Black Velvet Bruce Li has another update on the Rack n’ Roll Billiards case.
Category: Rack n’ Roll Billiards
Black Velvet Bruce Lee has more videotape from the continuing campaign against Rack n’ Roll pool hall owner David Ruttenberg.
Comment on the first tape: This is the one I told you about, where a Rack n’ Roll customer was weirdly arrested for “indecent exposure” when he stepped outside the pool hall to tuck in his shirt.
Comment on the second tape: I actually hadn’t seen this video, though Ruttenberg had told me the story. Strange as the whole thing sounds, it’s about par for the course in this case.
I tend not to buy into government conspiracy theories. Not because I don’t think government officials lack the will or the intent to carry them out, but because they usually lack the competence. That’s what made the whole Manassas Park affair so believable: The incredible ineptitude and buffoonery of the people who have it out for David Ruttenberg. Be it an odd mayor jumping out of the bushes in the wee hours of the morning to lure a reporter away from the story, or, in this case, police sending an ex-con into Ruttenberg’s bar in a transparent attempt to lure him into a scheme to buy off a Manassas Park police officer.
Note too that the only reason we know about this incident is that Ruttenberg wired himself, as he’s done for most of his personal interactions over the last several years. It’s vital that the people retain the right to record police officers — and the people who work for them.
I’ll have details about another hilarious, even more inept attempt to entrap Ruttenberg a bit later.
In May of last year, I went out to the Rack n’ Roll pool hall to see firsthand some of the harassment David Ruttenberg had been telling me about. At the time, David Ruttenberg still had his liquor license. But every weekend, he said, the Manassas Park police department would send squad cars to his bar. They would pull over random customers for drunken driving, for loitering, or for just about anything else they could drum up.
He’d shown me videos. In one, you see a man come outside the bar, stretch, untuck his shirt, then tuck it back in. Minutes later you see two Manassas Park police cars pull up. Two officers get out and arrest the man on the spot. Ruttenberg says the customer later told him he’d been arrested — then later released without charge — for “indecent exposure.” Not sure, but I’d guess this is one of the videos the Black Velvet Bruce Li blog may soon be posting.
Ruttenberg said the harassment was picking up in the weeks before I visited the bar — with one exception. Shortly after I posted the security video of the June 2004 raid on Ruttenberg’s bar last February, a woman named Anke Cheney took interest, began to observe at the bar, and soon became an advocate for Ruttenberg. That’s significant because Cheney has a long and distinguished career in Republican politics, and at the time, the mayor and most of the city council of Manassas Park were, likewise, Republicans. She took up Ruttenberg’s cause, she told me, because he was being wronged. Cheney’s been commenting regularly at the Black Velvet Bruce Li blog (also, incidentally, run by a guy active in local Republican politics) on Ruttenberg’s behalf. It’s clear that she, like me, thinks something’s corrupt in Manassas Park, and that the stench runs rather high up the town’s hierarchy.
What’s interesting is that whenever Cheney was at the bar, the police tended to back off a bit. Apparently, they knew who she was. The harassment still went on, but when Cheney would come out of the bar to witness it, the police would let up. Cheney says she still thinks Ruttenberg’s bar is the safest place in the area for the 18 and older crowd, but added to me that, “that’s in spite of the Manassas Park police, not because of them.”
That’s the background.
The first few hours of my night at the bar were uneventful. My girlfriend and I played some pool, had a drink, and she did some karaoke (badly — but she was very cute!) while I played poker (a legal, no buy-in game, if you’re wondering). “Wait,” Ruttenberg told us, “they’ll be here soon.”
On cue, we spotted lights outside the bar at about 12:30am. I went outside to see what was going on. Two Manassas Park police had pulled over a small Honda with two Hispanic-looking men inside. They’d both been in the bar moments earlier. I watched as the police searched both men thoroughly, then began rifling through their car. One of the officers was huge — I’d guess at least 6’6″ and about 275. He hovered over the two men, who were rather short, in a vaguely threatening manner. The guy was pretty intimidating.
After about a half hour of searching, the police let the men go. They wouldn’t tell me or Ruttenberg why they searched the men. But one of the men told us his version of what happened: He had gone out to get the car while his friend paid the tab. He pulled up to the curb to get his friend, and was there for what he (and others) said was fifteen seconds at most before the squad cars descended on him. He says the police say they pulled him over and searched him for “parking in a fire lane.”
Over the next three hours I watched in awe as one after another after another Manassas Park squad car pulled over Rack n’ Roll customers as they left the bar. They were stopped, searched, and sent on their way. I saw at least six different people get pulled over, and that was just within a few blocks of the place. Other customers told me they’d regularly get stopped another mile or so out.
This, Ruttenberg and his customers assured me, happened nearly every weekend. The harassment had its intended effect. Ruttenberg’s clientele had dwindled to a handful of regulars and a significant number of Hispanics, the latter because Ruttenberg’s is one of the few bars in the area that not only isn’t hostile to them, but actually welcomes their business.
One Hispanic man I talked to went by the name of Jesus. Ruttenberg and others in the bar said he’s well-respected in the Manassas-area Hispanic community, to the point were he’s often called to help resolve disputes and arguments. He doesn’t drink, and he doesn’t consume illicit drugs. Nevertheless, he told me he’d been pulled over more than 20 times over the last two years — each time upon leaving Rack n’ Roll. Each time he was searched, asked to perform sobriety tests, then released.
