AP NEWS

Alcohol crack down at Harris County bars leads to 59 charges, closures

March 1, 2019

A year-long drunken driving crackdown sparked by the 2018 death of a woman and her 9-month-old baby has landed dozens of arrests and the suspension of several Harris County night clubs linked to traffic-related fatalities and alcohol violations, according to authorities.

Members of the Vehicular Crimes After-Hours Task Force announced Thursday that 59 criminal charges have been lodged against a number of people, bartenders and business owners included, for “putting profits over safety” since the arrest of an underage woman accused of killing the mother and child in a drunken crash.

The woman, Veronica Rivas, who was 20 at the time of arrest, is out on bond on charges of intoxicated manslaughter with a vehicle.

“This tragedy was the jumping off point for it, the first time the task force was able to show what it could do,” said Sean Teare, head of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office Vehicular Crimes Unit.

“We found where she had been drinking, we found out who had served her alcohol and who had purchased that alcohol for her,” Teare said.

The investigation resulted in charges against a bartender at Crescent City Connection Sports & Oyster Bar, near Clear Lake, who pleaded no contest in September for selling alcohol to Rivas — a minor — without checking her identification. Two men, including the bar owner’s son, were also charged with knowingly purchasing and providing alcohol to her and a 17-year-old friend.

The investigations into intoxicated manslaughter cases, like the one aimed at Rivas, has also led to civil action against bars.

The first of five injunctions was filed against the Houston restaurant Bombshells along the Gulf Freeway in June after four people were arrested for driving while intoxicated from bar. A fifth driver was arrested for intoxication assault of a Houston Police Department officer while leaving the bar.

Chuck Cornelius, a district attorney’s investigator, said Bombshells complied with the injunction.

“They stepped up to the plate and provided a number of corrective activities in their location,” Cornelius said during a press conference.

The next bar, Fiesta Latina, along Highway 249, was served with an injunction in August after garnering several complaints dating back to 2008, including liquor sales after closing and contributing to the death of at least one intoxicated patron while crossing the highway.

“The owner surrendered the permit in the middle of court. They have been shut down,” Cornelius said.

The incidents, as detailed in court records, include shootings, stabbings and prostitution. Among them was a drunken patron who dialed 911 at 5:30 a.m. with loud music pounding in the background, suggesting the bar was still open. The patron told Harris County Sheriff’s Office deputies the owners of a taco stand at the bar wanted to kill him.

“The patron, who appeared to be intoxicated, stated he had an issue with tacos that he did not want to pay for and believed the taco stand owners had advised individuals to kill him,” court documents read.

El Condor Pool Hall, at 9714 Veterans Memorial Drive, was another establishment that was shuttered because of the task force investigation. The bar owner and 13 patrons were arrested in September on drug-related charges after a months-long investigation into narcotics and possible human trafficking, according to authorities.

Latin Palace and JT’s Sports Bar were also closed, authorities said.

The task force also included the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, the Houston Police Department, Harris County Fire Marshal Office and Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.

Teare said it could take another year to determine if the task force has led to a decrease in intoxicated manslaughter charges.

nicole.hensley@chron.com