Crime

Cops Working Undercover and Off-Duty Blew the Whistle on Beta

Denver police officers often work off-duty jobs at local clubs.
Denver police officers often work off-duty jobs at local clubs. Evan Semón
In mid-July, Denver Police Department detective Derrick Keeton emailed fellow DPD detective Paul Streate, concerned about incidents that Keeton said he’d witnessed at Beta Event Center. Keeton had been working off-duty at the nightclub at 1909 Blake Street, as had several other Denver police officers.

The 1900 block of Blake Street is full of bars and clubs, and had been the site of several violent episodes during the spring and summer. On May 1, the DPD had filed a report of “aggravated assault causing serious bodily injury” outside of Beta; a similar report was made on May 16. Early on June 5, police had filed another report of “aggravated assault and threatening to imminently injure with a weapon” in the 1900 block of Blake; the same report was made the next morning. Three more aggravated-assault charges were filed later that month for events on the same block.

Keeton, who began working at Beta on July 6, was reporting on conditions inside the club to his official employer, the City and County of Denver. Although Beta was paying for the off-duty DPD officers, Keeton had an obligation to rat on his part-time gig, since Denver’s conditions of employment for off-duty police officers require that any cops working at liquor-license establishments “report all liquor code violations and other criminal activity at the establishment.”

But as it turned out, Keeton’s observations weren’t the first report from Denver police officers who’d seen sketchy activities at Beta.

In fact, the DPD had already been investigating the nightclub. On two Fridays in June, undercover vice detectives posing as club patrons had visited Beta.

In one instance, two undercover detectives asked people in the club for cocaine and took a bag to the bathroom, where they grabbed a sample that later tested positive for the drug.

On the second Friday that the undercover cops went to Beta, they purchased a bag of what was purportedly cocaine from someone at the club; it later tested negative.

"Undercover police went in and bought coke from a customer. Why don't you arrest him? And why am I going to take the blame?"

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“Undercover police went in and bought coke from a customer,” observes Valentes Corleons, the owner of Beta. “Why didn’t you arrest him? And why am I going to take the blame? I have eight cops in the building.”

Not anymore. That arrangement ended in August.

On August 30, the Denver Department of Excise and Licenses issued a show-cause order to Corleons to show why Beta’s dance cabaret and tavern license should not be revoked for alleged violations at his club — some reported by the undercover officers, some by Keeton.

“Detective Keeton relayed that on July 17 and July 18, there were issues at the club that included several fights and no crowd management being done at the club,” the order states. “Keeton provided several video clips, one recorded by him and the others that were posted to social media by patrons, that showed many people inside the location engaged in a physical fight, with patrons assaulting one another while throwing bottles and/or drinks, trash cans and furniture. Keeton stated it is not uncommon for fights to occur in the location and that security staff has regularly reported to him fights between rival gang members.”

And there was more. “Keeton related, from his observations, it appears the club does not put a priority on patron safety or crowd control efforts,” the order continues. “Specifically, officers have brought to the attention of management that they regularly see persons in the club that may be affiliated with gang activity and that rival gang members have been present at the location at the same time. He recalled one night where several males entered the club wearing jean jackets with the words ‘Park Hill Blood’ on the back of the jackets. Detective Keeton is knowledgeable about gang culture and is familiar with recent and historical gang activity in the Denver metro area. According to Detective Keeton, the officer’s warnings and concerns have been disregarded by the management and they have shown no interest in preventing the potentially violent individuals from entering the club.”

On October 18, Beta’s lawyer and Corleons will have to appear at an administrative hearing to fight for Beta’s right to stay in business.

“It’s very upsetting to me what they’re doing,” says Corleons. “I need a jury. I need a fair trial here.”
Corleons, whose legal name is Hussam Kayali, says he was born in Sicily to an Italian mother and a Lebanese father. “Palermo is one hour from Lebanon. We used to go back and forth. That’s why my dad called me Hussam, which is a Lebanese name, and my mom called me Valentes,” Corleons explains. “All my family back home are in the Mafia.... They’re still very protective of me.”