Jesus next took me out in his car. He pointed out the spots where the Manassas Park police typically lie in wait for Rack n’ Roll customers. Sure enough, that’s exactly where the squad cars were, save for those that were already in the process of pulling someone over. Jesus said Hispanics were particularly prone to the harassment because they’re powerless to do much about it (though many non-Hispanic white people and black people told me they’ve been pulled over multiple times as well). Of course, many of them are also illegal, which makes them especially unlikely to do anything about the harassment (not making any immigration point here — just reporting what I was told). They keep coming back out of loyalty to Ruttenberg and because, frankly, there’s nowhere else in the area for them to go. Few of them would have as much as a beer, though. They didn’t want to give the police a reason to arrest them.
By this point, I was sort of hoping I’d get pulled over — either with Jesus or as I was leaving in my own car. I had more than a few questions I’d have asked had we been pulled over for no reason, and I’m sure they’d have been a bit surprised to see me riding along. Alas, all of he police seemed occupied with other Rack n’ Roll customers by the second time Jesus and I drove through the club’s parking lot. And by the time we left the bar, at around 4am, the police had gone.
I was surprised at how blatant, brazen, and systematic the harassment was. I’d seen Ruttenberg’s security videos, but I expected to see one, maybe two or three customers harassed. Not continual harassment for the better part of three hours. A few customers told me that when they’d been pulled over in the past, the officers flat out told them that if they’d continued to get pulled over for as long as they continued to patronize Rack n’ Roll.
I’d add that my girlfriend was somewhat skeptical of what I’d been telling her about the Rack n’ Roll case before we visited the bar that night — completely understandable, given how flippin’ bizarre this case has been. But by the time we left, she was not only convinced, she was straight pissed off at what she’d seen.
Ruttenberg’s liquor license was revoked a few months ago after a sham of a hearing before the state Alcohol Beverage Control stemming from all of this. The basic charge was that Ruttenberg wasn’t doing enough to keep the place free from drug activity (along with a couple of very minor violations — one count of serving to a minor, and an incident of women baring their breasts at the bar during Mardi Gras). What’s absurd is that Ruttenberg has good evidence that most of the activity was being initiated by the police (which of course brings us back to the off-track betting issue). Problem is, he had a difficult time proving that because Manassas Park police insist on retaining the confidentiality of the undercover officers and the informants they’re using. So confidentiality prevents Ruttenberg from proving the drug activity in his bar is being set up by the police. But at the same time, his bar is being shut down because the police say he hasn’t done enough to combat drug activity.
See the trap they’ve ensnared him in?
Even more absurd is that — as I mentioned before — Ruttenberg has good reason to believe that some of the people he hired for the specific purpose of keeping drug activity out of the bar were working with the police to initiate drug activity in it. Ruttenberg’s evidence is pretty sound, including affidavits from friends, family members, and former employers of the alleged informants (and in one case, from the alleged informant himself). Ruttenberg also has affidavit or taped conversations with ex-girlfriends, friends, and patrons of the bar who say they either did or were asked by Manassas Park police to serve as an informant to help get Ruttenberg. In some cases, these people were promised leniency on other charges in exchange for their help entrapping Ruttenberg. I talked to one of them.
That and more to come.
Black Velvet Bruce Li has video of an incident captured by David Ruttenberg’s security cameras. The gist: Two men walk into the bar, sit down, and begin to openly snort cocaine at one of the tables. Ruttenberg’s manager alerts him, and they call the police. The police come, talk to the men, neglect to search them, and decline to look at the coke straw Ruttenberg’s manager snatched from one of them. The police then take the men outside, and let them go.
Ruttenberg showed me this video in my first meeting with him. He then showed me several more just like it. Time and again, police would send people into the Rack n’ Roll pool hall to buy, sell, and use drugs (as well as to attempt to induce Ruttenberg and his employees into illegal activity). When Ruttenberg would report the drug activity, the police would do nothing about it — a strong sign that the users were actually working for the police. Word would then magically spread around town that Rack n’ Roll was a hub for drug activity. It was. It’s just that the police appeared to be the source of a good deal of it.
I’ll get into the details a bit later, but in at least one case, and perhaps two, someone Ruttenberg hired specifically for the purpose of finding and reporting drug activity in the bar would later turn out to have been working for the police, who then instructed the same person to encourage drug activity in the bar.
Ruttenberg doesn’t deny that there may have at times been some minor drug activity in his bar. No bar owner can guarantee otherwise. But Ruttenberg was certainly vigilant about keeping Rack n’ Roll clean. He had several times turned people over to the police (and, in cases like this one, only to have the police do nothing about it). I’ve seen the reports he filed, and I’ve seen the personal log he kept. On other occasions, he had offered to cooperate with the police. He also had an extensive security system set up to catch drug activity in the bar. He even offered the police use of his external cameras to monitor crime in and near the shopping center. And as mentioned, he hired a bouncer and a DJ who, despite their outward titles, were hired mainly to find and report drug activity.
What Ruttenberg didn’t count on, and what appears to have happened, is that much of the drug activity taking place in his bar may actually have been instigated by the local police. And it would all be later held against him.
