A History of Violence

Nate Jackson

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Posted July 30, 2009 in Feature Story

June 19, 2009, was not a good day for the El Patio Night Club.

Early in the afternoon, a San Bernardino County Environmental Health Services employee greeted the ownership of the Rialto club/restaurant with a surprise inspection. Aside from issuing El Patio a “B” rating for unsanitary water and improper employee food handling, the inspector notified the owners that they were temporarily closing down the business for the afternoon due to a cockroach infestation found in the restaurant.

Then the cops showed up.

That evening around 10PM, the Rialto Police Department rendered an unscheduled compliance check on the venue for alcohol and beverage control. The inspecting officers didn’t leave empty handed. Police arrested a club employee for suspicion of selling cocaine inside the Foothill Boulevard venue. Officers also arrested two heavily intoxicated minors at the establishment. To top it off, this all came less than a month after El Patio security guard Ricardo Alejandro Velarde, 23, was found shot to death in the front seat of a green 1998 Land Rover in the club parking lot at 7:10 in the morning.

Centered in a large, gravelly parking lot about a mile away from Rialto Police Department headquarters, the El Patio Night Club has a years-long history that’s part Road House, part restaurant inspector’s clusterfuck.

But despite a steady string of health code violations, shootings and homicides, despite many negative run-ins with police, county inspectors and city officials, El Patio remains open for business.

And this place’s reputation as a major hub for the banda and ranchera circuit continues to draw hundreds of partygoers to a place where regional Mexican music is king and a night out at the club might mean putting your life at risk.

Crimes Galore

So, why is El Patio’s business and liquor licenses in no danger of being revoked? It probably helps that the Rialto PD remains optimistic about the club’s supposed recovery from a surge of violence and crime that prompted the city to step in and provide extra security for the club—and bill the owners.

“I believe the El Patio Night club is safe because they’ve taken the necessary steps to correct the problems and the issues and assist in the solution,” says Lt. Randy De Anda, the officer in charge of overseeing the neighborhoods around the club.

But even though local law enforcement gives El Patio a clean bill of public-safety health, the club continues to make frequent appearances on the Rialto police blotter.

Opened in 2004, El Patio offered a large venue and restaurant catering to the area’s norteño culture and community. Groups like Los Morros, El Compa Chuy and Andrés Márquez “El Macizo” have gotten top billing on the club’s marquee.

But despite local popularity, the amount of attention directed towards El Patio by police and city officials since 2006—when issues of crime and violence appeared to uptick—has been unsavory and unsettling at best.

Between 2006-2007, Rialto police documented 694 calls for service to El Patio, during the club’s peak weekend hours from 9PM to 3AM, according to a Dec. 3, 2007 report by Rialto Police Chief Mark P. Kling. Officers were sent out to investigate stabbings, shootings, sexual assaults, bar fights, public lewdness and public intoxication. Numerous patrons were arrested for possession of narcotics and guns as well as selling drugs, records show.

The club was also issued a total of 85 suspension days by police after it failed compliance checks in 2007.

By Aug. 2007, four homicides had occurred on the property, and one in San Bernardino—sparked by an altercation at the club. Two of the homicides resulted in the accidental shooting deaths of innocent underage bystanders, Adrian Alvarado, 17 and Brizeida Campos, 19, of Rialto.

All this tragedy and criminal activity amounted to a “drain” on police resources.

But comments from El Patio owner Maria Elena Mercado don’t exactly leave the same impression.

Beefed Up Security?

When asked about the nearly 700 police calls for service during a two-year period, Mercado blamed the calls on a vindictive former business partner out to cause trouble. Mercado also defended herself by saying any alleged crimes or violent incidents took place after-hours or off the premises.

For example, when questioned about the death of El Patio security guard Ricardo Velarde this past May, the owner merely said she wasn’t there when it happened, knew very little and was not responsible because the death took place after the club had closed. Police suspect that Velarde, who wasn’t even scheduled to work that night, may have been working under the table for the venue up to about 2 hours before his death. Authorities say Velarde’s murder, which is still under investigation, happened around 6AM.

 “I don’t know what he was doing there, says Mercado. “Whatever he was doing there was off the clock.”

The history of violence at El Patio caused the city to intervene in the club’s activities starting in 2007.

On Dec. 7, 2007 Mercado even signed an agreement with  Rialto Police and the Rialto City Council to assign cops specifically to the club Friday through Saturday from 9AM to 3AM. Public  records confirm that El Patio agreed to pay $20,592 a month for two full time officers to patrol the area at $99 per officer per hour.

