Police say they’ve seen an increase in violence, including four killings in the past year, at “liquor houses” that skirt alcohol laws and sell booze to partygoers long after legal bars and clubs close.
The after-hours spots have plagued police and sleepy neighbors for decades, but police say advertising on social media has made the illegal parties larger and louder than ever – and more deadly. The unfettered access to alcohol and lack of security and regulation create a deadly combination.
“The majority of these run after 2 a.m.,” said Sgt. Mike Ford, who oversees CMPD’s Alcohol Beverage Control unit. He spoke Wednesday outside a commercial building near Wilkinson Boulevard that hosted the illegal parties until someone was shot in April. “You go to the bars and clubs legally and have a lot to drink, and now you’re partying until 5 in the morning.”
Over Labor Day weekend, two people were shot and killed at a liquor house on North Hoskins Road, off Brookshire Boulevard. On Oct. 10, four people were shot at an after-hours spot on West Boulevard. In addition, Ford said nine people were shot at other locations this year.
And the other two homicides occurred at a club on Fairwood Avenue, off South Tryon Street and at a home on Major Street, between Freedom Drive and Tuckaseegee Road, police said.
In total, police have investigated 17 liquor houses over the past year. All of the recent liquor house killings remain unsolved. Investigators are asking the public to point out other places that sell alcohol like a traditional bar or club but don’t have ABC permits. Tipsters can call a new hotline, 704-336-VICE (8423).
“We need the community’s help before the acts occur,” Ford said.
Liquor houses are as old as Prohibition but have evolved.
The ones police have identified are located across the city, anywhere proprietors can rent a house and where neighbors don’t complain to police. To avoid the police, investigators said, the people who run the establishments sometimes operate with the same degree of savvy and professionalism found at legitimate businesses.
Owners often use a proxy with no criminal record to rent a home for a liquor house. Bouncers collect money at the door and place bands around the wrists of paying customers. Security guards also check people for weapons and keep an eye out for police.
Most sell alcohol by the drink. Some liquor houses are open to the public, while others may be disguised as a birthday party or other special event. One after-hours spot in a commercial building had two pool tables, a jukebox and streamers hanging from yellow walls.
To stay off authorities’ radar, proprietors have increasingly used Twitter and Instagram to advertise, police said.
The liquor houses can be very lucrative for the owners, who don’t pay taxes on the drinks, said Rob Tufano, a spokesman for the police department. He said the establishments appeal to patrons because they can “continue to party after hours.” The sites often stay open later than traditional bars and nightclubs, which must stop serving drinks at 2 a.m. in Mecklenburg County.
The liquor house enterprise usually comes crashing down when someone is shot or killed. But many operators don’t stay closed for long.
“As soon as one shuts down, another pops up,” Ford said. “So the community is our best asset.”
How to tell if it’s a liquor house
▪ A house or vacant commercial building that’s generating lots of vehicle or pedestrian traffic late at night or early in the morning.
▪ Loud music or excessive noise, fighting and shots being fired, at a home, or at a business that should be closed.
▪ Beer cans, liquor bottles, garbage and other evidence of partying found in the street or on the property of a home or commercial building.
▪ Fliers, signs or advertisements for parties or social events at locations that are not zoned for or permitted for gatherings.