Here’s the district court’s decision in the Ruttenberg case.
And here’s some analysis from Fourth Amendment expert John Wesley Hall.
The immunity stuff is bad enough — and remember, Mr. Ruttenberg didn’t include any of the offtrack betting evidence in his motion.
But what I find striking is just how dismissive this judge is of the fact that Manassas Park police conducted a what was clearly a search for criminal misconduct under the auspices of an administrative inspection. They couldn’t get a criminal search warrant. So they brought in a few Alcohol Beverage Control officials, making the entire exercise a dubious “inspection,” and conducted the search anyway.
Routine alcohol inspections don’t normally include ski-mask wearing cops storming the joint while pumping shotguns. Nor do they necessitate handcuffing customers.
This is a growing problem. Police are increasingly using non-criminal regulatory agencies inspection powers to get around the Fourth Amendment (see, for example, the city of Buffalo’s “Clean Sweep” program).
If, as the judge in Ruttenberg’s case has argued, it is not “unreasonable” for police to bring a 70+ member police-SWAT team to conduct what is supposed to be a routine inspection for compliance with the state’s alcohol laws, you have to wonder just what would constitute an unreasonable search.
And if his ruling stands, it sets a nasty precedent. It could enable police in Prince William County to conduct criminal searches of just about any business without a search warrant — just declare that the search isn’t really a search at all, it’s just a fire or alcohol or building code inspection.
(Note: I’ve added a “Rack n’ Roll Billiards” category to keep all of these posts together, and so new readers can catch themselves up.)
So I guess the best way to start filling in the detail in this story is to start relaying what I’ve found over the last year, piece by piece.
Today, we’ll go with a little story David Ruttenberg told me a few months ago. It’s not so much in and of itself. But when taken with all the other weirdity and attacks on Ruttenberg and his business, it suggests that the city has something it’s trying to keep quiet.
Last summer, David Ruttenberg called me with yet another bizarre tale about weird behavior from a Manassas Park official. Seems that the night before, there had been a robbery at the convenience store across from the shopping center where Ruttenberg’s bar is located. At about 2:30am, Ruttenberg saw a news van from a local D.C. affiliate parked in front of the place to cover the story.
Ruttenberg told me he walked over, introduced himself to the reporter, then attempted to get the reporter interested in what had happened to him and his bar. Here’s the weird thing: In the wee hours of the morning, out of nowhere, Manassas Park Mayor Frank Jones literally jumped out of the bushes, then put his arm around the reporter, guided him away from Ruttenberg, and told the reporter not to trust anything Ruttenberg said. Ruttenberg said it was one of the strangest things he’s ever seen, even given all the strange things he’s seen over the last several years.
Like a lot of stories David Ruttenberg has told me over the last year, this once seemed too weird to be true. So I called the reporter, a guy named Elliott Francis, who works for the WJLA Channel 7 affiliate in D.C. And like every story David Ruttenberg has thus far told me over the last year, this one checked out exactly as he told it to me.
Francis actually said that when Ruttenberg first got his attention, he thought Ruttenberg was off his rocker. Who approaches a reporter at 2:30am at the scene of a robbery to talk about what at the time seemed like a business man’s small-stakes pissing match with a some podunk city council? But Francis told me the mayor’s sudden appearance and subsequent behavior was so bizarre, it convinced him Ruttenberg was worth listening too — that something really was going on, here (note: my conversation with Francis took place a couple of months ago). He referred the case to the news channel’s investigative team. To date, they haven’t followed up.
Seems to be par for the course with this case. I’ve tried to tip several journalists off on the story, including those at the Washington Post, Washington Times, Washington City Paper, and the D.C Examiner. Most expressed interest, and even intimated that given their knowledge of the area, they wouldn’t be surprised if all of this really were happening as Ruttenberg says it is. Several met with Ruttenberg. But no one has yet actually written the story. My guess is that there are a couple of reasons for that.
First, the story is really heavy on detail. When I first sat down with Ruttenberg and his father, I was pretty overwhelmed. There’s a lot of history, here. And a lot to wrap your head around. The other reason is that to believe it, you have to be cynical enough to believe that a local government is capable of destroying a guy the way Manassas Park has destroyed David Ruttenberg. If you’re a libertarian accustomed to reading about mass property seizures, eminent domain abuse, and the routine abuse of power committed by petty bureaucrats, the story isn’t at all difficult to comprehend. If you’re a reporter who still harbors a kind of romantic faith in public service and government good, you probably need more convincing.
I’ve held of on publishing the nitty gritty of the raid on the Rack n’ Roll pool hall for months now, for several reasons. But I think it’s probably time to dump all of this, in part, because another blogger is about to beat me to it.
There’s a blog that covers Prince William County, Virginia, Manassas, and Manassas Park called Black Velvet Bruce Li. He writes the following on the Rack n’ Roll case:
As far as I can determine, Dave Ruttenberg is being mercilessly harassed by the city when other establishments who have far worse records are getting their wrists slapped at best. I have been at a complete loss to figure out why this might be happening, and without an explanation for this this whole ordeal it has had the appearance of some bizarre conspiracy theory advanced by folks who desperately need psychotropic medication. In this day and age, why the heck would a city go out of it’s way to make life difficult for one of it’s local businessmen who at least keeps a rather unremarkable strip mall from otherwise having a lot of vacant space?
