Sept. 27--Two recent shootings at makeshift nightclubs have law enforcement officials frustrated at the lack of power they have to shut down such outlets.
On Sept. 3, a dispute broke out at one such Sampson County club that led to a high-speed car chase, gunfight and wreck that left six injured.
Another shooting occurred Sept. 10 in Columbus County at a building off of Macedonia Church Road near Boardman. Three people were injured.
Charges have been filed against four people in the two cases, but lawmen say the real blame lies with those operating the clubs.
"These clubs generally operate outside of the law and often fly under the radar," said David Williams, special agent in charge of the state Alcohol Law Enforcement District 5 office, which oversees the Cape Fear region counties.
Many times the makeshift clubs are set up on the proprietor's property, or in abandoned or unoccupied buildings without the owner's knowledge, said Chief Deputy John Conerly with the Sampson County Sheriff's Office.
Capt. David Nobles with the Columbus County Sheriff's Office said it's not uncommon for shootings and other crimes to take place at the clubs. Columbus County has had more than 10 shootings, including one death, at such clubs since 2011, he said.
In December 2011, three people were injured and one killed at a club called Triple K Ranch on Big Branch Road. Nobles said the owners had been renting the building for private parties where alcohol was being sold illegally.
Nobles said the owners agreed to prohibit the sale of alcohol for future rentals.
Most North Carolina municipalities have laws that allow for the sale of alcohol within the city limits, but in the counties liquor by the drink and on-site consumption of alcohol is prohibited.
Williams said these makeshift clubs do not follow any alcohol restrictions set by the state for permitted business. This allows operators to serve alcohol past the 2 a.m. limit and without regard to the patrons' intoxication levels.
"No one there is monitoring how much a person consumes," he said. "The type of crimes that take place there run the gamut."
Williams said the operators -- and their patrons -- are more often arrested on drug charges and concealed weapons charges, which carry heftier punishments than selling alcohol without a permit.
"Unfortunately selling without permits is only a misdemeanor," Williams said.
Nobles said it is hard to build evidence against these establishments because people often claim there was no sale of alcohol, that it was a party.
And Williams said patrons typically run in the same circles and find out when and where the "juke joint" will operate by word of mouth, making it hard for law enforcement officers to locate.
Even so, his office is investigating 10 alleged illegal outlets in the 12-county district.
"These investigations take a lot of manpower," Williams said.
During the last year, he estimates that ALE has searched 25 shot houses just within Cumberland County.
Sampson County deputies investigated the alleged club where the Labor Day dispute started, but Conerly said there was no evidence to charge the operator.
"Our deputies spoke with the owner. He said he wasn't even open that night," he said.
Conerly said that during his 20 years with the special investigations division, he only saw one person get jail time for selling alcohol without a permit.
"We can't shut them down," Conerly said. "We can get a warrant and search the establishment and write a misdemeanor citation."
The citation requires the club operator to appear in court where the punishment -- typically in the form of a fine -- is left to the discretion of a judge.
Deputies confiscate the alcohol they find during a search of the premises, Conerly said.
"If I'm running an illegal outlet, there's no regulations but my own," Conerly said. "A night's profit would be well above what it costs me to go to court. They are going to seize my beer and alcohol, but I'm still probably not in the red. We can only deal with what the law is."
While deputies in Sampson County could not bring a case against the club owner, Columbus County detectives and ALE agents did charge the owner in the Sept. 10 incident.
James "Ball" Bethea, who operates Ball's Club, is facing alcohol charges from ALE, Nobles said. The Sheriff's Office also charged Bethea with possession of a firearm by a felon and drug violations. The club operates from a building on property beside Bethea's home.
Columbus County dispatchers said deputies have been called to the club 17 times since January 2011.
A neighboring homeowner who did not want to be identified said there was always "some mischief" on Bethea's property.
"I hear them all hours of the night," the neighbor said. "I'm tired of it, but police keep saying they can't do nothing."
Nobles said the Sheriff's Office, along with ALE, are investigating several similar clubs in an effort to shut them down.
Williams, the ALE agent, said, "When we get one shut down, another one pops up."
Staff writer Ali Rockett can be reached at [email protected] or 486-3528.
Copyright 2012 - The Fayetteville Observer, N.C.