Washington County DA tracks drug trade to taverns, leading to closings

| Thursday, Oct. 31, 2013, 12:51 a.m.

Washington County District Attorney Gene Vittone is determined to close nuisance bars — with or without cooperation from their owners.

“If they don't want to comply, we can go to the heavy guns,” Vittone said, taking a page from Allegheny County's success using court action or negotiations with owners to shutter bars tainted by violence or drugs.

The Washington County Drug Task Force and other law enforcement agencies arrested three men this month accused of dealing drugs out of a bar a block from the Washington County Courthouse. Instead of fighting, owner Ernest Alexas, 87, closed Ernie's Freestyle Restaurant & Lounge on North Main Street in Washington, which he bought in 1985.

“I closed it voluntarily. They didn't shut me down,” Alexas said.

Clientele and the neighborhood have changed in recent years, and as Alexas got older, he said he relied more on managers who were not up to the task. Thirteen storefronts or buildings in the block between Ernie's Freestyle and the courthouse are empty, many of them with for-sale or for-rent signs. Alexas suspects trouble migrated to his business because authorities closed down other bars in the area.

“If (police) don't know who is a good person and who is a bad person without investigating, how are you supposed to know?” Alexas asked. “It's not like they are doing it in front of you.”

Vittone said bar owners are responsible for what happens at their businesses. If they suspect criminal activity, they should call the DA's office or police, he said.

Drug task force members on Oct. 11 served a warrant on Alexas' bar and arrested three men — Dante Moore, 43, Jamar Terry, 32, and Paul Nathan Johnson III, 32, all of Washington — because undercover agents and informants said they made a year's worth of controlled buys of cocaine and heroin from the suspects in the business. Officers confiscated suspected marijuana, cocaine and heroin during the raid inside and outside the bar.

In July, Vittone's office worked with Liquor Control Enforcement agents and police to shut down Ray's Place in Donora when a shooting wounded two people. Neighbors and officials had complained about the bar for years.

In November, officials with Vittone's office and Liquor Control raided J&J Hotel in Marianna, arrested four people on drug charges and closed the establishment for being a public nuisance.

Former Washington County District Attorney Steve Toprani did the same in 2011 at Domenico's Bar in Charleroi, in 2010 at Signature's bar in California because of drug activity and in 2009 at Cabaret West in Washington, where a person was fatally shot in the parking lot.

“What we're seeing now is drug dealers setting up and dealing out of bars,” Vittone said. “We get a lot of people calling in, which helps us. But we're not alone.”

Since 2000, Allegheny County prosecutors have closed more than 50 trouble bars, according to the district attorney's office.

Judges forced eight of those establishments to close. Thirteen owners agreed to close before a court order was issued. Thirty other owners closed their bars in response to investigations. Pittsburgh officials revoked one bar's occupancy permit, forcing its closure, officials said.

“When we are successful at shutting down a bar or other nuisance property, it tends to empower the residents and businesses that are in proximity to the nuisance, and oftentimes you end up with a more vibrant area,” said Mike Manko, spokesman for Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.

Alexas, owner of Ernie's in Washington, said he is sad to put his bar, liquor license and building up for sale. He is asking $300,000.

“That was my life,” Alexas said. “I just can't be there all the time like I used to. It would kill me.”

Jason Cato is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7936 or jcato@tribweb.com.

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