Last Updated: Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Chicago-style Justice: No One To Prison For 21 Preventable Nightclub Deaths
Updated: Monday, November 30, 2015

E2 nightclub victim and mother. Photo: CMS c 2003

In Chicago, the most corrupt big city in America, it might be considered naïve to think justice is a default value of the legal system.

February 17, 2003, twenty-one clubgoers die in a crowd crush at the E2 nightclub. The disaster ranks as Chicago’s worst nightclub tragedy. It was all preventable had club owners complied with city safety laws. It was all preventable had the city, including public safety agencies, enforced city safety laws.

In 2003, the E2 nightclub was a magnet for local and visiting black celebrities and a place to party for hardworking Chicagoans. E2 was arguably the city’s most prestigious African-American nightclub. DJs spinning at the E2 could also be found spinning at the top urban-formatted radio stations. The second floor club was complimented by the Epitome, a high-end restaurant located on the first floor.

There was also a darkside to the E2 nightclub. The two owners were a mix of famous and infamous local celebrities, themselves. One, Dwain Kyles, 53, was a Georgetown University educated attorney and former City of Chicago employee. The other, Calvin Hollins, 59, a former Cook County sheriff's deputy and felon for the shooting death of a patron at another club he was managing. His sentence was eventually commuted. Mr. Hollins was not allowed by law to maintain an interest in a bar. Yet, there he was.

There was more darkness. E2 was a club known to the City of Chicago to be operating without a set legal crowd capacity designation. A club that was consistently overcrowded, past what would have been its legal capacity limit. A club understaffed by security. A club with a history of shootings, beatings, rape and even a prior trampling. A club that had neither a written crowd management plan nor an emergency plan. A club that violated emergency exit laws. And, a club whose luck ran out on February 17, when a DJ affiliated with WGCI-FM, a major urban radio station, at one fateful point in his performance directed security to stop a fight---in the overcrowded club of at least 1,100 patrons---by calling on the bouncers to “mace the motherfuckers,” or some variation. That DJ, Von Woods, still holds his job at WGCI-FM, albeit under a different moniker.

And, finally, E2 was a club the City of Chicago housing court ordered shutdown in 2002 because of various significant code violations. Nevertheless, magically the E3 remained opened on Michigan Avenue, south of downtown and west of Soldier Field. That the E2 was still operating was not a secret. The club advertised openly on popular radio stations, distributed flyers, attracted celebrities and crowds too large to be unseen. The club was also known to be operating by personnel in both city police and fire departments and likely city council members as well.

After the tragedy, there was a lot of grandstanding by then Mayor Richard M. Daley and city bureaucrats and aldermen; public officials called for justice to be served. But, after a grand jury handed down multiply involuntary manslaughter indictments against the owners, the promoter and club manager---and local media lost interest in the tragedy---Chicago politics took over. An amateurish criminal case brought by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office in 2007 collapsed so completely that it is hard to believe it was not intentional. All of the defendants eventually went free: Hollins, Jr., Kyles, promoter Marco Flores and club manager Calvin Hollins, III.

Next, the City of Chicago decided to pursue charges against the club owners for violating a 2002 court order claiming the club should not have been in business at the time of the tragedy due to building and fire code violations that were directly and indirectly related to the tragedy. The case went back and forth in the courts propelled by verdicts against the defendants and appeals. Until, the last court ruling, that called for a mere two years of prison for the owners. The defendants appealed the ruling once again. The club owners had wanted to walk away without one iota of punishment. And their friends---Jesse Jackson’s son and a list of who’s who in Chicago boss politics came out to speak on behalf of the E2 club owners.

Mr. Kyles and Mr. Hollins, Jr., didn’t walk away free men---completely. Last week their fate was reduced to two years probation and 500 hours of community service. That comes to 23 minutes of community service for each of the 21 victim.

Welcome to Chicago.

Note: Crowd Management Strategies' Paul Wertheimer served as an expert witness in various plaintiff civil cases. He was also retained by the Cook County State's Attorney's Office in the criminal case, but resigned when he was denied access to trial documents he thought necessary to formulate an opinion. Mr. Wertheimer has been interviewed numerous times by the media about the E2 nightclub tragedy. He appeared before the E2 nightclub independent investigating body in 2003.

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