Restaurant survives city's drug war
Seattle Times staff reporter
Oscar McCoy is not an angry man.
Even when the legal bills mounted, and nobody walked through the doors of his Central Area restaurant, and his savings account dwindled, McCoy says he never lost his optimism and faith in government.
That's almost as remarkable as the fact that McCoy's namesake restaurant remains open for business.
Weekend crowds once stretched out the door of Oscar's II, and luminaries the likes of author Alex Haley stopped by the corner of 22nd Avenue and Madison Street to sample the collard greens and ribs.
But then crack cocaine came into the neighborhood, and everything changed.
Over a decade, Oscar's II became a staging ground for two vastly different approaches to police work. One used foot patrols to work with McCoy to drive drug dealers from the restaurant. The other used undercover informers to buy crack at Oscar's II, establishing that drug deals were going down there and putting the onus on McCoy to stop them.
When he couldn't, the city sought to declare his restaurant a nuisance and shut it down.
While police regularly use undercover drug buys to build a case against business owners they think are allowing or participating in crimes, they can't use stings to destroy an honest business. And when they tried to do that to McCoy, it violated his constitutional rights, the state Court of Appeals ruled last year.
"The McCoys' business was not a nuisance," the judges wrote. "The McCoys were virtually helpless to prevent the undercover drug transactions conducted by police."
An earlier court opinion noted that the only people who profited from the stings at Oscar's II were drug dealers, who walked away with taxpayer money.
Police officials would not discuss the case because McCoy has a lawsuit pending against the city of Seattle and the state Liquor Control Board to recoup his business losses.
City Attorney Mark Sidran, whose office pursued the abatement against McCoy, defended the operation and said undercover buys are an effective way to close problem businesses. His office will not appeal the ruling.
The legal fight nearly ruined McCoy, who is saddled with $150,000 in credit-card debt and other expenses. But he endured, a testament to his quiet tenacity.
While there is no guarantee that McCoy will see a penny of damages, he is confident the legal system will one day compensate him for his ordeal: "That's why I say I wouldn't want to be nowhere else but the United States."
Keeping his hand in
McCoy, who turned 71 last month, still comes to the restaurant for a few hours each day.
Sometimes he cooks up a pot of gumbo or chitterlings - pork intestines cooked in paprika. Other times he fills in when a cook or bartender fails to show up.
McCoy learned to prepare food in the Army and served as a field cook in Vietnam. He married his wife, Barbara, while stationed in Germany. They moved to Seattle in 1971 and opened their first restaurant, Oscar's, on Capitol Hill. When they lost their lease in 1986, the McCoys found their present location at 2051 E. Madison St.
McCoy set about to create a nightspot that featured his Southern specialties and soon had a nice business, catering mostly to an older crowd. His three children worked as cooks and waiters.
But in 1989, a nearby nightclub, the Cotton Club, closed, and Oscar's II began to attract a younger, tougher clientele. There were fights, and the McCoys increasingly called 911 for help.
One night that year, two cops came in and asked to speak with McCoy.
Eric Zerr was a former Boeing engineer and new to the police force. Sam Derezes was a nine-year veteran charged with starting the first and only foot beat in the Central Area, from Madison to Jackson streets. Together, they were assigned to walk from 8:30 p.m. to 4:30 a.m.
Derezes would not comment for this article, citing McCoy's pending legal action against the city and state, but in court testimony he said he started the beat by going around the neighborhood shaking hands with everyone he met.
"We were kind of the bright faces down there," he recalled, "and it created a show, to see a couple of white policemen on foot at night. It caused a stir when they saw we weren't there to step on people, just to get to know them and find out what went on."
Derezes told McCoy that he and Zerr were willing to work with him, but if there was any hint that McCoy was allowing drug dealing in the restaurant, they would do their best to shut him down.
McCoy was grateful for the help. By then, the block was under siege. There were so many drug transactions in the area that dealers lined the sidewalk waiting for customers to pull up.
