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Special investigation

The Old Town experiment: Walking a line between crime and potential

Business owners try to balance fights, stabbings, drug activity with hopes for a resurgence
By: Scott Thomas Anderson, Editor
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Police call volumes for businesses mentioned in this investigation:

According to official police records, the Onyx Club had 144 police actions in 2010, with 91 of those calls being initiated by citizens. The club had 153 police actions in 2011, with 105 of those calls being initiated by citizens. In 2012, the Onyx Club had 156 police actions, with 98 of those calls being initiated by citizens. The remaining instances of police presence were officer-initiated investigations.

According to official police records, the Roseville Hotel had 255 police actions in 2010, with 101 of those calls being initiated by citizens. The Roseville Hotel had 246 police actions in 2011, with 150 of those calls being initiated by citizens. In 2012, the Roseville Hotel had 207 police actions, with 92 of those calls being initiated by citizens. The remaining instances of police presence were officer-initiated investigations.

According to official police records, the Barker Hotel had 328 police actions in 2010, with 182 of those calls being initiated by citizens. The Barker Hotel had 147 police actions in 2011, with 72 of those calls being initiated by citizens. In 2012, the Barker Hotel had 210 police actions, with 114 of those calls being initiated by citizens. The remaining instances of police presence were officer-initiated investigations.

City leaders and business owners have a vision — they see a historic quarter of Roseville where shades of the past merge with trends of the future, creating a vibrant entertainment district in which culture and commerce can thrive.

But beneath the dream are testimonials, videos and statistics that indicate major challenges for Old Town, from ongoing violence to an entrenched, volatile drug culture. The Press Tribune is examining what forces plague the vintage section of Roseville, and why business owners there believe they can still create the future they want.

Famous for the wrong reasons

By Sunday morning, Feb. 23, the videos were already spreading across the worldwide web: The previous Saturday, a fight had broken out in front of the Onyx Club on Main Street, resulting in a double-stabbing. Two witnesses videoed the brutal struggle with cellphones. In the hours that followed, one of the spectators posted his video to YouTube under the title, “Stabbing at the Onyx.” The footage shows a crowd of onlookers move around the melee as a loud voice yells, “You’re bleeding, you’re bleeding bad! He stabbed you, dog!”

The video ends with a young man removing his flannel shirt and revealing a large, bloody knife wound on his back. The other witness with a video recorder edited his high-quality footage of the assault for a website called “World Hip Hop Star.” That video highlights an assailant straddling another man in the middle of the street, raining blows on his head and smashing the back of his skull into the pavement. The footage then pans wider, offering a view of four to five men striking each other. Toward the end, the picture drops into slow-motion as a knife comes out and can be seen thrusting twice into the side of one victim.

The Roseville Police Department confirms that the double-stabbing took place that night on Main Street. A 37-year-old Carmichael man and 31-year-old Rio Linda man were arrested, charged with attempted murder and committing a crime on behalf of a gang.

In terms of crime, the stabbing at the Onyx Club is not an isolated incident for Old Town. On Jan. 11, Roseville police launched a crime suppression operation, part of which brought them to the Barker Hotel on Lincoln Street. Searching for a parolee, police used a ram to break the doors to separate rooms, where two men and two women were arrested on several charges, including possession of methamphetamine and black tar heroin and possession of stolen property.

On March 9, just after 2 a.m., a fight between two groups broke out on Main Street. According to Roseville police, the confrontation escalated into a car chase between the groups, with one following the other across the city, until the vehicle being chased went off the road near Cirby Way.

In the dark hours of the following morning, police officers were called to yet another multi-suspect fight in Old Town. The officers arrived to find a scene reminiscent of one in the stabbing videos, with “many spectators” gathered around four men exchanging blows at the corner of Main and Lincoln streets. A Rocklin man and Sacramento man were arrested.

Police activity in Old Town has been an ongoing issue in recent years. According to official police records, the Onyx Club — the closest bar to where the Feb. 22 double-stabbing took place — had 453 police actions in the last three years. Well over half the instances of police activity began by a citizen calling for help or service (see sidebar for a breakdown of the numbers).

Day and Night

Numerous Old Town business owners and managers told the Press Tribune that drug activity and loitering transients are common in the district, as are finding broken glass, vomit and, at times, human excrement down sidewalks and alleyways. Gabriella Diaz recently opened New to Me, a discount store on Lincoln Street. She was drawn to the quarter by its classic brickwork and old invocative facades. For her, the difference between Old Town Roseville during the mornings and evenings is stark.

