Four men were wounded and two were arrested in the aftermath of a fight involving eight to 10 subjects. The fight, which broke out on Feb. 17 at 1:38 a.m., happened near the intersection of Cedar and Locust streets outside the Red Restaurant and Bar.
David Lee Johnson, 24, of Watsonville, and Jose Ponce-Gonzalez, 25, a Santa Cruz County resident, were arrested for fighting and public intoxication. The injuries of the four victims were non-life threatening.
“Investigators believe the altercation was gang-motivated,” Santa Cruz Police Department (SCPD) spokesperson Zach Friend said in an e-mail to City on a Hill Press. “Based on witness statements, our agency believes the fight stemmed from a verbal altercation within the bar and then escalated into the multiple stabbings outside.”
The recent stabbings bring light to a growing problem that the city has begun to face in recent years: the prevalence of gang activity and alcohol-related crimes.
At least one nearby business owner has noticed the difference.
“There have been a number of instances in the past, though seemingly more in the last couple of years,” said David Watson, owner of the Literary Guillotine bookstore, which neighbors the Red.
Recognizing this, the Santa Cruz City Council passed a new alcohol ordinance earlier this month to address the growing risks caused by alcohol use downtown. The new ordinance amends an older version and now requires several businesses, previously identified as low-risk alcohol outlets, to classify themselves as high-risk and pay higher fees for alcohol permits. The Red Restaurant and Bar is among the businesses that will now have to pay higher fees.
“The ordinance that we passed will help raise some more funds for police to respond to these problems and set up more training programs,” Mayor Mike Rotkin said.
Friend said that there is a larger issue beyond the rise of gang and alcohol-related crimes. Many of these crimes are being committed by people from other parts of the county.
“Of the homicides last year, only one victim or suspect was a Santa Cruz city resident,” Friend said. “The rest were from other locations in the county.”
In the altercation last week, at least three of the subjects involved were not local residents.
Rotkin attributes the ever-growing presence of out-of-city criminals to the “pub crawl” atmosphere that makes up the downtown scene.
“Part of the problem here is that Santa Cruz is one of the last areas left [in the county] that has that bar scene, where you can walk from bar to bar,” Rotkin said. “We end up with lots of people — not just gangs, but lots of people — just coming here as a place to hang out.”
Bargoer Jon Hlebica, a UCSC third-year, does not feel deterred after last week’s stabbings.
“It will not stop me from going to the Red, ever,” he said. “I’m not freaked out, I’m not spooked, and I don’t think anybody else should be.”
The original alcohol ordinance was passed in the late 1990s. It has since been amended to raise the fees that alcohol outlets must pay to stay in operation.
Rotkin says the ordinance will continue to evolve.
“Maybe the fee needs to be dramatically more,” Rotkin said. “And I’m prepared to go there. If it turns out this doesn’t begin to give us enough resources to get on top of this problem, we may end up having a higher fee.”
Rotkin emphasizes that this issue is high on the city’s priority list and is not something that City Council will take lightly.
“At some point, if it doesn’t get solved by these lesser attempts, you go more Draconian,” he said. “You start shutting people down.”