"Mr. McCoy and several other business owners were literally being held hostage by the gang people that were coming into that area," said Derezes. "They were asking for relief."
The officers suggested McCoy put up signs indicating that loitering, firearms and gang clothing would not be allowed. McCoy put up 13 such warning signs. He bought a metal detector and played softer music.
Most important, the cops told McCoy which of his patrons were suspected troublemakers or drug dealers. He put the names of nearly 50 people on a trespass list, banishing them from his restaurant.
So serious was the crime problem that one woman on the trespass list was shot to death in the Oscar's II parking lot Oct. 17, 1992, in a gang-related dispute.
On their foot beat, Zerr and Derezes approached people about missed court appearances, jaywalking citations and suspended driver's licenses. If the person had an outstanding warrant, they made an arrest.
"I heard some of the lip they were getting back, and they put up with it," said Paul Rogers, a longtime patron of Oscar's II. "They cleaned up the streets without being abusive. They are two special fellas, I tell you that."
Expansion plans afoot
The McCoys wrote many letters to the Police Department, thanking the two officers for making the area safer and "allowing us to cater to the family and social business we were known for prior to the influx of the drug problems."
The foot patrol was so successful that Zerr, Derezes and a sergeant submitted an internal proposal to expand it to include more officers.
"Foot beats are confrontational to criminals, yet promote positive contacts with business and citizens," they wrote.
"Slapping one hand while shaking another is often difficult and carries with it the weight of far more personal contact than many officers are accustomed to. These tension-filled circumstances need to be met with courtesy, knowledge and sympathy."
They submitted the report - and never heard back.
"We ran it up the chain of command, and it died," Zerr said recently. "The department just wasn't there."
In 1994, the two officers were transferred to a patrol car on Broadway. There has not been a regular foot patrol in the Central Area since.
The 911 calls to break up fights in Oscar's II continued after the officers left. Sometime in September 1994, continuing neighborhood complaints prompted narcotics detectives to determine whether drugs could be purchased inside the restaurant.
After a confidential informer allegedly purchased crack there, police sent the McCoys an abatement letter, warning that the city could shut them down if the drug problem didn't stop.
The McCoys immediately met with police at the East Precinct. They asked for a foot beat to return to the Central Area but were told police would no longer "baby-sit" their business, according to several officers who testified in the later abatement trial.
Instead, police outlined suggestions to deter drug dealers. Some McCoy adopted. Others he considered too impractical - locking the bathroom and allowing only one customer in at a time, for instance.
To protect the identity of the informers, police no longer told McCoy who was suspected of selling drugs in his establishment. Instead, he was left to defend against dealers he didn't know. He and his wife have steadfastly claimed they never saw any evidence of illegal drugs in the restaurant, and they relied on police to tell them who should be banned from the premises.
Later court decisions would determine that McCoy was set up to fail when police switched strategies.
"That's the yin-yang of the department," Zerr says. "One is: `We can work with you.' The other is: `We don't have the manpower, so you have to sink or swim, and if you're a nuisance we'll find a way to shut you down.' And there's so many ways the city can shut you down."
Between 1995 and 1997, police informers bought nuggets of crack at Oscar's II 18 times. In one operation, four undercover cops sat in the restaurant trying to set up buys.
"They put four officers here to do drug buys, but they couldn't afford to put two officers on the beat," McCoy reflected. "The police can't stop it (drugs), and the DEA can't stop it, but they say to me, `You should stop it.' It's an impossible task."
No one was arrested in any of the stings. Detectives testified in the abatement case that arrests weren't the goal of the operation. Instead, each buy was added to the abatement file to prove that Oscar's II was a nuisance and that McCoy harbored drug dealers.