According to De Anda, the calls for service from 2007 to the present have been cut down to 328, a drastic decrease.

“I work very well with the ownership there. They always work with us, we sit down and we talk and the quality of life [for Rialto citizens] is one of my main concerns,” says De Anda. However, police have found that calls for service have now spread to the weeknights as the club hosts more events Monday through Thursday.

De Anda also mentioned that in 2008, part of the club’s compliance with Rialto police meant hiring a new security company after an incriminating YouTube video surfaced. It depicted El Patio security guards smoking “hallucinogenic” substances at the venue while off duty.

Not Making the Grade

But even though Rialto police talks about a good relationship between the club and the cops, Mercado’s comments suggest otherwise. These days, the club employs a new fully licensed, uniformed security team that, according to Mercado, can control the club without help from patrolling officers.

“All the cops do is talk, drink coffee and watch the girls coming into the club,” Mercado complains regarding her contract with Rialto police. “. . . They’re scaring our customers away. They get scared because they see the police here.”

But when questioned why she signed the contract with Rialto police in the first place, Mercado says she didn’t fully understand what she was getting into. “I don’t speak English,” she says. “I made a mistake.”

Mercado was equally dismissive when asked about the current “B” rating the club sustained in June. Mercado acknowledged that the club had been shut down before because of county health code violations but declined to elaborate on them, downplaying the matter as a minor issue having to do with the restaurant operations and not the club.

According to the county’s Environmental Health Services website, the club has a checkered past regarding health code compliance. El Patio earned multiple “B” and “C” restaurant ratings from 2007 to the present. According to Corwin Porter, public health program manager for San Bernardino County, El Patio’s problems with employee food handling, water and insects could be dangerous to its patrons.

“The reason we’re concerned with [their violations] is because they can lead to foodborne illness,” says Porter who also said that the club has not asked to be re-evaluated since June. Currently EHS accepts restaurants with either an “A” or “B” rating. Because El Patio’s past “C” ratings aren’t consecutive, Porter says EHS is not required to shutter the business permanently. And though Rialto police remain vigilant in their surveillance of the club, the department nor the city has made any moves to shut it down permanently.

A Thriving Business

In the midst of all the violence, drugs and homicides, the club maintains a popular draw, often exceeding its large crowd capacity and parking restrictions on the weekends. According to Rialto police, the goal is not to shut a profitable club down, but “ensure the quality of life for their citizens.”

“We always want businesses in the city to thrive, however, we just want compliance,” says De Anda.

So far that goal seems questionable with El Patio despite the city’s efforts. Since El Patio’s damning June 19 police and EHS compliance check, the results are still being reviewed. According to De Anda, the club was open for business the next day, June 20.  But if El Patio’s recent review is found unsatisfactory, which seems very likely considering all the police discovered, the club could be suspended—temporarily—yet again.

Until then, maybe we can look forward to more “improvements” at El Patio and less talk that attempts to downplay its tragedies. And maybe we’ll have seen the last of comments like the one left on www.clubratingz.com in Aug. 2007, the same month that 17-year-old Alvarado and 19-year-old Campos were killed:

“Besides the fact that people have been killed here, it’s a pretty good place to go clubbing . . .”

TIMELINE OF EL PATIO NIGHT CLUB

JANUARY 2004

El Patio files its paperwork to open up shop in Rialto. All is well . . . so far.

APRIL 2006

A dispute at El Patio ends with the shooting death 25-year-old Rosa Angela Trigo.

OCTOBER 2006

The club gets a “C” rating from county health inspectors.

APRIL 2007

Nineteen-year-old Brizeida Campos is shot and later dies as a result of a shooting in the club’s parking lot

MAY 2007

Another “C” rating. Yuck!

AUGUST 2007

A shootout at the nightclub leaves two people dead and one in critical condition. The suspect is shot by a private security guard.

DECEMBER 2007

The situation gets so bad, Rialto city officials assign two officers to provide extra patrols for El Patio—and bill the club for the expense.

MAY 2009

El Patio security guard Ricardo Velarde is found dead, shot multiple times, in his car outside El Patio.

JUNE 2009

A club employee is arrested on suspicion of selling cocaine, a minor is found to be intoxicated on the premises and a roach infestation is discovered.

JULY 2009

El Patio is still open for business.


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