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Lois Welch lives right behind the restaurant. She's been there for 35 years, long before the La Bonita building was converted from a car dealership to a restaurant. "We never had any complaints, really, about it when it was the Plain View," Welch says. "Now, the second tenants, the Italians, they started having trouble toward the end, but nothing like what was going on at La Bonita."
And what was going on at La Bonita was way too noisy, according to complaints filed with the Denver Division of Excise and Licenses. The police were called out no fewer than twenty times in a ten-month period to talk to neighbors, many of whom, like Welch, live on West Clyde Place.
"We were willing to tolerate the drunks wandering around the neighborhood, parking on our street, honking their horns, screeching their brakes, throwing garbage on our lawns," Welch says. "And most of the neighbors didn't want to get involved, anyway, 'cause they were scared there'd be some sort of retaliation. So I sort of became the leader, and I only called when the noise became intolerable." The bass vibrations from the dance-hall speakers were sometimes so strong, she adds, that they caused both her stove and her dishes to vibrate.
In June 1996, Tom Cowan, from the city's Environmental Health division, came out to measure the decibels and issued La Bonita a citation for unacceptable noise levels. Cowan recorded 51 db inside Welch's house; after 10 p.m., the allowable decibel range outside of an establishment is between 50 and 58 db.
After Cowan's visit, Welch says, the noise was quieter for "about a month, and then it went right back to where it was."
By this time, Denver City Councilman Dennis Gallagher had gotten involved. An employee in his office at the time, Lisa Ferreira, was then the vice president of the West Highland Neighborhood Association, which had been trying to call attention to the problems neighbors were having with La Bonita. Gallagher stopped by to check out the situation. "I myself have been in the alley behind your business and across West Clyde Place," he wrote Nunez on June 22, 1996. "I have heard the bass and the music coming from your establishment. This cannot be allowed to continue." At the bottom of the letter, Gallagher added this postscript: "I like your dance music. Let's keep it inside the building."
Nunez and Casco, who has a government job but does her mother's books at La Bonita, say they can't believe the music was as loud as Gallagher and the neighbors claim. "If it was so loud that it shook things in her [Welch's] kitchen, why wouldn't it have shaken things in my restaurant kitchen, too?" wonders Nunez. "And how could anyone have been in that room if it was so loud? It would have made my customers' ears bleed."
Still, complaints about excessive noise levels kept coming in to the city for nearly a year. On March 10, 1997, Gallagher sent another letter to Nunez, this one in response to her note suggesting that Welch and the other neighbors were "harassing us" and that the complaints were "racially motivated." Gallagher wrote, "On numerous occasions you have met with the neighbors, representatives of my office, of WHNA and of the City. At all of these meetings the message has been very clear: turn down the music, instruct patrons to not create disturbances in the parking lot, direct traffic away from the neighborhood, maintain security lighting and hire off-duty police officers."
Nunez insists that she did install lighting around the building, that she did tell her patrons to be quiet, and that she did turn the music down. But on April 16, 1997, Excise and Licenses ordered her to appear for a show-cause hearing, after which department director Beth McCann issued an order suspending La Bonita's cabaret license until August 31. The suspension was for "violation of the revised Municipal Code 477-7350," or repeated offenses of disturbing the peace. Although La Bonita was allowed to keep its liquor license, the suspension also referred to Section 6-35 (A) of the Colorado liquor code, which states: "No licensee, manager, agent or employee of a licensee shall permit within or upon the licensed premises...any disturbance, any undue noise, nor other activity offensive to the residents of the neighborhood in which the establishment is located."
McCann did, however, list five dates that were exempted from the suspension because of parties that had already been booked: April 25 and 26 and May 2, 3 and 31.
But on June 5, Lois Welch woke up to the throbbing beat of music coming from La Bonita's dance hall. Incredulous, she called the police. Officer Michael Mosco went over to the dance hall, where, according to the report he filed with Excise and Licenses, he told the DJ to shut the music off and asked Nunez's daughter for La Bonita's permits. Casco said that "her mother had it," Mosco wrote, and that her mother had gone home for the night at "around 10 o'clock."
Casco now confesses she made the decision to go ahead with the party knowing La Bonita had no permit. "They were already booked," she says. "It was a graduation party, and we had forgotten that they'd had it reserved since January, and I couldn't tell them that they weren't allowed to have it. I thought that since there were all these dates that were okay, one more wouldn't hurt."