Grieving Mom Asks for Empire Club’s Closing

Led by a grieving mother, Ybor City residents and business owners Thursday urged the City Council to crack down on a nightclub they say is out of control.

“I’m fighting for my son,” said Sharon Jones, the mother of Leslie Jones Jr., who was killed inside Empire Night Club early on Oct. 2. “My son cannot fight for himself. His life was taken.”

Jones, 20, was in the club’s VIP room when a bullet struck him in the head just minutes before closing, killing him instantly, police said. A second man, Ahmaud Black, 19, was shot in the chest and seriously wounded.

Since then, police have made a public appeal to club patrons for information about what happened. No arrests have been made.

Outside Thursday’s City Council meeting, Sharon Jones, 43, criticized the club for reopening five days after her son’s death.

“They want to party over my son’s blood,” she said.

Club owner Joel Brewer did not respond to telephone and e-mail messages that the St. Petersburg Times directed to him, the club and his attorney Thursday.

After the shooting, police met with Brewer, a co-owner and their lawyer to discuss new safety measures, police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said.

As a result, the club installed an “airport-grade” walk-through metal detector at the entrance, posted signs that it’s illegal to carry a gun into a bar, reduced the number of entrances from three to one and put video surveillance on the two doors that were converted from entrances to exits, McElroy said. The club also increased security and extended the hours of the two extra-duty police officers that it hires.

Empire has seen its business drop dramatically since it reopened, from as many as 700 people on a weekend night to no more than 70 a night, McElroy said.

Since opening nine years ago, the club, at 1902 E Seventh Ave., has had three other murders, three forcible sex offenses, 10 robberies, 33 aggravated assaults and 102 drug offenses, police said.

Ybor City merchants and residents urged the city to close it down, saying the club has caused too much trouble for too long.

“There’s no way this place should be allowed to do business,” said Don Barco, owner of King Corona Cigars on Seventh Avenue. “However, you can do it, it needs to be done.”

Unless the city acts, “we’re going to lose an officer or two,” said Eric Schiller, owner of Gaspar’s Grotto.

Concerned, City Council members asked about their options.

A city attorney warned them against discussing the business in case the city moves to suspend or revoke the special use permit that allows Empire to sell alcohol.

“We are looking at it, and if it’s a viable case and it’s an option, we will bring it forward to you,” Assistant City Attorney Rebecca Kert said.

As a result, council members asked for another report on the matter on Nov. 3. They said they will not ignore the concerns of Ybor residents and businesses.

“Their expressions had an urgency about them that was not lost on any of us,” Council member Harry Cohen said.

In 2002, two bouncers were shot, one fatally, outside the club. In 2005, a man was shot and wounded outside the club. In 2006, another patron was fatally stabbed in a parking lot nearby.

In 2007, a man was shot and killed after being thrown out of the club for fighting with the man who was later accused in the shooting. In 2009, a man was shot multiple times and wounded in a nearby parking lot shortly after closing time.

A two-level venue that features hip-hop music, Empire is an 18-and-up establishment. Its website publicizes the Saturday special: free cover and free drinks until 11 p.m.

Even before the most recent shooting, the club drew a lot of police attention. On a typical weekend night, Tampa police have 50 to 60 officers in Ybor when bars close at 3 a.m., and half of them worked the area of Seventh Avenue and 19th Street, near the club.

St. Petersburg Times