Now 53 years old, Corleons says he moved to the United States when he was about 25. He lived in New York, where he started modeling. “I was going to get into the movie industry, but I didn’t speak English,” he explains.

So he moved to Colorado and got involved in selling cars, eventually opening his own dealerships. He also got into real estate.

But Corleons had another dream. Even though he was raised Muslim and doesn’t drink, “I love the nightlife,” he says. “I said, ‘One day, I want to open a nightclub.’”
click to enlarge Owner Valentes Corleons inside Beta. - EVAN SEMÓN
Owner Valentes Corleons inside Beta.
Evan Semón
In 2008, Brad Roulier, who’d co-founded the online EDM store Beatport, and Mike McCray, a local audio-systems guru, opened a new nightclub in LoDo called Beta. The club quickly became a massively popular venue for EDM fans.

In 2013, Rolling Stone ranked Beta as the number-one dance club in America. Billboard included it on its list of the 25 greatest dance clubs of all time.

What made Beta so great was its powerful audio setup. “We wanted it to be the best possible sound system, because we felt like that was such a critical component of the experience,” says McCray, who designed and installed the system himself.

“We were always pushing music forward, and I think we had a really great staff, we had a really good vibe,” adds Roulier. “We weren’t doing it for the money. I think we had a really good formula of what worked and were very authentic. Obviously, we come from the underground. If we told you this DJ was good, people believed it.”

McCray was the general manager during the club’s heyday. “There was a pretty good run there,” he recalls.
But then Beta lost a key staffer when its main talent buyer joined Live Nation. “I tried to sell it to everybody in 2018, and I was stuck in a lease,” Roulier says. “Shit got really shitty.”

In early 2019, Beta closed. While Roulier wanted to get out for good, McCray hoped to bring Beta back. “We wanted to revamp the club on a real large scale,” he says. “We really wanted to breathe new life into it. It was eleven years old at that point. It really needed a major, major overhaul.”

Roulier and McCray started looking for additional capital and a new partner. That’s when Corleons, who was already running other LoDo clubs, got involved.

The club reopened in late 2019 as Beta 2.0. But the partnership with Corleons didn’t work out for Roulier and McCray, and Corleons took over as the operator before the end of the year. Rather than focus on EDM, he made Beta much more about hip-hop.
click to enlarge Back in 2008, Beta hosted a Deadmau5 show. - CHAD FAHNESTOCK
Back in 2008, Beta hosted a Deadmau5 show.
Chad Fahnestock
In early 2020, Roulier and McCray sold their last shares in Beta to Corleons. “It’s a completely different business now. It’s nothing like what it used to be,” says McCray.

By 2020, Corleons had already acquired a track record of code violations at his other clubs.

“They’ve been targeting me since I opened Purple Martini on 1416 Market because of the crowd I bring,” Corleons says. Although Corleons still owns rights to the Purple Martini name, the building that used to house Purple Martini has been rebranded as Mojito Cafe under new ownership. Rachid Elmrini, the owner of Mojito Cafe, says that Corleons “has nothing to do” with the club, and that he’s not associated with it “one bit.”

Corleons also owns Dorchester Social just up the street from what used to be Purple Martini; multiple show-cause orders were filed against that club by the city. “I lost my liquor license at Dorchester because of them. They forced me to close. It’s been closed two and a half years. I’ve lost millions of dollars,” Corleons says, hinting that Denver officials have targeted him because his clubs bring in Black patrons.

But McCray disputes that. “That’s not a very good argument, because that crowd exists all over and you don’t have the same problems all over,” he points out. “If you are running your business the correct way, you don’t have the problems that he’s having.”

