Thursday, June 14, 2001
Bar Code Infraction: Two homicides in three years and numerous calls for other crimes have put Cap''s Saloon on Salinas Police Lt. Leonard Wilson''s radar. Some merchants think Cap''s doesn''t fit in with Oldtown Salinas'' new image.
Jose Gonzales strolls down the vacant sidewalk along West Gabilan in Oldtown Salinas with a case of Red Bull on his shoulder. It''s Thursday afternoon and Gonzales, wearing a straw mesh Panama hat at a tilt, is on his way back to his infamous bar and card room, Cap''s Saloon, where a stiff drink and a game of Texas Hold ''Em can be had 24 hours a day.
A couple of dazed card players are having a smoke in the sun. Gonzales passes them, goes inside and walks the length of the dim card room to unlock his office and lay down the cans. The day before, this threadbare cantina he''s owned for seven years was described as "a dangerous establishment" in the county newspaper. Two men have been killed here in the last three years. The first one was knifed in the bathroom in August 1998. The most recent was shot dead in the barroom on May 21.
This afternoon, though, Cap''s is calm. Three card players wait at the front table to start a game. Beneath a string of Budweiser pennants urging "Let''s Fiesta!--Let''s Support Latin Scholars," two men quietly sip bottled beer at the bar.
Police are the first to admit Cap''s is not the only local watering hole with a reputation. Nevertheless, they''ll be paying specific attention to it from now on.
"From a violent crime standpoint, there''s been two murders there in three years, and we''ve had our share of crimes we''ve had to respond to [there]," says Lt. Leonard Wilson of the Salinas Police Department. "We''re taking a hard look at the bar."
Salinas recently cracked down on panhandlers, and its vice detectives are chasing down hookers and drug traders in the Chinatown area bordering Oldtown. And then there''s Cap''s, smack dab in the heart of an upwardly mobile, historic downtown district hungry for tourist dollars--a bar rapidly approaching pariah status.
At the Salinas City Council meeting last Tuesday, a former Cap''s bartender named Valerie Garcia asked officials to close down the place. Garcia''s boyfriend, 39-year-old Raymond Michael Sanchez, was at the bar on May 21 when he was killed by a man who reportedly walked up, shot him in the neck, and ran out the door. Investigators are not coughing up a suspected motive, but the alleged killer, a 19-year-old named Armando Frias, was arrested on a murder warrant in Oklahoma City on June 6. Garcia told the City Council that Cap''s is "a dangerous establishment" and reportedly asked the city to yank the saloon''s business license.
Some of the guys at Cap''s have their own theory about the source of the violence. They''ll tell you it''s not the place that''s dangerous, it''s the people who happen to be there when bad things happen. Danger will find you no matter if you''re in your cubicle at work or in the barber''s chair.
An hour or so before cranking up the daily five o''clock poker game in the back of the card room--Cap''s is one of two licensed card parlors in Salinas--Gonzales sits at a longish table now covered with red vinyl and talks about the Sanchez killing.
"I feel bad that way. This is not my fault," Gonzales says in English he apologizes for. "I don''t know what this guy was doing, but maybe he was trouble, too."
Outside, among the smokers relaxing on the sidewalk, a Cap''s regular named Tony weighs in on the bar''s security quotient. Tony, who came to the bar hoping to talk somebody into a game of pool, reports that he feels as safe at Cap''s as he does walking across any street in town. "It ain''t no little place where there''s danger," he says. "Danger gets you anywhere you''re at."
''Explosion Waiting to Happen''
Though Al Mortensen admits he''s never foot in Cap''s, the president of the Salinas Valley Chamber of Commerce has driven by the bar some nights after working late and seen what he believes to be prostitutes on the curb.
"I can''t tell you that''s what they''re there for," he says. "I can tell you it doesn''t look great."
The city has redevelopment plans to install a movie theater complex, a brewpub and multi-level parking around the corner. Visitors to the Steinbeck Center who want to walk across town for a bite might find themselves passing by Cap''s. It''s not the side of Salinas that Mortensen and some other business owners want tourists to see.
"It''s that kind of atmosphere we''re trying to eliminate in the Oldtown area," he says. "I don''t want anyone to go out of business, but I want it to be a safe business and a safe area."
Mortensen was at the City Council meeting where Garcia complained about Cap''s. He says the chamber is not campaigning actively against the bar, but he doesn''t mind the scrutiny it will get from front-page stories with quotes about it being "dangerous." He describes Cap''s as "an explosion waiting to happen, or a stick of dynamite waiting to be lit."
If that''s the case, then the police are already trying to prevent a detonation by making daily bar checks as the result of an internal departmental directive. But for all the publicity around Cap''s right now, the police, in a way, back up the "danger will find you" theory.
According to Lt. Wilson, Cap''s hasn''t cornered the market on violence in Salinas. A 23-year-old man named Jose Luis Mandujano was shot in Marion''s on the east side of town on April 29. Even Applebee''s, a classic family eatery, was the scene of a shooting in Salinas last year. And on Friday, a man was shot and killed in the parking lot at North Salinas High School. Four other people were shot and wounded around the city the same night.
"There are other places in town aside from Cap''s Saloon we''re taking a look at in terms of information we''ve received about gang activity and narcotics activity," Wilson says, pointing out that he doesn''t blame Cap''s or Gonzales for what has happened there. "Right now it''s premature to point fingers at management or ownership."
Two homicides haven''t closed down Cap''s and two homicides haven''t stopped the regulars from coming back. Jiggling the coins in his pocket with one hand and gripping a cigarette with the other, one of the card dealers talks about the latest death at Cap''s. Bleary-eyed and unshaven, he asks, "How are you going to close a bar on account of that?"
theWeeklyTally28.5 Percentage of respondents who answered "natural beauty" when asked what they liked best about life in Monterey County. 4.1 answered "friendly people / atmosphere / community."
--Source: 1999 Tellus Community Survey