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Felony indictment sought for east side tavern owner

Troubles for local music promoter and tavern operator Rob Croak could be getting more serious: state liquor enforcement officials are seeking his indictment on a felony charge.

It's the latest in a string of problems related to liquor violations for Mr. Croak, who founded the River East Entertainment District on Main Street in East Toledo: Club 128, the Main Event, and Frankie's Inner City Lounge.

Last week the state refused to renew liquor permits for all three nightclubs.

Mr. Croak declined comment, but his attorney, Kurt Gearhiser of Columbus, questioned the point of seeking an indictment.

“I think what they're working on now is overkill,” he said.

The liquor permit for Club 128, 128-130 Main St., is held by R&K Entertainment, Inc., of which Mr. Croak is president. Mr. Croak's mother, Patricia Scott, holds the permit for Frankie's, which is located at 308 Main St.

MDV Enterprises, Inc., whose president is Gregory R. McElroy of Maumee, holds the permit for the Main Event, 137-141 Main St.

Mr. Croak once held the liquor permit for the Main Event but lost it in December, 1996. In June, 1997, the permit was transferred to Mr. McElroy.

All three bars have been under scrutiny from liquor control and city police recently for problems including noise, drugs, underage consumption, unruly juveniles, and public indecency. Those incidents led to the liquor permits' not being renewed.

But it's Mr. Croak's relationship with the Main Event that officials are targeting for possible indictment, said Earl Mack, agent in charge of liquor enforcement operations in northwest Ohio.

In January, liquor agents served 34 citations on the Main Event, most of which were related to hidden ownership or underage sales. The ownership charges are civil, and Mr. Croak will have to answer to them at a hearing before the Ohio Liquor Control Commission.

Mr. Mack said authorities believe Mr. Croak actually has remained the Main Event's owner and operator, and they are seeking felony indictments on charges relating to falsifying documents and tampering with government records against him and Mr. McElroy.

In denying the renewal of the liquor permit for the Main Event, Rae Ann Estep, superintendent of the state division of liquor control, noted how Mr. McElroy signed a statement in 1997. The statement swears that “Rob Croak will not work on the permit premises at any time or be compensated by MDV Enterprises, Inc., or have any connection with the operation of the permit premises located at 137-41 Main Street, Toledo.”

“Mr. Croak is responsible for promoting concerts at the Main Event and has exhibited some control over MDV Enterprises, Inc., the Main Event business, or the permit premises,” Ms. Estep concluded.

Mr. McElroy could not be reached for comment.

Mr. Mack said he presented the case to the Lucas County prosecutor's office about three weeks ago.

John Weglian, head of the special units division of the prosecutor's office, confirmed that his office is reviewing the case and said it possibly will be submitted to a grand jury.

Mr. Gearhiser questioned why Mr. Mack would want to “ratchet up” the ownership issue into felony charges. He said Mr. Croak was given a “minor fine” for false ownership at Frankie's several years ago.

State records show he was fined $300 by the commission.

Frankie's was not part of the current false ownership investigation, Mr. Mack noted.

John McMahon, the Toledo attorney who is representing Mr. Croak on the underage drinking charges in municipal court, said he believes the only reason the county prosecutor's office is considering charges before a grand jury is because of a similar indictment of Toledo police Sgt. Glenn Hall.

In August, a grand jury indicted Sergeant Hall and his wife, Geizle Spearman, for tampering with records, third-degree felonies, stemming from an investigation into ownership of Mr. J's, a Detroit Avenue nightclub. She also faced second-degree felony charges of falsification. The pair has pleaded not guilty to the charges, and their cases are pending.

Inquiries into ownership of Mr. J's occurred after an errant shot from a shootout in Mr. J's parking lot on Nov. 18 wounded a 7-year-old boy, David Pope, who was asleep in his home across the street.

Mr. McMahon said he believes there is a perception that the two cases should be treated the same, an idea he considers “flawed.” The situations are different, he maintains, because one involves a police officer, a public employee whom citizens may not want running a bar.

He said the potential indictments are just another way to try to shut the East Toledo bars.

“They already filed charges with the liquor control commission in Columbus. The goal is to try and pull the liquor permits. That would be the ultimate outcome in Columbus. Obviously, if they try to convict him of a felony, he can't hold a liquor permit. They have the same goal,” Mr. McMahon said.

Mr. McMahon, who also represents Mr. McElroy, would not comment on Mr. Croak's involvement with the Main Event because it is the subject of the criminal case. But he did say that Mr. Croak promoted concerts there.

He said he believes officials have targeted Mr. Croak because of his attitude and the perception that he needs to be taught a lesson.

“Rob might not have the kind of personality that he gets along with everybody he encounters,” he said.

The state, however, has found violations against Mr. Croak that have nothing to do with his relationship with local police.

Ms. Estep's report indicates that Mr. Croak repeatedly failed to disclose past criminal convictions when applying for liquor permits and denied on applications that he had ever been refused a liquor permit when, in fact, he had. Such actions, she noted, show a disregard for state law.

Mr. McMahon said officials need to ask themselves what's going to go into the Main Street buildings if they close the clubs.

Some question what will happen to the local music scene if Mr. Croak is shut down.

Closing the bars would eliminate a primary venue for live music acts in Toledo, said John Rockwood, a local musician and president of Toledo's Blue Suit record company.

“I don't know where people are going to play. There won't be a club where you can go,” he said.

National acts, including the Smashing Pumpkins, Kid Rock, and Insane Clown Posse, have been on Mr. Croak's stage, as well as Toledo bands like Fringe and Lollipop Lust Kill.

“Rob knows music. Most club owners don't know anything. They won't even know who to bring in,” he said.

The three bars are likely to remain open for some time. Mr. Gearhiser is asking for a stay while he appeals the state's decisions on the permits.

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