WATERLOO — Years before an unlicensed after-hours club became the scene of one of the largest shootings in Waterloo history, the establishment at the corner of West Fourth and Washington streets was known as a local watering hole.
From the Press Box in the 1980s, famous for its pizza, to Benjamin’s Pub to Barney’s, the spot at 501 W. Fourth St. was a fixture of the community.
That changed when the bar — half of the ground floor of a two-story building that includes a tattoo parlor and upstairs apartments — stopped operating in early 2013 and its liquor license lapsed. A new operator tried to re-launch the corner as Club Phyre but wasn’t able to obtain a liquor license because of zoning changes. The changes aimed to curtail the proliferation of businesses selling and serving alcohol in the neighborhood.
It was a pipe shop for a few months and then leased out to a motorcycle club for a private gathering place. The location, built in 1913, suddenly left the public eye.
The private space held around 100 people Sept. 26 when a shooting broke out in early morning hours, leaving two people dead and several injured. The site was not licensed by the city to operate as an after-hours establishment.
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Neighbors at the building’s tattoo shop and residential apartments told The Courier they heard loud music at late hours in recent months. Fire department and building officials said they thought the property was vacant.
“I wouldn’t know what activity is going on in a lot of buildings in town I guess,” Waterloo Fire Rescue Chief Pat Treloar said.
City Clerk’s Office representative LeAnn Even said she is not aware of any citations, fines or other penalties previously issued against the owners or tenants.
After-hours establishments in Waterloo are supposed to submit applications, undergo police investigations, receive inspections from fire, building and health officials, and then receive City Council approval, according to Waterloo’s city code. The license comes with a $350 yearly fee, and it allows businesses to let patrons bring their own alcohol to drink. After-hours businesses can operate from midnight until 6 a.m., city code says.
City code also states that people who own or engage in unlicensed activity can face up to $625 in fines and up to 30 days in jail. Code enforcement officers, police officers, fire inspectors or building officials can issue citations depending on the nature of violations, said Major Joe Leibold at the Waterloo Police Department.
In June, police cited the owner of an Edwards Street building for after-hours violations following a string of shootings connected with parties on the property that injured three people — including one man who was later killed in the September private club shooting.
There are currently no after-hours businesses licensed in Waterloo, according to the Clerk’s Office, and Treloar said there were no calls for service to Waterloo Fire Rescue at the location this year prior to Saturday’s shooting.
Waterloo Police were called to a noise complaint at the address shortly before 3 a.m. March 29. They found people outside, and the group agreed to be quiet, Leibold said.
There were three calls between April 13 and April 19 from a caller who suspected the club was violating state pandemic rules that closed bars, although the location wasn’t a bar.
During one check, police discovered a person inside cleaning, and found the cars in the parking lot belonged to tenants in the apartments upstairs. During another visit, an officer found two people inside.
There was a call in late April for unclear reasons that resulted in an officer checking license plates in the lot. Another late April call came from a person who was concerned a lot of people were in the area. Police pulled up and watched three people exit the club and leave.
Then on June 13, a passing patrol officer noticed a large number of vehicles in the lot around 10 p.m. and made a note for other officers to be aware in case there was trouble later. There wasn’t.
None of the calls resulted in officers initiating written reports.
Waterloo officials said the club’s back door was the only way people could enter or exit the property, and witnesses to the September shooting said they had to smash open the front door glass to escape when the gunfire erupted, resulting in trampling injuries.
Building department official Greg Ahlhelm said the 3,200-square-foot facility would need at least two exits to conform with building codes. He said the building had two exits, but one of them was blocked.
Ahlhelm said his department would issue citations to licensed businesses that repeatedly did not comply with correction requests. But no one had inspected the Fourth Street building in recent years. Treloar said the last time fire officials inspected the Fourth Street property was in April 2013, when the new operator tried to start Club Phyre.
The part of the building where the shooting happened is owned by HAA LLC, a domestic limited liability company. The company was created in March 2010, state records show. Limited liability companies are structures that allow individuals or corporations to avoid liability for company debts.
HAA LLC owns bars and gentlemen’s clubs in Waterloo, including Risque Gentlemen’s Club on Jefferson Street; Broken Record on West Fourth Street; former nightclub Icon Lounge on West Fourth Street; The Saloon on West Fourth Street; Dad’s Pub on La Porte Road; and Flirts Gentlemen’s Club on Jefferson Street, county records show.
Waterloo attorney Eric W. Johnson, registered agent for HAA LLC, said the owners of the limited liability company leased the shooting location in the spring as a gathering space to a man named Victor Williams, who is part of the Inter City Motorcycle Club.
“My clients have been in touch with the police and are cooperating fully and themselves trying to understand what happened that night,” Johnson said of the HAA LLC owners. “I don’t think there’s any connection between my clients and the club.”