Dorchester “has a long history that included a settlement agreement after the first administrative show-cause order, followed by another show-cause order and the business surrendering their license,” says Eric Escudero, a spokesperson for Excise and Licenses. “They surrendered their license before Denver potentially revoked or their license renewal was declined.”

Although Corleons is now trying to sell the Dorchester building, he’s still upbeat about his work in Denver.
“I’m doing really good. I’m trying to bring to Denver beautiful venues,” Corleons says. “People love to go to my venues because they feel at home.”

But they may not be able to go to Beta much longer.

The DPD has served the club with a public-nuisance order that’s separate from the Excise and Licenses case. On September 26, Judge Beth Faragher of Denver County Court granted a motion for a temporary restraining order against Beta. As a result, it will likely have to close, at least temporarily, by October 10.

“The chief pulled all the police, saying my place is unsafe and that they’re never allowed to work at any of my establishments,” says Corleons. “The officers who work for me are very upset. They don’t want to quit. They’re getting paid very good.”
click to enlarge Vinyl now occupies the former home of 1082 Broadway. - EVAN SEMÓN
Vinyl now occupies the former home of 1082 Broadway.
Evan Semón
This is not the first time that off-duty cops have been forbidden to work at certain Denver nightclubs.
In 1996, off-duty police officers shot and killed a patron, Jeff Truax, outside the 1082 Broadway nightclub. Years later, a federal jury awarded Truax’s estate $500,000, determining that the officers had violated Truax’s constitutional rights.

By then, the incident had already inspired a shakeup of the DPD’s off-duty employment rules. Among other things, the DPD now doled out the off-duty assignments, rather than let officers contract directly with businesses. The DPD could also refuse to supply off-duty officers for certain businesses, including venues owned by the Christou family, like 1082 Broadway.

While Regas Christou did not respond to recent requests for comment from Westword, in the late ’90s he was more than willing to discuss the DPD’s new policies. “Not having off-duty cops puts me at a tremendous disadvantage,” Christou said at the time. “Without them, I have no protection at the front door. I have nobody to stop problems before they start — all they can do is respond. Those three or four minutes it takes them to show up can be critical.”

Although certain spots still cannot hire off-duty officers, there are plenty of other businesses and organizations that employ moonlighting Denver officers as extra security.

“Secondary employment is fairly common among many police departments across the nation,” says Hans Levens, a DPD commander who oversees the department’s secondary-employment program. “There is a tremendous benefit to the community, as well as to the employer. It also benefits the officers, because it gives them another source of additional income.”

Denver officers moonlight at “anything from jewelry stores to malls, strip malls,” says Levens. “Of course, you see a large presence in alcohol establishments, bars and nightclubs, banks. We also have officers that staff major venues, like Ball Arena, the Broncos games. And we also have a lot of officers that staff traffic construction jobs.”

In fact, Denver police officers are the only individuals in the City and County of Denver who can control traffic, so off-duty cops frequently moonlight for large venues, directing traffic. “Red Rocks is a big employer during the summer,” Levens adds.

Businesses that want to hire off-duty officers must go through the DPD’s secondary-employment office, where they can ask for a specific officer or simply say they want to hire help and have the supervisor assign officers.

Although that arrangement has now been in place for decades, there have been other bumps. In April 2008, then-Denver Auditor Dennis Gallagher criticized the DPD for insufficient oversight regarding the payment and fee system for off-duty work. Gerry Whitman, who was chief of police at the time, defended the department’s practices, saying that tighter controls were unnecessary.

Today, a business has the option of paying the off-duty cops it hires directly or cutting checks to the DPD, which then hands them out. Any fee discrepancies are usually “just a bookkeeping type of error,” Levens contends, such as a supervisor forgetting that an officer said he’d be working secondary employment and forgetting to enter into a system that he approved the assignment.