Then I remembered reading something long ago in the Washington Post about where the proposed location was for Colonial Downs to establish an off-track betting facility in Manassas Park that got defeated in two referenda, the last being in 2004. It was at the Manassas Park Shopping Center. And the location of Rack & Roll? Same place. Now is this just some sort of bizarre coincidence, or do the visions of dollar signs dancing about the heads of those who might stand to make millions in Manassas Park have something to do with the reason Dave Ruttenberg has been having such a hard time?
I can’t say for sure. But I have some pretty compelling circumstantial evidence that “bizarre coincidence,” it ain’t.
I’ve been looking into this case for the better part of a year, now. My file on the case is several inches thick with my notes, copies of memos and documents, interviews with customers and employees, CD-ROMs of David Ruttenberg’s security system, and affidavits he has collected from witnesses. I also also visited the bar last spring, and witnessed firsthand the Manassas Park police department’s harassment of Mr. Ruttenberg’s customers.
I’ll get into the harassment, entrapment, and defamation Mr. Ruttenberg has endured in a bit. For the moment, I’d like to focus on possible reasons for the harassment. Why has this been going on for several years? I think there are a few minor motivating factors. For one, I think there is, unfortunately, some antisemitism at play. There’s also a strange rivalry Mr. Ruttenberg had with a Manassas Park police officer over a girl. And I think part of this may be driven by city officials who for whatever reason simply began to harbor a grudge against Ruttenberg. Remember Milton Friedman’s old axiom: Hell hath no fury like a bureaucrat scorned.
But I think something else is going on, here. And Black Velvet Bruce Li has hit it. I believe there is some very strong circumstantial evidence suggesting that Mr. Ruttenberg’s bar was targeted by the city of Manassas Park because the city had its eye on the property as a possible site for an off-track betting facility for the Colonial Downs horse racing track in New Kent County, Virgina.
First, a bit of history on off-track betting (OTB) in Virginia.
In the early 1990s, the Virginia state legislature gave approval for a limited number OTB satellite offices to be licensed around the state. The legislature also licensed a company called Colonial Downs to run the main track, as well as the satellite sites, where customers bet on races shown on video monitors. Within a few years, facilities had been approved in a few spots in southern and western parts of the state — mostly in towns with light budgets, the kinds of places so hungry for business and tax revenue, they could look over the bad rap a wagering site sometimes gets.
But the gold mine was in Northern Virginia. That’s where the state’s money is. According to estimates published in the Washington Post, an OTB site in Northern Virginia would bring in an estimated $90 million in revenue, and around $550,000 local tax revenue. To put that into perspective, the other satellite spots combined bring in about $130 million.
Unfortunately for Colonial Downs, because Northern Virginia does have money, it can also afford to turn its nose up at OTB. And it has. Throughout the 1990s, jurisdiction after jurisdiction in NoVa turned down opportunities to host an OTB facility, either by referendum, or by a vote of the city or county council. By 1996, Manassas Park was one of the last towns anywhere near D.C. that had yet to vote down an OTB site.
OTB hit the ballot in Manassas Park in 1996. It lost, but by just 74 votes. Colonial Downs and the OTB proponents would be back for another shot, in eight years. But let’s stick with 1996 for just a moment. At the time, Rack n’ Roll owner David Ruttenberg started to wrap his brain around just how lucrative an OTB facility might be. Knowing the layout of the city, he figured his bar was sitting on land that would make an ideal location for a betting parlor.
Ruttenberg was right. The small, hour-glass shaped town of Manassas Park had been completely zoned out to new development on one side, and was filled with upper-income plots on the other — the type of homeowners who wouldn’t tolerate a gambling operation in the neighborhood. That left little else but Ruttenberg’s own shopping center. What’s more, the main highway into town ran right by the center. It wasn’t just an ideal location. It was really was the only location.
So Ruttenberg got together with the other major tenant of the shopping center and drew up an offer, which they sent to Colonial Downs. If the OTB resolution passed, the memo said, Ruttenberg and the other tenant would sell their businesses, their cooperation on their leases, and their consult to Colonial Downs for $5.25 million. I’ve seen a copy of the offer. This is important to keep in mind. Because it shows that Colonial Downs — and presumably by extension, the city of Manassas Park — knew that Mr. Ruttenberg was savvy, and that it was going to take a lot of money to get him to hand over his business and his lease. If they wanted that space in 2004, the 1996 offer proved they’d either have to pay him a lot of money, or find a way to throw him out.
Here’s the kicker: After the 1996 referendum failed, Ruttenberg’s landlord grew wise to the notion that if OTB came to Manassas Park, the facility would very likely go right in his shopping center. And he’d likely profit handsomely from it. So going forward, he put a clause in his tenants’ leases notifying them that if OTB ever came to Manassas Park, they would have to vacate, no questions asked.
But David Ruttenberg was on good terms with the landlord’s property manager. Before he signed his next lease, he asked if he could have that clause removed. The property manager obliged. I’ve seen a copy of Ruttenberg’s lease. And I’ve seen a copy of the lease signed by the largest tenant in the shopping center right now. The latter has the clause. Ruttenberg’s lease doesn’t.