“I feel like it’s a nice place to walk around, with a nice flow of foot traffic, in the mornings,” Diaz said. “But I close at 4 p.m. because the place starts to change after 5 p.m. After that, it doesn’t feel as safe. When people ask me, I’m going to be honest: It’s a cute little place, but not at nighttime.”

She added, “Some of the problems down here, even during the day, do affect business. There are a lot of people who are transients hanging out. I know they have to be somewhere, but for older shoppers, it’s not a good feeling.”

Adan Lopez, owner of Fast Freddie’s Pizza and Pasta, has had his own share of problems, even during daylight hours. In January, Lopez saw parolee Jordan White outside the front door of his restaurant. White has a criminal record going back to 1995, with convictions for methamphetamine, theft, grand theft, fraud, receiving known stolen property and fighting with police officers. According to Lopez, White was screaming at people on the sidewalk and behaving in a menacing way.

“A few of my customers got up and left,” Lopez recalled. “I was so mad because he was scaring them away, which is bad for my business.”

Lopez thinks White was loitering on Main Street because of the Roseville Hotel. 

Eve Nassetta, who is currently fighting an eviction from the Barker Hotel, believes the Roseville Hotel and Barker Hotel are contributing to problems in Old Town. Nassetta claims that on Jan. 15 she was badly beaten by four female meth addicts inside the hallway of the Barker Hotel, while the then-manager stood by doing nothing. Nassetta has photos of her black eyes and swollen face from the attack. She said meth problems are so prevalent in the Barker that she carries pepper spray with her every time she uses one of the two centralized bathrooms shared by the entire group of tenants.

“On a scale of 1 to 10, drug problems in the Barker Hotel and Roseville Hotel are a 9 or a 10,” Nassetta said.

According to official police records, the Roseville Hotel had 708 police actions in the last three years, with roughly half of those instances beginning when a citizen called for help or service. The Barker Hotel had similar numbers, with 785 police actions in the last three years (see sidebar).

Both hotels are owned by Roseville’s Mike Rapport, who has served on the city’s housing task force. In an interview with the Press Tribune, Rapport said the manager present during Nassetta’s altercation no longer works there. He also said the drug offenders who were arrested during the Jan. 11 parolee sweep have been evicted. Rapport said a very small group of tenants were causing a lot of problems.

“It’s not transitional living,” Rapport told the Press Tribune. “We have tenants that have been here 20 years, with our average length of stay being seven years. We do everything in our power to not have drug users here.”

Still forging ahead

Most businesses owners and managers interviewed about challenges in Old Town still believe the area can be turned around into a special destination. Richard and Rebecca Ryan own a number of properties on Main Street and Lincoln Street, as well as the Opera House Saloon. The Ryans have worked with the city to renovate the historic State Hotel on Lincoln Street into housing for residents making below $26,000 a year. Some of the conditions the Ryans agreed to in order to get the money include allowing city officials to view files on all tenants, seeing their age, where they are employed and if they have had any issues in the buildings. Unlike the Barker and Roseville hotels, the Ryans’ housing requires a deposit. 

“I think all of our tenants have jobs, which is important so they’re not loitering,” Rebecca Ryan said. “We’re getting a lot of college students and lower-income working class, which I think is good.”

The Ryans also claim to have little to no problems at the Opera House. Rebecca Ryan said the keys to keeping a peaceful environment were lining up music that appeals to patrons age 30 and above, as well as enforcing a strict dress code that prohibits sagging pants, beanies and wearing hats backward.

Ryan, Diaz and a host of other business owners believe bringing festivals to Old Town could be a major boost and get Placer County residents more interested in spending time there. Mike Hutch, a Roseville resident who enjoys historic districts, agrees.

“We’d love to see it as vibrant as Lincoln,” Hutch said of Old Town. “(Lincoln’s) first real festival had over 6,000 guests … We need to get the Strawberry Festival away from the fairgrounds and back to Old Town. It was so much more enjoyable.”

The Opera House is currently working with a Sacramento radio station to bring national country music acts to its stage. Last week, the newly opened Union hosted an inaugural all-day St. Patrick’s Day Festival. The Union is also one of Rapport’s tenants, as is the successful Boxing Donkey Irish Pub. Rapport thinks that, despite the continued criticism of the entire district, it’s moving in the right direction.

“Compared to 10 years ago, things are much better in Old Town,” Rapport said. “And they will continue to get better over time.”