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Raid of gay gym raid sparked by Alibi ad
The state sure knows how to kill a party.
An ad in the Alibi prompted an investigation by the state's Special Investigation Division (SID) into Pride Gym, says Jim Plagens, the division's deputy director. The Albuquerque gym, which caters to gay men, has been advertising "Hot After-hours: Fri & Sat, 9pm-4am" on the back-page Billboard section of the paper since October 2004. According to Plagens, the ad made SID suspicious that the gym was illegally selling alcohol after hours without a permit. SID did an undercover investigation of the gym, which resulted in a search warrant and an arrest warrant for Manager Ron Cordova. Plagens would not speak to the nature of the investigation, as it is ongoing.
Seven state agents and seven Albuquerque police officers entered the premises on Saturday, July 1, at 10 p.m. The officers, looking for alcohol, are said to have burst through the doors wearing bulletproof vests and carrying department-issued semiautomatic rifles. "Anytime police officers execute a felony search warrant, these are basically the tools of their trade," Plagens says. "The officers would be remiss if they weren't armed."
About 50 patrons were inside—some of whom were naked or wearing little more than towels—and some were handcuffed and forced to lie face-down, Plagens says. Though reports surfaced the next few days in the Santa Fe New Mexican and Albuquerque Tribune of inappropriate force and comments made by the officers executing the warrants, Plagens says nothing that took place at the gym that night was out of step with standard procedure.
"I've heard they felt it was gestapo techniques to put everyone down in restraints," Plagens says. "That's something we would do in any warrant. We do it for the patrons' safety and our safety as well." Plagens didn't know if demeaning comments were made by officers because he wasn't at the raid, but he added, "The officers must conduct themselves in a professional manner. I haven't received any information to the contrary."
Plagens says the agents did find alcohol on the premises, though he wouldn't specify what kind or how much. Manager Cordova was arrested and charged with selling liquor without a license. Another patron, who had outstanding warrants unrelated to the situation, was also arrested. Five men were cited for drinking at an unlicensed establishment. Peter Olson, spokesperson for the Department of Public Safety, did not respond to the Alibi's inquiries as of press time, but he told the Tribune the raid was part of an ongoing effort to prevent drunk driving. The Fire Marshall's Office also red-tagged the building for violations of safety codes, forcing the business to close. The gym reopened Monday, July 10.
Dave Bedford, owner of Pride Gym, says he's been renting the 5,000-square-foot facility on Hannett Avenue out for private functions after hours since 1998. Bedford says he's consulted with lawyers on the matter a number of times, and though the private events sometimes include alcohol, he has been advised that it's not in violation of any laws. "Despite the misinformation DPS [Department of Public Safety] distributed to the news media, Pride Gym has not been selling alcohol at any time," Bedford says.
That depends on what you consider "selling," Plagens says. SID agents discovered a door charge of $18.50 for Saturday evening's after-hours event that Plagens believes counts as paying for the liquor that was inside. "If you rented that [space] to have a private party and those were guests, that would be a different matter. This is for all practical purposes a public event. All you had to do was pay your cover and walk in." No underage people were found inside the gym, he adds.
Peter Simonson, executive director of ACLU-New Mexico, says without an investigation, it is hard to say whether SID's actions are justified. New Mexico's chapter of the ACLU has agreed to represent the owner of the gym if there has been a civil rights violation. Simonson says he's not sure yet if the union will represent Bedford on the criminal charges that have been brought against him, though typically the ACLU doesn't get involved in criminal cases.
"We need to find out more information about what prompted the investigation," Simonson says. "The sorts of things we would look for would be whether the liquor question was a pretext for something else and was unlawfully used as a pretext. We'll look to see if this particular business was selected because of the sector of the community it caters to."
Simonson adds he's not clear why the back-page Alibi ad prompted the investigation. Nothing in the ad suggests to him that there is a violation of alcohol regulations, he says. "It's precisely those kinds of contradictions that have raised our antennae."
Similarly, Equality New Mexico, a gay rights organization, has concerns about any possibility that the gym was targeted because it serves the gay community, says Alexis Blizman, executive director. "We support that laws are enforced," she says. "We want to make sure the business owner and patrons were treated with respect." If it turns out the gym was targeted because of its clientele, Blizman says Equality New Mexico will have a response. "Members of the GLBT community are citizens and taxpayers and need to be treated with respect."