Fast forward to 2004. After eight years, OTB is set to go back on the ballot in Manassas Park. Keep in mind that an incredible amount of money goes into these campaigns. According to the Washington Post, Colonial Downs spent about $20 per voter to push the OTB referendum through in 1996, including promises to offer every resident of the town a free bus ride to the Chesapeake OTB facility, free lunch, and a free $2 wager. They won public support from the city’s mayor, police chief, and school board. They lost by an eyelash. So it’s a safe bet (pardon the pun) that they were going to cover all of their bases after having eight years to plan for the next go-around.
Their prospects seemed good in 2004. The OTB facilities in Chesapeake, Richmond, Hampton, and Brunswick County were bringing in lots of money, and little of the crime or problem gamblers critics predicted. Public opinion was turning. The Virginia assembly was so impressed it authorized an increase in the number of licensed OTB parlors in the state to 10.
Let’s go back to Mr. Ruttenberg and the Rack n’ Roll pool hall. The raid on his bar came in June 2004, five months before the referendum was up for a vote. The harassment of Mr. Ruttenberg and the drug activity in his bar (much which he’d later have good evidence to suggest was instigated by undercover officers and paid police informants) had been going on for months. Rumors were flying all over town that Mr. Ruttenberg was a drug dealer, a child molester, a drug addict, a rapist, and that Rack n’ Roll was an “open air drug market.” Friends, customers, and others around town have told him — and me — that source of these rumors were often members of the Manassas Park Police Department.
That latter description– an”open air drug market”– is interesting. Virginia’s Alcoholic Beverage Control can revoke a liquor license if it determines that a bar owner isn’t doing enough to keep drugs out of his business. He needn’t be engaged in any illegal activity himself to lose his license.
Here’s the Washington Post in September 2004:
Colonial Downs, Virginia’s only parimutuel horse-racing track, wants to bring an off-track betting parlor to Northern Virginia — namely to the city of Manassas Park.
The site proposed by Colonial Downs for a betting parlor is in Manassas Park Shopping Center, at a busy intersection less than two miles from both Fairfax and Prince William counties.
That’s the shopping center where Rack n’ Roll is located.
And read this, also from the Washington Post in October 2004:
Colonial Downs, Virginia’s only legal gambling company, is so confident it will win a proposal to allow off-tracking betting in Manassas Park that it has already leased space, gambling that Tuesday’s vote will turn out better than the last one, in 1996, when voters rejected a betting parlor by 74 votes.
That space was in the Manassas Park Shopping Center.
The raid happened in June 2004. The ensuing harassment continued through the election. But things didn’t work out as planned. The OTB referendum was again defeated, this time soundly, with 64 percent of the vote.
So why did the city continue its pursuit of David Ruttenberg’s business? My guess is to save their asses. Ruttenberg and his father estimate that the raid and ensuing investigation cost taxpayers around $200,000. And the only thing they had to show for it was a couple of extremely lame alcohol violations.
The state ABC board has since revoked Rack n’ Roll’s alcohol license (the ruling by the ABC judge was a joke — I’ll get to that later, too). David Ruttenberg is running the bar at a loss, hoping he might find a buyer — though the city seems to be blocking his efforts to sell, too. Seems to be a full-on, vindictive grudge at this point.
Last summer, the Virginia state police concluded an investigation into Ruttenberg’s case. Ruttenberg called me one evening to tell me that the state police had found enough to bring the report to Prince William County commonwealth’s attorney Paul Ebert, with the recommendation that he start an investigation. Ebert declined. Ruttenberg says the state police investigator expressed his regret at the Ebert’s decision.
The state police investigator hasn’t responded to several attempts I’ve made to contact him over the last few months. The state police also won’t release the results of their investigation to the public, or to David Ruttenberg.
There’s much more detail to all of this, which I’ll fill in over the next several weeks. But here’s the important part: None of this went into Ruttenberg’s initial lawsuit against the city and several city officials, because they can’t yet prove any of it. Because the judge in the case granted the city’s motion to dismiss, Ruttenberg won’t even get the benefit of discovery to delve into what role OTB may have played in the city’s attempt to shut down his bar.
Some of the stories I’ve heard regarding the town’s relentless pursuit of this guy are bizarre. I wouldn’t have believed them were it not for the fact that everything Ruttenberg has told me over the last year has, to this point, checked out. I’ll share some of those stories in future posts.
A few more things I’d like to note in this initial post:
Check this site and the BVBL site over the next few weeks for more information.
If you’ll remember back to February of last year, I told you about a raid in which dozens of police officers — some wearing ski-mask hats and pumping shotguns — stormed a pool hall in Manassas Park, Virginia on Ladies’ Night. Though the raid was unquestionably a drug raid, it was conducted under the auspices of an alcohol inspection, negating the burden of a search warrant. They found nothing.
Nevertheless, after the raid, Manassas Park police continued to harass bar owner David Ruttenberg and his customers. I actually visited the bar earlier this year, and witnessed the harassment. I watched as patrol officers pulled over one pool hall customer after another, searched them, harassed them, and released them.
