Saturday night in a packed, smoky ballroom large enough to park a 747. The music is loud, the crowd even louder. She shouts that she's 21; he tells her he's a doctor.
They're both lying. She's a minor who barely needed to wave her fake ID in order to enter Los Caporales, despite the cardboard sign on the door warning, in Spanish, "No minors, no exceptions"; he's a Westword reporter who blended right into a cadre of Mexican cowboys lined up at security (remember to lift your hat for the earplug-wearing guards checking for weapons). Outside, the parking lot of the Regency Hotel at 3900 Elati Street looks like Cinco de Mayo in full swing: Ranchera music blares from the mostly American-made trucks, and women in high heels teeter their way toward the hotel -- and the party. One driver who's either drunk or stupid or both peels out of a puddle at the far end of the lot and slides into a cement barrier, folding the front of his vehicle.
It's just another Saturday night at Los Caporales. And although thousands of people are partying in the hotel's ballroom, bars and disco, the place isn't nearly as busy as it was a few Saturdays ago, when the fight was showing on satellite TV and the men's restroom flooded until guys just did their business through the open doorway.
Or that wild night last March 21, when the Denver Police Department was alerted first to a stabbing in the parking lot -- it was tough to find the exact crime scene, one officer complained, because there were 4,000 cars crowded into the space -- and later to a "riot" inside the hotel. A thousand drunks were running from floor to floor, the night manager reported, and everyone was "out of control." Except, of course, for the seventeen people trapped inside the elevator, who were later rescued by the cops.
It was one hell of a party.
By last March, Denver cops had been frequent, uninvited guests at the hotel. On February 12, Detective Tony Ventura had gone to Los Caporales late, undercover, and determined that the place was "overcrowded" with "at least a third...underage." He also spotted two males lying under tables, both intoxicated and unconscious; fortunately, they didn't have to go far to find a bed for the night. But on March 18, a city inspector said the hotel was operating without an official license -- an omission the Regency's then-manager explained away by saying the city had refused to issue the license because a plumbing leak had exposed asbestos in some of the rooms.
On March 26, the Department of Excise and Licenses called for an immediate suspension of the Regency's dance/cabaret license and called for further investigation into whether its hotel-and-restaurant-class liquor license, as well as the dance/cabaret license, should be revoked.
But the party didn't miss a beat.
Attorney Manuel Martinez, the city's former manager of safety and former director of the Department of Excise and Licenses, represents the Regency. The file at Martinez's former office is full of filings he's made on behalf of his client, asking -- almost always successfully -- for extensions on cease-and-desist orders from the zoning department (those fiberglass horses in front of the bar violate code), on lodging infractions, on liquor-license suspensions, on assorted liquor-license applications. The most recent filings concern a hearing slated for Wednesday, October 6, on Los Caporales's May 4 application for a tavern license to replace its expired hotel-and-restaurant liquor license (the Regency no longer serves enough food to qualify as a cabaret).
But there's still liquor -- plenty of liquor -- and plenty of people to drink it. And that's what worries the Regency's neighbors.
Although the hotel sits right beside I-25, it's part of a neighborhood -- if not the sort of influence-wielding neighborhood that's shot down liquor licenses in Cherry Creek and Park Hill. Technically, the Regency belongs to Globeville, although the rest of that modest neighborhood, along with its organizational headquarters, lies on the other side of the highway. But Highland and Sunnyside are just up the hill, and by this summer, residents of those areas were beginning to complain about the broken beer bottles, the drug deals, the honking horns and the endless stream of cars coming from the Regency on Saturday nights.
Usually, only residents and businesses within a ten-block radius of an establishment are notified of liquor-license hearings. But on August 12, Councilwoman Deborah Ortega asked Excise and Licenses to expand the affected area, since "my office has received numerous complaints" about what she called the city's "largest alcohol establishment," holding 7,000 people. "At least two patrons of the bar have been stabbed in the parking lot," Ortega wrote. "There have also been drugs found in several of the hotel rooms. Lastly, the Denver Police Department's vice bureau has found numerous violations of people passed out at the nightclub, underage patrons, serving past hours of operation and other serious violations."
The department told Ortega that only a citizen could file a protest. A few days later, one did: Greg Alfred, whose fifty-year-old Alfred Manufacturing Center is near the hotel and who says he worries about the impact of Los Caporales on the neighborhood. And on September 8, Helen Gonzales, a longtime employee of Excise and Licenses and its new director, approved expanding the range of the area that can comment on the Regency's current liquor application. As a result, thousands of residents are eligible to sign the petitions now being circulated by the Globeville group.
They don't mind having the hotel there, they say, and they don't mind that the entertainment is geared to Hispanics. In fact, much of the neighborhood is Hispanic. But the parties have to get under control. "They have to make this man respect the rules," says one former Los Caporales customer. "He makes money through using -- even destroying -- our Latino reputation."
And it's happened before.
The Regency, once a prestigious Denver address, is now owned by Art Cormier, former proprietor of Smiley's Too laundromat and El Fugitivo, a bar at 7301 Federal Boulevard that catered to the same Mexican-nationals crowd. El Fugitivo had more than its share of disputes with the City of Westminster before the club finally surrendered its liquor license on May 19, 1997. Soon after, Cormier sold Smiley's and took his Western Country Entertainment activities to the Regency -- which, despite its claim of possessing the second-largest convention facility in the city, was looking mighty shabby. In fact, on May 10, the hotel's manager was notified that the Regency was in violation of the Denver Housing Code. On an April 21 visit, a city inspector had found numerous violations, including "gift shop out of order ...no flooring"; "4th floor pop machine area floor not covered with adequate material, asbestos exposed." And although many of the rooms were unoccupied -- and unfit for occupation -- on the sixth floor, in an overnight rental, the inspector discovered a "customer very disgruntled" with a room in which the bathroom sink didn't drain, the bathroom ventilation fan didn't work and the fire alarm wasn't attached to the wall; four floors higher, a long-term resident with a pet cat had a very leaky toilet. And so it continued up through the tower, right past the suite claimed by Cormier in his lease with the building's owner.
By this June, Cormier owned the whole hotel, which he purchased for a reported $4.6 million. In a Rocky Mountain News story touting the sale ("Laundry Titan Buys Regency"), Cormier promised to remove the four fiberglass horses he'd installed in 1998, when he started operating the hotel's restaurant and its "Hispanic cultural affairs center," which he also vowed to expand.
But right now, the only thing that's expanding is Cormier's file at Excise and Licenses. Although the cops continue to watch the address under a nuisance-abatement program, the push for a tavern license continues.
In the meantime, so does the party. On Sunday, as a few last stragglers stumbled from the hotel and crawled into their cars, a cleanup crew wandered the parking lot, filling bag after bag with beer bottles, beer boxes and other souvenirs from the night before. They finished just as Los Caporales opened for business.