Town suspends liquor license at Countryside Inn

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Neil Johnson
Friday, February 21, 2014

TOWN OF MILTON—The Milton Town Board has suspended Rich Erdman's liquor license at the Countryside Inn for 60 days in the wake of two apparent shootings and a string of reported violence during dance parties at the tavern.

Following a three-hour, quasi-judicial hearing Thursday night, the board found sufficient  evidence to validate a complaint filed last week that Erdman has run a “disorderly or riotous, indecent or improper” tavern.

The decision came after testimony by the Rock County Sheriff's Office and a town of Milton police officer that a pattern of disorderly activity, fights and gunplay has gone hand-in-hand with a string of dance parties Erdman and Madison event promoter Jerome “Romey” Hunt have hosted at the tavern at 1801 Highway 59.

Police say one shooting on June 22, 2013 and another shooting on Jan. 26 broke out outside the tavern as patrons were letting out of dance parties Erdman hosted. Both incidents left people with gunshot injuries. The June shooting led to the arrest of a man for attempted homicide.

Under state law, the board could have revoked Erdman's license, or suspended it from 10 days to 90 days. The suspension will go into effect Saturday, March 1.

Board member John Traynor made an initial motion after testimony Thursday to suspend Erdman's license for 30 days, but Marian Trescher and Leonard Stalker pressed for a longer suspension, saying it would send a message to Erdman and other tavern owners.

Traynor wouldn't comment on his motion, but Stalker explained his thoughts.

“I think what's been proven has been serious enough stuff to warrant a larger penalty for what's been going on. We've got to set a precedent for the rest of the bars around here that we're going to follow through,” Stalker told The Gazette.

Board Chairman Bryan Meyer suggested that a suspension of 90 days wouldn't give the board a chance to see a new “business model” from Erdman before he faces annual renewal of his town liquor license, which lapses in June.

Erdman has held a license at the Countryside Inn for eight years, and before the reported shootings at the dance parties had never faced the board for sanctions or license suspension. Stalker said he kept that fact in mind.

“Being it was a first-time offense, it (a 60-day suspension) was harsh enough,” Stalker said.

Erdman wouldn't comment on the suspension late Thursday, other than telling The Gazette he was “on the phone with attorneys.”

But at the hearing, Erdman and his attorney, Michael Murphy, argued that police didn't have enough evidence to corroborate the Jan. 26 shooting even happened at the tavern. They both also argued Erdman had beefed up security measures to ensure violence didn't happen during the events, which police and Erdman both characterize as “hip-hop” dance parties.

Rock County Sheriff's Capt. Jude Maurer and Rock County Sheriff's Deputy Chris Hasseler and Town of Milton Police Officer Robert Wolf read details of a host of police and detective reports detailing the two incidents in more than 20 exhibits.

They drew from accounts of witnesses whom officers would not identify to protect the witnesses from “threats” and to protect police investigations and potential court testimony.

Maurer and the other two officers laid out scenes they brought before the town board last week, detailing the 2013 shooting, and a barrage of fights they say broke out in the tavern Jan. 26 after police were called in to help shut the dance party down at bar time.

Maurer also brought up facts from an apparent shooting in 2012 at GenO's Wild Ride Saloon in the town of Union. He said the shooting, which had no injuries, happened in the parking lot of the tavern during a dance party also hosted by promoter Jerome “Romey” Hunt.

Police testifying Thursday said that Jan. 26, they were heavily occupied breaking up multiple shoving matches that erupted inside the Countryside Inn as police and 15 security guards tried to herd crowds out the door at bar time. No one was arrested in those fights.

None of the officers said they heard or saw any shooting outside the bar, which is where the shooting was believed to occur that night, although a few patrons asked about a shooting that night.

The tavern was not secured as a crime scene until later that night, after a 28-year-old Madison man told Madison police he was shot at a bar in Milton, police said. The man had been hospitalized with a gunshot injury to his leg, police said.

A witness said someone pulled a gun during a fight outside, shot it, and the man was hit by  a bullet in his leg. It's not clear if he was in the fight.

Erdman and his attorney argued that, despite 911 calls from performers who were in the tavern's basement and a woman outside the tavern who claimed they heard or saw gunshots

Police said they hadn't identified those callers, and Maurer couldn't give details of when officers showed up at the tavern.

Erdman and his attorney said police “couldn't corroborate” evidence the shooting happened, because working security cameras didn't pick up any evidence of gunplay or people scattering after the purported shooting.

He also pointed out that the shoving fights in the bar only happened after police and security began to get people out. He said that was because it was snowy and people didn't appreciate being quickly pushed out of the bar into the bad weather.

Erdman also pointed out he'd had been in touch with police prior to all the dance parties he had booked since the 2013 shooting.

Erdman said he had offered to pay the Rock County Sheriff's Office for extra officers at his parties, but the sheriff's office declined. Maurer acknowledged that was true.

Erdman said he's since canceled other dance parties he's scheduled with the Hunt, promoter, and he told the board he doesn't plan any more of the same type of dance parties at the tavern.

His promise to stop having dance parties didn't factor into the board's decision, at least not for Stalker.

“We don't want to tell him what he can have for musical parties. That's his decision. What we're worried about is the fights and the shootings, the safety of everybody,” Stalker said. “If he could have controlled what he was having, it would have been fine. I think what was proven tonight was that he couldn't. The sheriff's department was called in too many times."

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