I haven’t written more about this story because for the better part of the last year, I’ve been talking to Ruttenberg’s customers, acquaintances, and associates, as well as doing a bit of independent investigation into what’s been happening to him. I didn’t want to write too much, because I wanted people to continue to be able to talk to me.
Since that raid, Ruttenberg has essentially lost his bar. The state has revoked his liquor license, despite the fact that the charges against him were either paltry, or, with respect to the more serious charges (mostly, allowing drug deals to go on in his business), were instigated by the police, either by undercover officers or the informants who were working for them. They have chased away his customers with threats and harassment, spread vicious rumors about Mr. Ruttenberg around the town, and even scared off would-be buyers of the business.
There’s actually even more to the story, which I can’t get into right now, but will soon. Suffice it say, this man and his business have been ruined by the city of Manassas Park, its elected officials, and its police officers. It’s really a horrible story.
Unfortunately, it gets worse. Mr. Ruttenberg’s Section 1983 suit was dismissed yesterday by a federal judge. I haven’t seen the opinion yet, but apparently the judge granted a blanket motion to dismiss by all defendants named in the suit, all of whom cited the qualified immunity granted to public employees. Which means that not only won’t Mr. Ruttenberg get his day in court, he won’t even get to discovery in his case, where he might have been able to find out just how deep and extensive the effort to close down his business really was. According to Mr. Ruttenberg and his father (who also owns part of the business), the judge said at the hearing — before he’d even made a ruling — that the entire purpose of qualified immunity is to protect police officers and public officials from “suits like this one.”
Mr. Ruttenberg’s next step would be to appeal to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. Problem is, such an appeal would be costly. The guy has already had to sell his house, and without a liquor license, his bar loses money every day it’s open. And the 4th Circuit isn’t exactly known for its sympathy to claims of civil rights violations by police and public officials.
My file on Mr. Ruttenberg’s ordeal is several inches thick. You wouldn’t believe some of the shit that has happened to this guy. I’ve introduced him to several journalists who were sympathetic, but didn’t have the time or the column space they’d need to properly investigate, check out, and tell his story. The thing is, despite several years now of spying on him, attempting to entrap him, harassing him, and harassing his friends and customers, they don’t have a damned thing on him. Prior to all of this Ruttenberg and his business had a clean record. He himself has no criminal record, and his bar hadn’t a single ABC violation recorded against it. Since all of this flared up, he’s been arrested once, on a bogus charge of filing a false police report — which itself is a pretty good story. The prosecutor declined to pursue the case.
I’ll also say in Mr. Ruttenberg’s defense that everything he’s told me about this case has thus far checked out. I’ve yet to catch him lying, or even exaggerating. There are many times that he’s told me of something a police officer or Manassas Park public official has done that seemed too outlandish or ridiculous to be true. But when I’d go to check the story out, I’d get independent confirmation that events happened exactly as he said they did.
I hope to go into more detail on all of this soon. It’s just a very long, very detailed story. There are also a couple of other journalists now interested in the case. The FBI’s public corruption people are apparently investigating as well, though the case seems to be a fairly low priority for them.
Over the last ten months, I’ve watched a man get ruined by his local government. It’s a long, complicated, ugly, and infuriating story. Thing is, the story will only get sadder if they’re allowed to get away with it.
A couple of weeks ago, I told you about a bust conducted by the same police department as the one below. In this one, undercover officers decided to apprehend the suspect in the parking lot of a busy shopping center, a confrontation that ended in a public shootout.
The impetus of the parking lot confrontation was apparently a tip from an informant that the suspect had drugs on him. Why police couldn’t wait to apprehend him in a place less dangerous to the general public, I don’t know. One thing about the original article jumped out me, though. This sentence:
Police did not say whether they found drugs in Jenkins’ car.
Usually in a public police debacle like this one, officials release anything and everything they have on the suspect, both to make him look bad, and to justify their use of force. That they didn’t in this case speaks volumes.
That was last May. The state of Virginia’s criminal courts system has a handy website that lets you look up what charges the state has pending or dismissed against a given suspect. If you look up the name of the suspect in this case, Erving Eugene Jenkins, you’ll see something interesting. First, four of the nine charges of causing bodily injury to a law enforcement officer were dismissed. Five are still pending before a grand jury.
But the drug charge? Nolle prosequi, meaning prosecutors determined there wasn’t enough evidence to charge.
Which means that in all likelihood, police confronted that this guy in an unnecessarily aggressive and public manor, ended up shooting up a public parking lot where people were shopping…and the guy had nothing on him.
Now, I don’t know much about Mr. Jenkins. For all I know, he may be a creep. A search of his prior record indicates a slew of charges in 2000 in what seems to indicated an armed breaking and entering/abduction case. All of those were nol-pros, too.
But that’s sort of beside the point. The question here is, why was such a violent, public confrontation necessary? It obviously wasn’t because the narcotics team had certain proof the guy was carrying drugs.
Click here for the video.
Click here for the Ruttenbergs’ brief in responsel to the ABC charges resulting from the raid.
Here’s the story:
On June 2, 2004, police in the the Washington, D.C. exurb of Manassas Park, Virginia brought in a multi-jurisdictional narcotics tax force and officers from several surrounding cities and counties to conduct a massive, 70-90 officer SWAT raid on the Rack n’ Roll Billiards Club.
