Longform

Bouncers Beat Patrons, and Cops Look the Other Way

The night of the beating, the beach bar pulsed with drunken euphoria. It was well past midnight on that cool December evening last year, a moment for celebration for two Canadians who ambled inside Dirty Blondes. One of the men, Erik Kormos, a yacht captain, had just gotten engaged to marry, so he and his friend Ernesto Palij, a chef, barhopped through this throbbing row of bars along A1A near its intersection with Las Olas Boulevard. Now, nestled into chairs around the bar, they ordered what would be the first of many drinks.

One hour melted into the next. Then, around 4 a.m., the two friends heard screaming and stepped outside to investigate. There, in an alley, two women — short skirts, messy hair, bloodied — thrashed at each other with nails and knuckled fists.

"Yo, man, do your job!" the 42-year-old Palij remembers yelling at a nearby bouncer standing at the melee's edge. "They're going to kill each other! Do something!"

The bouncer's fist struck Palij like an atomic bomb. Palij collapsed on the pavement, he says, his head narrowly missing a nearby railing. Several Dirty Blondes bouncers swarmed his crumpled form.

"No!" Kormos says he screamed, rushing forward to push one of the security men, who turned his glare upon Kormos' five-foot-nine frame. The yacht captain sprinted away. The bouncers abandoned Palij and took off after Kormos.

He didn't make it far, a police report shows. Just 20 yards north of the bar, near Las Olas Boulevard's end, Kormos tripped. Then, for the next 30 seconds to several minutes, the five bouncers worked him over, claims Kormos, 36. "The guy knocked me in the back of the head, and I went down unconscious. Then I woke up, and they were kicking me in the stomach, in the ribs, in the balls, in my head. Five guys on one. They just wanted to kill someone that night."

"Stay down!" one of the bouncers yelled, Kormos recalls. "The cops are coming for you!" But when Fort Lauderdale Police arrived 15 minutes later, the bouncers had scattered and Dirty Blondes was shuttered. Wanting to forget it ever happened, Kormos declined to press charges or file suit, and police investigation into the incident ended right there and then. "The cops," he says, "just brushed it off like this happens all the time."

Dirty Blondes, a Spartan beachfront bar populated by bikini-clad tourists and pool tables, has long been one of the most popular beach spots in South Florida. But in July, a countervailing narrative emerged after a violent video shot outside Dirty Blondes ignited outrage from Miami to London. In that 15-second clip, three bouncers attacked two men in a scene as animalistic as it was short. While a bouncer thrust one of the men, David Parker, into a headlock, another bouncer sucker-punched the second patron, Alex Coelho. He crashed to the beer-splattered pavement, where that same bouncer stomped on his head. The beaten men fled but returned soon to the bar, only to be cuffed. Arresting officer Mark DeCarlo, who works off-duty at nearby Exit 66, dispatched a report bereft of details involving the violence.

Dirty Blondes, hammered on social and local media, immediately went into crisis control. The bar deposited a hasty apology calling the assault an "isolated incident." And Fort Lauderdale Police spokesperson DeAnna Greenlaw called the video "disturbing" and urged Coelho to volunteer a statement.

But a New Times investigation has found that this altercation was anything but isolated and that when such assaults occur, local police have every incentive to protect the bouncers because of an undefined — and lucrative — off-duty policy. Taxpapers provide the cars, gasoline, uniforms, training, and guns that enable cops to take off-duty but uniformed freelance work at bars. But unlike some other local agencies, the Fort Lauderdale Police Department doesn't track how much money or what gifts cops haul in during this work. On the beach, some cops can make as much as $600 per week, one source estimates, and such cash can perhaps sway a cop's allegiances. Nine people who experienced or witnessed bouncers pummel patrons say responding cops either didn't reprimand the bar or filed a report that misrepresented events.

And all nine of those people saw it happen at bars owned by two Israeli-born men named AJ Yaari and Lior Avidor, who, in terms of sheer sweep, are perhaps the two most important men on Fort Lauderdale Beach. They own a king's swath of the beachfront: Dirty Blondes, Exit 66, Rock Bar, Sangria's Cafe, Spazio, St. Bart's Coffee, and the forthcoming Tsukuro. Since March 2009, according to police reports, county civil records, and dozens of interviews, security personnel at these establishments have beaten at least 21 patrons in 16 separate incidents. Excluding the now-infamous July incident, which slapped bouncer Arnald Thomas-Darrah with one count of felony assault, only one bouncer has faced charges, court records show.

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Terrence McCoy