When Jose Valdes, of Boerne, walked up to the Gaslamp on September 5 to visit a friend tending bar inside the Midtown club, the bouncer asked for a $20 cover. Valdes had just seen a group of white men ahead of him enter for free. He explained that he was just going to go see his friend and come right back out. "If you don’t want to pay, then get the fuck out of here,” Valdes recalls the bouncer saying. Valdes says when he attempted to apologize, a uniformed Harris County Sheriff’s deputy named Eleazar Agrait began to shove him around.
Agrait handcuffed Valdes and shoved him into the back of a police car. At that point, Valdes says, another officer drove him around the block and parked slightly behind the Gaslamp where Agrait was waiting. Valdes says the deputy opened the back door of the vehicle, then threatened to take off his badge and “beat the fuck out of” him. Eventually Valdes was let go.
He approached an older officer on horseback to complain about being threatened while recording video on his phone. In the video, Agrait seems to get more frustrated as Valdes continues to record, points at the officer and describes to everyone around him what just happened. Eventually, Agrait slapped handcuffs on Valdes and formally arrested him on criminal trespass charges. Valdes’s case is scheduled for a hearing on October 13.
The Harris County Sheriff’s Office wouldn't respond to repeated questions from the Houston Press, and instead simply responded with an email saying, "Harris County Sheriff’s Office personnel will no longer work at the Gaslamp establishment." (The Houston Police Department had already banned off-duty officers from working there.)
[The video below contains some strong language]
This comes on the heels of a controversy surrounding three male African American attorneys who attempted to enter the Midtown club, located at 2400 Brazos, on Friday night. As we reported earlier this week, Brandon Ball, Dan Scarbrough and Ken Piggee were told there was a $20 cover charge. Later, they observed that white men were being let into the club at no charge while minority men were either refused on the basis of a dress code or were asked for the $20 cover fee.
Tim Sutherland, an attorney representing Gaslamp, says the men were charged a cover not because of their race but because there were no women with them. “Our club doesn’t allow multiple males with no females, so our policy is to charge a cover for that group.” Sutherland says there is no specific defined ratio of females to males that would be needed to gain free entry, but “you’d want at least one for a group of three, and a one-to-one ratio is better.”
Michael Williams, however, says whether or not minority men will be allowed into the club without a cover fee has nothing to do with the ratio of women versus men. Although he’s no longer in the nightclub industry, Williams worked at Rebels Honky Tonk at 5002 Washington for about six months, from the early summer to the late fall of either 2011 or 2012, he says. The club was recently sold, but the owner was previously Reservoir, Inc. and the registered agent is Ayman Jarrah, the same registered agent of Land Guardian Incorporated, which owns the Gaslamp.
Interestingly, in the club scene, Jarrah doesn’t use his real name and insists he be called “Dave Yurman.” Sutherland confirmed by phone that Jarrah does also go by that alias and it is not his legal name.
The Facebook page for “Dave Yurman” is full of photos of him hanging out at the Gaslamp and cavorting with bouncer Mike Ross, one of the men that Brandon Ball and his friends claimed discriminated against them.
The complaints now facing Gaslamp echo much of what Williams says he saw when he worked at Jarrah’s other bar a few years ago. “The owner did not want people of color in the bar,” Williams alleged. “If there were more than a handful of black, Hispanic, Asian — you name it — then he, on more than one occasion, came up and said, ‘What are you guys doing? You can’t do that. That’s not what this is about. You need to turn these guys away.’ It’s not a matter of if there are women with guys coming in. It’s a matter of who he wants in the bar, period.” Williams said the policy strictly applied to minority men, not women.
To keep out minority men, Williams says, the bouncers would tell would-be patrons they had to pay a cover, say the club was at capacity or make up some other reason. “Dress code — a lot of times you’d say, ‘Well, your pants are too baggy’ or ‘Your shorts are too long’ or ‘You’re not wearing the right kind of shoes,’” Williams told the Press. “Even if there was someone in the bar wearing the exact same thing you were telling them they couldn’t come in wearing — it doesn’t matter.”
When asked why the owner didn’t want more than a “handful” of minority men in Rebels, Williams says, “It wasn’t the look he was going for. He wanted a predominantly white crowd. It’s what he wanted at the bar. He felt the people who would come in and spend money at the bar would not enjoy it if, as he would put it, it was a ‘dark crowd.’ His words.”
Sutherland declined to comment on the former employee’s claims that he received deliberate instructions from management to discriminate at Jarrah’s bar.
Williams says he quit working at Rebels because he disagreed with the actions of the ownership, including the discrimination issue. Afterward, he worked at The Dogwood, which is directly next door to Gaslamp. There, he says, he witnessed Gaslamp bouncers getting aggressive with patrons. “I saw with my own two eyes them getting physical with customers. It’s kind of like the Wild West.”
Customers like Robert Blasio, who says that in July 2014, a bouncer aggressively threw him out of the bar, resulting in a torn bicep and other injuries. He’s now suing Land Guardian Inc. and Ayman Jarrah for damages of more than a million dollars for physical pain and suffering, mental anguish, medical expenses, lost wages, damages “resulting from the physical and mental impairment that Robert Blasio has suffered and will continue to suffer” and disfigurement. The case is scheduled to go to trial on November 9.
In fact, Jarrah has been sued several times in Harris County. Each time, however, those cases were either settled or dismissed before trial.
Jarrah was also charged with assault of a family member in 2001. The case was dismissed because the complaining witness “has moved out of the country (Demascus) [sic] and is not scheduled to return,” according to Harris County District Clerk records.
According to court records, in 2006 a man named Salim Zantout filed charges against Jarrah after finding him “breaking items behind the bar with his hands” at the now-closed Copa Cabana bar at 114 Main. Another witness says Jarrah “grabbed the front door with both hands and swung it open into the building twice breaking the window.” Other damaged items listed were the front door and a bar stool. Jarrah pled guilty to a reduced charge of disorderly conduct in January 2007.
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Jarrah used to run another nightclub called Fix Lounge under a corporation called Reservoir, Inc. In 2009, the club’s landlord, UR Properties, filed for a restraining order and injunction, saying Jarrah had trespassed onto an adjacent parking lot he had no right to use. While there, UR Properties claimed, Jarrah was caught on video “breaking the security gate and gluing the ticket machine.” The club's landlord also claimed he “threw rocks and shot out the windows at the UR Properties office.”
Reservoir, Inc. filed a counterclaim, alleging that UR Properties had “remorse” about the amount it charged for the lease and engaged in a campaign of harassment including “making repeated false accusations to police,” “interfering with access to the premises,” “alleging violations of the lease” and “making threats against Reservoir calculated to compel payment of additional money.” The warring parties settled before the case went to trial.
It’s not just allegations in civil and criminal court that continue to plague Gaslamp and its owner. The bar also has to answer to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, which recently imposed a $2,400 fine against the bar for serving a patron who was already intoxicated.
It’s likely the club will have to ante up for private security, too, as the employees of the Houston Police Department and Harris County Sheriff’s Office will no longer be available to drive protesting would-be patrons around the block.