There are certain restrictions regarding secondary employment. Denver police officers can’t work off-duty when they’re on sick, injury or family leave. They can only do off-duty jobs within Denver city limits, and there is a cap on hours: “The total of on-duty hours and off-duty police work secondary employment hours, including department authorized overtime assignments, must not exceed 64 hours in the calendar week, Sunday through Saturday,” reads the Denver Police Department Operations Manual. And no secondary employment is allowed at marijuana businesses, such as dispensaries, or at strip clubs or adult entertainment stores.

Other metro Denver departments have their own rules regarding moonlighting. In Aurora, the police department leadership typically prohibits officers from working secondary employment at bars, strip clubs and off-track betting facilities.

“Technically, the chief of police or designee could authorize someone working at one of those establishments. According to the secondary-employment lieutenant, though, the typical response is a denial,” says Matthew Wells-Longshore, a spokesperson for the Aurora Police Department.
The Glendale Police Department, on the other hand, allows its officers to work at bars, nightclubs and strip clubs.

Chris Zacher, who runs Levitt Pavilion and from 2006 to 2014 served as vice president and president of City Park Jazz, has been hiring off-duty Denver police officers for a decade and a half. “Ultimately, you’re trying to protect your venue, the artist and the patrons. Whatever you have to do to provide the safest environment for people, you do what you have to do,” says Zacher. “Like a country show, I would always have an off-duty officer there, because there tends to be more fights and because they drink a little more.”

"Whatever you have to do to provide the safest environment for people, you do what you have to do,”

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In downtown Denver and other hot spots where violence has been on the rise, the presence of off-duty police officers in uniform can have an added benefit, as they provide a “more visible police presence working these locations,” Levens notes.

And McCray points out yet another reason to hire off-duty Denver police officers: to establish a “good relationship with the city,” he says. “Working with the officers was invaluable in so many different ways, including having some liaisons to the city and the police so you have more open lines of communication with them.”

Officers working secondary employment are almost always in uniform. And they’re subject to the same policies and rules as officers working on duty, including when it comes to use of force.

“Let’s say there’s an issue of potential concern from a citizen complaint regarding an officer working an off-duty job,” notes Levens. “That’s investigated in the same way as if an officer was working on-duty.”
While it can be useful to have a uniformed law enforcement presence on-site, Zacher hires professional security guards from companies like Argus — who are licensed by the city — rather than Denver police officers whenever he can. “Security officers in venues a lot of times are more akin to a concierge. They’re there to make sure everybody is safe and having a good time,” Zacher explains. “You would never see a secondary-employment police officer working a barricade at a show or doing pat-downs or wanding people or helping to scan tickets or directing people to areas of the venue.”

There’s another issue: cost. The DPD can charge up to $100 per hour per officer, whereas security companies provide personnel at a fraction of the cost. And sometimes a venue will have to pay a DPD scheduler who organizes the hours of the off-duty officers engaged in secondary employment. The DPD also charges 50 cents per hour per officer for the use of body-worn cameras, which now must be worn by cops working off-duty, too. “Employers that employ officers for less than 12 total hours in a quarter will have the fee waived,” according to the DPD operations manual.

“It becomes extremely difficult for promoters to bring them in,” says Zacher. “If you’re bringing in ten cops, that’s a good chunk of money for them to do off-duty security.”

Still, if a show merits hiring off-duty cops, Zacher will do so.

“There’s a divide right now between police officers and the general public,” he explains, “and it’s a tough piece to handle as a promoter, but ultimately, it always comes back to the safety of staff, artists and patrons. You can’t afford to get political when you produce shows. You have to figure out where the balancing point is. One bad thing goes wrong at a venue, it can ruin that business.”
click to enlarge EVAN SEMÓN
Evan Semón
Of course, some businesses aren’t allowed to hire off-duty cops. Denver has one other key rule regarding off-duty work: DPD officers are “prohibited from working at any business that has been identified where a public nuisance case has been opened or where a case has been filed with the Denver City Attorney’s Office or the Denver DA’s Office.”

The Christou and Corleons clubs are not the only venues that have been prevented from hiring off-duty cops.

