By Ed Runyan
The city and owner of Sunset Lounge, where a man was killed early New Year’s Day, have reached an agreement whereby the bar will close and temporarily surrender its liquor license to the state.
At a news conference Thursday, Law Director Greg Hicks said he’d been told that Joe Sankey Jr., owner of the bar and holder of its liquor license, already had removed the liquor and equipment from the 480 E. Market St. bar after getting clearance from police.
Hicks said he and his staff had begun steps Tuesday and Wednesday to close the business through a nuisance action at the common pleas court level, but Sankey and his attorney, Dennis DiMartino, intervened and offered to close it down voluntarily.
The agreement says that within seven days, Sankey will end his lease with Dream Team Promotions LLC, which was operating the bar. Dream Team’s statutory agent is Lashawn Ziegler, who has operated other bars in Warren in the past that have caused disturbances.
State liquor agents investigated the bar this summer and found that Ziegler had participated in the operation of the bar in ways that were not allowed under the terms of his probation on several felony convictions.
Warren City Council voted 9-0 in August to object to the renewal of the bar’s liquor license on grounds that the Warren Police Department had been called there 22 times between the opening of the bar in March and late August.
Ziegler also operated two other bars — 77 Soul on Youngstown Road and Benji Brown’s Bar on North Park Avenue. The city forced both of those to close because of numerous incidents, including a homicide outside Benji Brown’s.
Sankey also agreed to relinquish the bar’s food-service license and to remove all signage within five days.
Hicks said the city wants to encourage “legitimate, well-run businesses” but won’t allow business operations where repeated violence and trouble occurs.
“We want to send the message, ‘Do this right or we will shut you down,’” Hicks said.
Sankey could sell or transfer the liquor license and could take steps as early as 30 days from now to get it back, but the city would be informed of any steps Sankey would take, Safety-Service Director Enzo Cantalamessa said.
The city doesn’t control a liquor license, but it would have the opportunity to comment on any changes or new uses for the license before any such change would take place, Cantalamessa said.
Hicks said Sankey’s surrendering the liquor license makes “moot” a hearing planned for this year on whether the Sunset’s liquor license should be renewed.
Surrendering the license doesn’t necessarily end the Ohio Department of Public Safety’s investigation of problems it found at the Sunset Lounge this summer, Hicks said.
Cory Blackwell, 25, of Randolph Street Northwest, was found with multiple gunshot wounds in front of the bar at 2:11 a.m. Tuesday after gunfire erupted in the bar near a crowded dance floor.
Lt. Jeff Cole of the Warren Police Department said Thursday afternoon the department had made no arrests in the case.
Though a large number of people were in the bar at the time of the killing and police have talked to witnesses, detectives are still zeroing in on the facts, Cantalamessa said.
Hicks said the case is a little like a “puzzle,” describing it as “this one saw this, this one saw that.” Cantalamessa wouldn’t discuss whether the police have access to video of the incident.