COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott says he wishes he had the legal authority to shut down a business when it becomes a public nuisance.
Lott's comment came in connection with a decision by Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook to chain the doors shut at the Empire Supper Club on Lady Street.
Early Saturday morning, a gun battle just outside the club left eight people wounded and led to the arrests of four suspects. A city ordinance gives the chief authority to close the nightclub, but Lott says there is no similar county law.
"I'm jealous," Lott says. "I don't have the authority that the chief of police has where I could go padlock the building where we're having problems. I wish we had that," he says.
Lott has been frustrated over his department's inability to take action against nightclubs operating all over Richland County that he says portray themselves as lounges, restaurants or sports bars, but offer adult entertainment including nude dancers.
The sheriff says some of the businesses have deliberately deceived local government and created crime problems in communities around them.
"They open under one disguise," Lott says. "They're going to be a restaurant or a sports bar. As soon as the doors open they've got poles in there, you've got dancers. You've got a criminal element that's attracted there and then you have the shootings."
Lott's department and Columbia police have been central members of the Midlands Gang Task Force and the sheriff has been waging war against gang activity for decades.
But he says he still sees no clear indication the Empire shootings or a related one that followed near a club called The Vault in St. Andrews were the result of conflict between specific gangs.
Lott says Saturday's dispute was sparked by an argument between suspects over music issues. One suspect, 28-year-old John Earl Bates Junior, is a so-called "trap" rapper who records under the name Hun Dunn for the Five Star Empire label.
Bates is being held on charges including seven counts of attempted murder. A source close to the situation says one of the suspects accused another of stealing or performing his lyrics.
WIS News 10 has asked Columbia police to confirm that information, but the department has not responded. Bates was wounded in the Vault shooting. Another suspect, 22-year-old Maleik Houseal was wounded in the Vista incident. Houseal's brother Khali was among victims hit by gunfire.
As of Wednesday, four of the eight victims remained hospitalized.