HOLD CLUBS LIABLE FOR TRAGEDIES, SOME SAY

By KIBRET MARKOS
STAFF WRITER

August 3, 2006 -- To hear Christina Fasarakis say it, Jennifer Moore wasn't just a victim of a rapist and murderer.

A culture of irresponsible alcohol sales in New York City bars and nightclubs allowed the Harrington Park teenager and her friend to get drunk to the point that they couldn't look out for one another, Fasarakis said.

Fasarakis' 19-year-old brother, Antonios, was killed last month in a fight with a bouncer after a night of drinking at a Queens club cited repeatedly for selling alcohol to minors.

"None of this would have happened if they weren't drunk," she said of the deaths of Moore and her brother.

Fasarakis, of Queens, intends to sue the club for selling alcohol to a minor, joining others who say they want to change the way bars and clubs operate. Along with police and liquor authorities, lawsuits help enforce laws that bar the sale of alcohol to the underage, they say.

"There's a reason why the law does not allow you to sell alcohol to a minor," said Fort Lee attorney Rosemarie Arnold, who represents Fasarakis. "Most people under 21 are too immature to handle alcohol."

Arnold said the same problem may have led to the death of 18-year-old Moore, who was partying at the Guest House in the Chelsea section of Manhattan into the early-morning hours on July 25.

She later went to retrieve her car at a tow pound, where her friend passed out from too much drinking. Moore then wandered alone along the West Side Highway.

Authorities said she eventually got into a cab with felon Draymond Coleman, who beat, raped and strangled her in a Weehawken hotel before leaving her body in a trash bin in West New York.

Officials at the New York State Liquor Authority said they are investigating the Guest House, an upscale club that obtained its license last year and has no record of violations.

Although Moore's parents have said they don't blame anyone but the killer for their daughter's death, Arnold said the case reeks of liability.

"How did she get in that bar?" she asked. "Who was selling alcohol to an underage girl who was wasted to the point that she couldn't walk?"

Bill Crowley, a spokesman for the New York State Liquor Authority, said the agency employs undercover inspectors and makes surprise visits to some of Manhattan's 5,200 hotels, bars, clubs and restaurants that sell alcohol.

About 260 were cited last year for selling alcohol to patrons under the legal drinking age of 21, he said. Another 140 have been caught this year. The penalties include fines as high as $10,000 and/or revocation of the liquor license.

Crowley said New York Gov. George Pataki this year proposed increasing the liquor authority's budget so it could double its enforcement staff, but the proposal was not approved by the Legislature.

"Obviously, we are trying to do more with less, but underage drinking is a priority for us," he said.

'Massive numbers'

A Record investigation last week showed that bars and clubs frequented by young suburbanites often shoo in underage patrons flashing credit cards instead of IDs.

Fasarakis said such practices must stop.

"If you are on a guest list at a club, all you have to do is say your name and you're in," she said. "What they need to do is ID people, more than once."

But Robert Bookman, an attorney and a lobbyist for the New York Nightlife Association, which represents hundreds of bars, clubs and lounges, said the industry is properly screening patrons.

The 1,200 late-night establishments in the city, he said, admit more than 64 million people every year -- more than the admissions for all Broadway shows, all New York City sports events and the Metropolitan Museum of Art combined.

"We are talking about massive, massive numbers here," he said. "It doesn't take away from the horror of these deadly incidents, but I think it shows we are doing a good job that such incidents are a rarity."

Bookman also said many others could have done something to prevent Moore's death.

"Why weren't there more police on the streets?" he asked. "Why are police towing cars from deserted streets at 3 in the morning? Why does NJ Transit stop running at 1 a.m., forcing thousands of New Jersey residents to drive?"

Laws ineffective?

To some experts, however, the drinking-related deaths of young adults are proof that laws barring people under 21 from drinking are ineffective. They say the laws foster "Prohibition mentality" and encourage irresponsible drinking.

Many states set 21 as the legal drinking age during Prohibition, but the age was lowered to 18 in the 1970s. After a sharp increase in alcohol-related driving accidents, many states again raised the age to 21 during a campaign led by Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

"What this law has done is that it has created a pattern where younger people drink less often, but they drink very heavily when they do," said David Hanson, a retired professor at the State University of New York at Potsdam who studied the country's drinking-related laws for decades. "The same pattern existed during the Prohibition."

Ruth Engs, a professor at Indiana University who researched drinking-related issues for 21 years, agreed.

"Today, we are repeating history and making the same mistakes," she said. "Prohibition did not work then, and prohibition for young people under the age of 21 is not working now."

Both Hanson and Engs suggest that the best approach is issuing drinking permits to 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds, but with restrictions, similar to driver's permits for beginners.

"Parents must not only teach young people how not to drink, but also how to drink with moderation," Hanson said. "Many alcohol-related deaths of young adults involve teenagers who were inexperienced drinkers."

Hanson said an Alaska law permits bar and club owners to confiscate the driver's licenses of underage patrons who attempt to buy alcohol. The bar owner can fine an offender as much as $1,000 - a fine that can be enforced in court. A bouncer or waiter who identifies an underage patron is entitled to a third of the payment.

"This deputizes the vendors, encourages them to enforce the law," Hanson said.

Bookman said the Alaska law would work well in New York and New Jersey.

"I think it's a good idea to make the violator responsible," he said.

Arnold agreed.

"I think any law that makes a person financially responsible for their illegal behavior is a deterrent to that behavior," she said.

Publicizing dangers

North Jersey residents and officials said teenagers, meanwhile, need to be made aware of the hazards of underage drinking.

"Between parents, our teachers, police departments and others, we need to step up the educational process," said state Sen. Paul Sarlo, D-Wood-Ridge.

One local activist is Lourdes Verea of Cliffside Park, whose 18-year-old daughter, Rebeka, was killed on her high school graduation day last year in a high-speed car crash in North Bergen. Rebeka Verea was a passenger in a car driven by 19-year-old Alexis Torres of Fair Lawn. Torres was charged with -- among other alleged offenses -- underage consumption of alcohol.

Rebeka Verea's parents have launched Project Graduation Night, which organizes alcohol-free prom-night events and holds town meetings on the dangers of speeding and underage drinking. They also have filed a lawsuit against the driver.

"The problem is not just on graduation day, it's every day," Lourdes Verea said.

E-mail: markos@northjersey.com

Source: The Record