriously,” said Esham.
After a brief deliberation, the BLC informed Lawrence that his license would not be revoked. Instead, he would be fined $4000 and his license suspended from Feb. 17-27. Esham told Lawson that the fact that his bar had not sold to undercover OCPD cadets despite numerous checks over the 15 years he’d been operating went a long way toward mitigating his sanction.