The raid took place on Ladies’ Night, a Wednesday. Though the intent of the raid was to collect evidence of drug use and drug distribution by David Ruttenberg, the club’s manager, it was conducted under the auspices of an Alcohol Beverage Control inspection. Because ABC is primarily a regulatory agency, the guise of an ABC inspection enabled the raid to take place without a search warrant.
After hours of scouring the club, searching every nook and cranny, and generally turning the place upside down, the only charges to follow against Ruttenberg were for two bottles of beer a distributor had left for sampling that weren’t clearly marked “SAMPLE.” The bar would later be charged with a few other minor offenses: one incident of serving alcohol to a minor, and with several incidents of flashing from customers during Mardi Gras.
Police arrested three people at the club on drug charges, the principal reason for the raid (though, again, the ABC facade enabled them to carry it out without a warrant). One was an undercover officer, who was of course immediately released. The other two were, by all indications, working for the police (the Ruttenberg’s brief contains the specifics as to why it’s safe to assume the arrestees were informants, one paid, and one cooperating in exchange for leniency on other charges). The paid informant was released. According to the Ruttenbergs all of the drug deals police say took place at the club were engineered by the police themselves, either through the informants or through an undercover officer (this too is laid out in the brief).
Immediately after the raid, David Ruttenberg had to make a deposit with the electric company (he was free to do so, given that the raid turned up nothing incriminating). Given that it was late at night, and that he’d just been subjected to a heavily-weaponized, highly-militarized, 70-90 member SWAT raid, he asked a local detective whom he knew personally to accompany him. The detective told him he had nothing to worry about. But Ruttenberg insisted. As the two men pulled into the parking lot to make the deposit, two squad cars appeared out of nowhere, cut the car off, and four officers emerged with their guns pointed squarely at Ruttenberg. According to Ruttenberg,when they saw the detective with him, they put their guns away, and drove off. This part of the story is hearsay, of course. But it’s validated by an angry email Neil Ruttenberg sent to the Manassas Park Chief of Police after the incident took place, vowing to hold him personally responsible for anything that might happen to his son at the hands of the police.
Prior to the raid, Rack n’ Roll Billiards had a spotless, 18-year record with ABC. David Ruttenberg has no criminal record, nor does his father Neil, who’s a partner in the club. David’s brother, and Neil’s son, is the incoming president of the Fairfax Bar Association. Neil says he had a top-secret security clearance with the U.S. government up until 2000. He has a JD from Columbia, and has been practicing law for 40 years. His daughter is a Lieutenant Commander in the Navy reserves, and served in both Gulf Wars. This isn’t a shady family. It’s difficult to see what reason police would have had to target David Ruttenberg or the bar he runs in a drug raid.
The Ruttenbergs have their theories. A couple of weeks ago, I met with them for 3 1/2 hours to hear their case. In crushing detail, they relayed to me incident after incident after incident since the night of the raid where Manassas Park police have attempted to entrap David Ruttenberg, conduct sting drug operations in his bar, and send police to harass his customers. In some cases, staff Ruttenberg hired specifically for the task of keeping drug use and drug dealing out of the bar appear to have been later (or all along) employed by police specifically to arrange for drug activity in the bar. Many of these incidents of harassment, stings, and entrapment were also captured by his bar’s surveillance system or recorded by the wire David Ruttenberg began wearing for his own defense (I’ve seen several of the videos). Ruttenberg has been told several times by area police officers that he’s the most wanted man in the county.
According to the Ruttenbergs, police have also made efforts to spread ill will about the bar. Regular patrons say police have openly told them to avoid the place, refering to it as an “open air drug market.” Of course, part of that may be because police themselves are arranging for drug activity there. In one video I’ve seen, the bar’s manager confronts two men openly snorting cocaine at a pool table. According to the Ruttenbergs, their waiter snatched the straw the men were using, and called the police. In the video, you see the police enter the bar and walk the men out (without patting them down or handcuffing them). When they switch to the outside camera, you see the police speak briefly with the men, then get into their car and drive away. The men walk off. According to the Ruttenberg’s, the bar’s staff offered police the straw as evidence, but they declined to take it.
One reason the Ruttenbergs suspect David Ruttenberg is being targeted, believe it or not, goes back a few years to a time when Ruttenberg and a Manassas Park police officer were romantically interested in the same woman. That officer apparently nursed a grudge against Ruttenberg, and is now the head of the narcotics task force that serves Manassas Park. They also suspect that once the raid failed, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars to taxpayers, Manassas Park police became determined to justify the raid by continually pursuing David Ruttenberg until they could find a reason to arrest him.
There’s much, much more to this story. Unfortunately, the details are overwhelming, and I have too much going on at the moment to give them the attention that would be necessary for me to be comfortable posting them. But my impression is, the stuff in this post and in the video is only the beginning.
What seems clear to me is that a year and a half after this raid, and after continual police harassment, there hasn’t been a single criminal charge against David Ruttenberg, which is a pretty good indication that he and his father have a credible case of harassment (David Ruttenberg was charged with one count of filing a false police report in relation to a DJ who had stolen from him, but that too appears to have been a hatchet job. The prosecutor refused to go forward with the charge. This incident is also discussed in the brief). After a massive show of overwhelming force, one that needlessly terrorized everyone in the Manassas Park shopping center that night, the best police could come up with against Ruttenberg were a few minor regulatory violations.
