Taking a stance against liquor license at former Lena’s Bar

06/13/2016 9:00 AM |

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A local restaurant applying for a liquor license may not be a big deal for most people.

But for Dawn Gilliam, it brings back nightmares.

On March 29, 2003, Ms. Gilliam’s 21-year-old daughter Kelly was struck by a bullet and killed inside the former Lena’s Bar and Restaurant on Flanders Road in Riverside.

Kelly Gilliam was sitting at a table inside the bar when gunfire broke out between an armed security guard and some men who had been thrown out and returned with guns, according to police.

Lena’s, which had been the site of numerous violent incidents over the years, was later stripped of its liquor license by the New York State Liquor Authority, which also barred anyone from applying for a license at the premises for two years.

To date, although at least one other restaurant has opened there since 2005, including the no-alcohol Pelican Grill and Juice Bar, no other establishment at the location has had a liquor license.

Now that may change.

The site’s current occupant, a Mexican restaurant called JR El Mariachi, filed a required 30-day advanced notice of application for a liquor license with the Southampton Town Clerk’s office on May 12.

And Dawn Gilliam, who grew up in the Flanders/Riverside area, said she plans to do whatever she can to stop that from happening.

“It still hits hard every day,” the Riverhead resident said. “It took me five years to be able to ride past there. My grandson went to Head Start right down the road and I would take the long way around. It took a while, but every time I do ride past there, the memory is still there, and it’s not going to go anywhere.”

JR El Mariachi owner Jorge Rojas and his daughter Jasmin Diaz-Leal said they know nothing about what happened in 2003 and had nothing to do with it. They’ve been open for about a year with no liquor license.

“We’re not going to be a nightclub,” Ms. Diaz-Leal said.

She added that her family owns several area businesses — including the recently opened Taqueria Cielito Lindo restaurant in the former Julia’s Pizza location on East Main Street, the Mexico Lindo grocery on East Main Street across from Town Hall and the El Rodeo restaurant in East Moriches — and have never had any problems.

Those establishments do not have liquor licenses, according to state records.

Ms. Gilliam ended up raising her grandson, who was 3 years old when his mother was killed. He’ll graduate from high school next year, she said.

No one was ever charged with her daughter’s death.

Mark Loadholt, an armed New York City corrections officer who was working security at Lena’s on the night of the shooting, became involved in an altercation with some patrons and fired his gun, police said at the time.

Mr. Loadholt told police at the time that he was punched and kicked by several people, one of whom threatened him with a handgun, at which point he began firing his gun.

A spokesperson for Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota said at the time that homicide detectives considered bringing a second-degree murder charge against Mr. Loadholt, but a grand jury opted not to bring any charges against him. Police never publicly said who fired the shot that hit Kelly Gilliam.

Three other men involved in the incident were indicted by the same grand jury, but only on second-degree assault charges, officials said at the time.

“I was nowhere near in the state of mind to even deal with any of that stuff at the time,” Ms. Gilliam said this week. “But now, I’m like, what do I do? Do I walk away from it? Do I let it happen and let everyone see that history is going to repeat itself?”

She feels that allowing alcohol to be sold at that location will lead to a repeat of the same types of violent incidents that occurred regularly at Lena’s. At times, police had to shut down sections of Flanders Road due to large riots at Lena’s.

“History repeats itself,” she said. “Look at every single time. Look at how long it went on [at Lena’s] and nothing was done about it.”

Southampton Town police Lt. Susan Ralph said it’s difficult to determine how much crime has taken place in this specific area of Flanders Road in recent years without going through hundreds of police reports.

Ms. Gilliam said that when she found out the former Lena’s site was reopening, her mission became clear: Keep the restaurant from selling liquor. Last week, she learned of the liquor license application.

Ron Fisher, president of the Flanders, Riverside and Northampton Community Association, said his organization plans to discuss the JR El Mariachi liquor license application at its meeting Monday, June 13.

He said he has spoken with Ms. Gilliam.

“It’s a very valid, legitimate concern,” he said.

Mr. Fisher said he’s been to JR El Mariachi and the restaurant appears to be struggling to draw customers.

“They are not doing well as a restaurant, but the liquor license is going to completely change the clientele,” Mr. Fisher said. “I think it’s such a bad idea, because of the history, because of the area and because of all the efforts going into cleaning up Riverside. It just doesn’t seem like the right spot for a bar. It’s right next door to a church and there’s no viable public transportation, so people are going to be leaving there drunk.”

JR El Mariachi’s pre-application said the restaurant plans to sell liquor, wine, beer and cider, offer a full food menu and play recorded music, but will have no jukebox, disc jockey, karaoke, live music or dancing.

Under state law, applicants for liquor licenses must submit a notice to their local municipality 30 days before filing the actual liquor license application with the State Liquor Authority, according to SLA spokesman Bill Crowley.

Photo caption: Dawn Gilliam of Riverhead is concerned about an application for a liquor license at a new bar located where her daughter was fatally shot 13 years ago in Riverside. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

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