Liquor license under fire
Liquor agents routinely work with police to monitor restaurants and nightclubs. In summer 1997, the Liquor Control Board filed a complaint to revoke McCoy's license, based largely on information compiled in the stings. After a two-day hearing, Administrative Law Judge Ernest Heller dismissed the board's complaint and ruled in favor of McCoy.
"The record does not show the McCoys to be looking the other way or winking at the criminal activity," Heller wrote. "It is troubling that hundreds, if not thousands of dollars in government funds were paid out to drug dealers leading to no enforcement activity."
The Liquor Board later overruled the judge's decision and suspended McCoy's liquor license from February 1998 to June 1999, when it was reinstated after a collective effort by McCoy and his neighbors.
For most restaurants, losing a liquor license is fatal - most of the profits come from alcohol. During the Oscar's II heyday, McCoy earned roughly $1,600 a night from the bar and about $500 from the restaurant. Without the liquor license, bar revenue dropped to zero and daily food orders amounted to $15 or $20. Word on the street was that Oscar's II had closed for good.
Efforts to cater to Alcoholics Anonymous and other rehab groups failed, and the McCoys began to burn through their savings. The catering equipment was sold, along with most of the chairs and glasses. McCoy didn't talk about finances with his wife because she did the books and couldn't discuss the situation without crying. And McCoy hated to see his wife cry.
In 1998, King County Superior Court Judge R. Joseph Wesley ruled that Oscar's II was a nuisance and issued an order of abatement. But the judge also noted that McCoy didn't stand much of a chance after the foot patrol was reassigned and police began working against him.
"Rather than continue with the type of assistance provided by officers Derezes and Zerr," Wesley wrote, "the city removed what had been the bulwark of support for the business owners in the area including most dramatically, the McCoys.
"Once the focus shifted, the McCoys were essentially powerless to stop the inevitable. The drug problem continued, it probably intensified, and a nuisance is the result."
McCoy appealed. "If we walked away right then," he said, "we could have retired. But we said to ourselves: We haven't done anything wrong."
A dark cloud lifted
The McCoys read and re-read the state Appeals Court verdict when it came last April. Each word lifted part of the dark cloud that lingered over them for six years.
"I was elated. Until the court ruled, we didn't know which way was up," McCoy said.
City Attorney Sidran disagrees with the ruling and maintains McCoy should have followed all the suggestions police gave him, even if he found some unworkable. For example, the police wanted a video camera installed; McCoy said it would be too expensive.
"The court's opinion was that he did all he could do," Sidran said. "Our point is, no, he didn't."
Now running for mayor, Sidran says the city would be better off with more foot patrols, but it's too expensive. And he says the approach taken by Zerr and Derezes wasn't successful because drug trafficking in the neighborhood continued despite their efforts.
"Building relationships is not the goal of community policing," he said. "It's solving problems - which they didn't do."
Three months after the April ruling, the McCoys got more good news: The state Appeals Court determined that the Liquor Board erred when it suspended the McCoys' license for 16 months. The ruling made it possible for the couple to sue the agency for damages. They're asking for $900,000 from the city and state.
The state Attorney General's Office, which is defending the Liquor Board, said the agency did nothing wrong but may consider a settlement.
All the old customers are starting to return, McCoy said. He and his wife know the names of almost every couple who crowd the dance floor each weekend. A golf club of retired Central Area businessmen meets there Wednesday afternoons.
Sidran says drug trafficking is no longer a problem at Oscar's II, thanks to the liquor-license suspension, which drove much of the younger crowd away.
Zerr attributes the crime drop around Oscar's II to neighborhood gentrification.
Now assigned to a one-man patrol car, Zerr is glad the Appeals Court ruled in McCoy's favor, but he doubts any settlement - if there is one - could repair the damage done.
"I just think it's too late," he said. "The restaurant was their livelihood, their retirement. To try and strip all this away ... I don't know what the salve is for that. It probably took 10 years off their lives."
Alex Fryer can be reached at 206-464-8124 or firstname.lastname@example.org.