As you’re watching the video, keep a few things in mind:
1) There are three camera angles in the video, but each is from only one perspective. You’ll see an ungodly number of cops, but remember that you’re only seeing one entrance. They apparently came from all sides at the same time.
2) Again, this raid was for an alcohol regulation inspection. There was no search warrant.
3) Again, it appears that the three criminal arrests resulting from this raid were all of men working for the police department, directly or indirectly. Though David Ruttenberg and his bar were the targets of the raid, it produced no criminal charges against him.
4) One thing I find odd: Some of the officers are wearing polos and khaki shorts. Others are in uniform. And others are wearing cammo, black ski masks, body armor, and toting assault weapons. Some come in casually. Others come in pumping shotguns. If the goal of a SWAT team is to incapacitate everyone inside, it doesn’t make much sense for the heavy-hitters to come in after the inspectors. Unless of course the sole purpose of this raid was to scare the shit out of the people in the bar, and intimidate others from coming back.
5) If that’s the case, it worked. David Ruttenberg says he hasn’t taken a paycheck since the raid, and has had to sell his home to keep the bar open. He doesn’t anticipate the bar being open much longer if things don’t improve. The guy’s a wreck, though frankly, if his side of the story is accurate, I don’t now how he’s held it together this long.
This is the first time the Ruttenberg’s have made the surveillance video available to the public. Due to a protective order requested by the police and granted by the ABC hearing officer, the names of the undercover officer, officer in charge of the raid (who had the spat with Ruttenberg over the girl), and at least one of the police informants have been redacted, and were redacted when the brief was given to me.
Yesterday afternoon I spoke with Charles Noel, husband of Cheryl Lynn Noel, the Sunday school teacher and government worker who was shot dead by Baltimore police on a no-knock drug raid last year. Police found about a half an ounce of marijuana, enough to charge Mr. Noel with a misdemeanor. Nevertheless, prosecutors are apparently pushing for the maximum sentence for Mr. Noel, which would be a year in prison (Noel, incidentally, is charged only with “constructive possession,” in that the marijuana was found in the house he owned). Apparently, killing the guy’s wife wasn’t punishment enough for a pissant amount of marijuana. They want to thrown him in prison too.
Noel was devastated, said he’s lost 60 pounds in the last year, and is nearly suicidal. Since the raid in January of last year, Noel says he’s been pulled over about a half-dozen times in his neighborhood, each time with 4-5 police cars coming out of nowhere, and up to ten cops emerging from them with their guns drawn. Each time, they ask for his license and registration, then send him on his way.
I’ll have more on the Noel case.
Then, yesterday evening, I spoke with the owner and manager of a bar in Manassas Park, Virginia. In 2004, their business was raided by 90 — yes ninety — police in paramilitary gear. The police raided under the guise of — are you ready for this? — an Alcohol Beverage Control inspection. The advantage of raiding under an ABC warrant is that its a regualtory inspection not a criminal investigation, which means that the police didn’t need to get a warrant before going in. The owners have video of the raid captured by their security cameras. I’ll be posting it here once they condense it and send it to me.
For the last three hours, I sat with the two men while they went over detail after excruciating detail of the Manassas Park police departments endless efforts to entrap them, bait them, and run them out of business. The manager has no criminal record. Neither does the owner, his father, who’s a business owner and a practicing lawyer for 40 years. The manager’s brother is the income president of the Fairfax Bar Association.
Before 2004, the bar had a spotless ABC record. Not a single violation.
Despite the fact that police raided the bar under the facade of an ABC inspection, it was at heart a drug raid. Police made three arrests. One was an undercover cop. The other two were men who have all the markings of paid informants. Meaning the only drug dealing going on in the pool hall was likely being done by police operatives.
The raid netted no charges, no crimes, and two extremely minor and mundane ABC violations. Apparently, police found two bottles of warm beer left by a distributor for sampling that weren’t clearly marked “SAMPLE.”
After the raid, the manager — still obviously frazzled — had to make a deposit to the electric company. He asked a local police detective with whom he was friendly to accompany him. The detective told him he had nothing to worry about, but the man insisted. So the detective came along. As the guy pulled in to make the deposit, two more police cars screeched into the parking lot, cut off his car, and four officers jumped out with their guns drawn. When they saw and recognized the detective with him, they apologized, and drove off.
Since the raid, police have continued to attempt to frame or entrap the bar and its manager. The manager showed me surveillance of two men openly doing cocaine at one of the bar’s pool tables. When he called the police, they came in, took the two men outside, and let them go. No pat down, no search, no arrests. There’s surveilance footage of the men walking away, too. Police didn’t even want to see the straw the waiter took from the men with cocaine residue inside.
That’s really only scratching the surface of the mind-blowing stuff these guys showed me and told me about. This is really a case a local reporter needs to look into. Indcidentally, the same narcotics force conducted a paramilitary raid in a Manassas shopping center earlier this year. The raid ended with a flury of shots fired in the open lot, even as customers were shopping, and going to and from their cars.
The Manassas area is notorious around the Beltway for corruption. But the Manassas Park Police Department is out of control.
I’ve seen the video.