Corleons says he doesn’t miss them. “I’m doing actually better without cops. Cops just sit outside, flirt with girls,” he says. He thinks that Detective Keeton, the off-duty cop who reported those July fights to the city, should have tried to stop them himself.

In response, Doug Schepman, a DPD spokesperson, points to a section of the operations manual that states, “Officers employed to perform secondary employment police work will be bound by their police authority for the enforcement of the ordinances and laws of the city, state, and federal government. Officers may act to prevent a breach of the peace or to enforce the law, however, officers are not to enforce rules made strictly in the interest of the secondary employer.”

Excise and Licenses pursues a handful of cases against bars, nightclubs and strip clubs every year, often because of violations identified by the DPD.

In 2019, Club Karma, located near the intersection of South Sheridan Boulevard and West Evans Avenue, was served with a show-cause order for multiple instances of employing unlicensed security guards. The city and Club Karma settled the case later that year through fines and a short mandated period of closure.
In January 2020, Dandy Dan’s, a strip club on South Federal Boulevard, got hit with a show-cause order after an employee agreed to engage in a sex act with a patron, who turned out to be an undercover police officer conducting a sting. That case also ended in a settlement, with the management of Dandy Dan’s agreeing to close for forty days.

"The goal of the city is not to revoke or suspend licences...the goal of the city is compliance by businesses to follow all laws, rules and regulations."

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“The goal of the city is not to revoke or suspend licenses or issue fines,” explains Escudero. “The goal of the city is compliance by businesses to follow all laws, rules and regulations. So there are often settlement agreements to achieve compliance by a business that is allegedly not complying with the rules and regulations.”

The August 30 show-cause order against Beta marks the second time in as many years that Beta has received a show-cause order from Excise and Licenses. In September 2020, the department issued an order charging that Beta had violated COVID rules in June. That case ended with a settlement agreement between the city and Beta.

The problems this past summer have been more serious. According to the DPD, there were twelve more criminal incidents in the 1900 block of Blake street in August alone, ranging from criminal mischief to obstructing police to two more instances of aggravated assault causing serious bodily injury — one an August 22 shooting that left one person dead.

And this time, Corleons says, Denver hasn’t been willing to negotiate a settlement of the show-cause order, instead holding him to the October 18 hearing date. He wonders why, since he says he’s been friendly with Mayor Michael Hancock (and provided multiple photos and videos of the two of them together).
click to enlarge Valentes Corleons with Mayor Michael Hancock. - VALENTES CORLEONS
Valentes Corleons with Mayor Michael Hancock.
Valentes Corleons

“I supported his campaign. I put in a lot of money,” Corleons says of Hancock. “Right now, we deserve one conversation, one call. And they will not even respond to me. I got blocked by Hancock’s private cell phone. Every birthday, every party, Hancock was at Purple Martini.”

Westword reached out to the mayor’s office to ask about his relationship with Corleons. “We are not going to comment on allegations made by someone whose businesses are facing action by the city,” responded Theresa Marchetta, a spokesperson for Hancock.

Beta isn’t Corleons’s only investment in the area. He recently paid $2.5 million in cash for the building at 1919 Blake Street that had housed Falling Rock Tap House for 24 years; he says he wants to turn it into the Cabin Tap House. And he’s also leased the nearby property at 1962 Market Street that was home to the legendary El Chapultepec jazz club, which closed last December. He’d planned to reopen it as Cantina last month, but that’s been held up by inspections.

Corleons sees himself as an important Denver figure preserving historic venues, such as Beta and El Chapultepec. “I thought they’re going to build me a statue, saving all those venues that are very special to people,” he says. Instead, he now faces two cases filed by the city, either one of which could close Beta for good.

“They want to fight me? I’ll fight ’em,” Corleons adds. “I’ll bring the war. I have enough money to fight the entire city. And I’ll sue them for $100 million for reputation.”
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.