The parties at the liquor house on Major Street started about 1:30 a.m, around the same time that clubs and bars across Charlotte prepared to shut down for the night. Bouncers at the front steps patted down people on their way inside, collected cash and gave patrons wristbands. Inside, people swayed to rap and hip-hop music.
“When the club lets out, you go to the after-hours spot,” said Kiesha Johnson, who had been at the uptown club Label earlier on Saturday, then went with friends to Major Street. “...We were having a good time. It was like a club inside.”
Things soured quickly around 4 a.m. A fight broke out, Johnson said, and people started pouring out of the house onto the street that borders Interstate 85 in west Charlotte.
Johnson sprinted to her car, and as she ducked behind it, she heard several gunshots.
When she looked up, she saw Rashad Porter, 27, lying on the ground a few feet away. Blood was coming out of his mouth, and a gun lay by his side, she said. Paramedics pronounced him dead in the street. His killer remained at large Tuesday.
Authorities say Porter’s killing illustrates why they’ve taken a tougher stance on liquor houses, parties that charge for admission and drinks, but skirt the laws associated with alcohol sales. Charlotte-Mecklenburg police and the county Alcohol Beverage Control board don’t know how many establishments exist in the county limits, but they agree the liquor houses can quickly turn from a neighborhood nuisance into a violent crime scene.
“You can have liquor houses that never have problems, but what we see is the volatile nature of these places leads to violent crimes,” said Lt. Dave Robinson, who leads Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department’s Alcohol Beverage Control Unit.
In a two-year period ending in 2006, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police investigated six killings connected to illegal liquor houses. That prompted Mecklenburg County ABC agents, N.C. Alcohol Law Enforcement officials and Charlotte-Meckleburg police to join forces to share what they know abut the houses.
They’re not easy to find. The location of a liquor house is usually spread by word-of-mouth, staying off authorities’ radar, Robinson said. Owners typically close liquor houses if authorities learn of them.
“You can go out and buy a bunch of liquor and beer and open a liquor house tonight,” Robinson said. “It’s kind of like whack-a-mole. You shut one down and another one can open just like that.”
Robinson said the department depends heavily on neighbors for tips about liquor houses. Once police officers learn of one, they take a direct approach – sometimes a knock on the front door by an officer or placing a patrol car outside is enough to shut down a house.
Mecklenburg ABC officers responded to two complaints about liquor houses last year, said Mary Ward, the director of community relations for the board.
To avoid the police, investigators say, the people who run liquor houses sometimes operate with the same degree of savvy and professionalism found at legitimate businesses. Bouncers check people for weapons at the door but also look out for police cruisers. Owners often use a proxy with no criminal record to rent the home.
Police haven’t released many details about the home on Major Street, saying Porter’s homicide and the nature of the establishment remain under investigation. It was unclear Tuesday who had rented the home.
Tax records indicate the three-bedroom, 1,388-square-foot home on Major Street is owned by B Stikeleather LLC, a Charlotte-based real estate company that buys, sells and rents homes. A company representative could not be reached for comment.
Neighbors say the liquor house operated for months, sometimes hosting parties five days a week.
“Some Sundays when I leave to go to church, it’ll be a street full of cars,” said one woman who lives nearby. She didn’t want to give her name for fear of retaliation.
The woman said she never knew what, exactly, happened at the house. She said she’d called police just once – on Saturday night “I heard the shots. It was like pop, pop, pop, boom, boom, boom, then I could hear the squealing tires.”
No one answered a knock on Monday at the front door of the home, which didn’t have any furniture inside.
Porter’s family told reporters he was the father of a young son who shared his name. Porter was trying to turn his life around after serving time in prison.
Porter, 27, of Charlotte has a criminal history dating back to at least 2003, including guilty convictions for common-law robbery and robbery with a dangerous weapon.
Days after his killing, signs of what happened inside the house remained. Five trashcans were on the side, overflowing with cans of Bud Light and bottles of Grey Goose vodka. Pieces of crowd management wristbands littered the steps by the front door.
A few feet away, near the spot where Porter died, family members had placed purple flowers and a yellow balloon.
Staff researcher Maria David contributed.