The most successful promoters were raking in thousands every night, some making half a million a year. There was undeclared income—free dinners, access to country clubs, trips to the Bahamas—and always more businessmen at the back of the line eager to be ushered inside. The promoters worked constantly. Some kept up the pace by feeding a habit. Bathroom lines were getting crowded, and people were coming out smiling, twitching, chattering. “I didn’t like that scene—it had gotten too crazy,” recalls one promoter who was easily making $100,000 a year. “It was ready to blow up.”
On the morning of July 25, Jon B was awakened by his ringing cell phone. Friends were calling to say he was on the news. An 18-year-old girl named Jennifer Moore had gone missing after a night of drinking in West Chelsea, where she had cocktails at Guest House. Mindful that many partyers drift from one club to the next, hardly knowing which one is which, Jon B thought the news was probably wrong. “I was like, ‘Naah, everyone’s probably just making a mistake,’ ” he recalls. “ ‘It’s probably not my place, it’s someone else’s place.’ ” He went back to bed, slept a few more hours, woke up, and turned on the TV. “When I turned on the news, I was shocked,” he says. “I started calling my lawyer and freaking out.”
The murder of Jennifer Moore has been described on 27th Street as a Lemony Snicket tale—a series of unfortunate events. Moore and her friend Talia Keenan were carded at the Guest House door that Monday night, but Moore flashed her sister’s I.D. After leaving the club, the two found their car had been towed. When they reached the tow pound on Twelfth Avenue near 38th Street, they were so drunk that the attendants wouldn’t give them their car. Keenan was so far gone that she passed out and an ambulance was called to take her to the hospital. Moore slipped away and was found several days later in a Weehawken Dumpster.
Moore’s killing might not have attracted so much attention had it not followed a similar murder, that of 24-year-old Imette St. Guillen, who had concluded a night out with a few drinks at the Falls on Lafayette Street and was later found near the Belt Parkway, her face wrapped in tape, her body covered with a floral-print comforter. A bouncer at the Falls named Darryl Littlejohn was charged with the John Jay graduate student’s murder—only three months before the indictment of another bouncer, Stephen Sakai of Opus 22, for shooting four people outside of that club, killing Gustavo Cuadros, a 25-year-old from Red Bank, New Jersey. All of it, taken together, added up to hot copy.
Inside the New York Post office on Sixth Avenue, Sunday editor Lauren Ramsby commanded her reporters to bring her any news they could find about underage drinkers on 27th Street. It wasn’t hard: They were parading down the block in belly-baring tank tops, yelling about how many Jäger bombs they had downed. According to one Post reporter, Ramsby wanted “to blow the lid open” on the underage-drinking scene. “It’s the perfect story,” another Post reporter says. “It’s linked to a murder. You have the villain: club owners. They’re giving alcohol to underage girls. And then you have law enforcement falling down on the job. You have the city-bureaucracy aspect, you have the commerce aspect, you have the stricken family losing their child, you have a little sex involved because she was raped. It can’t get any better.”
Ramsby sent out a team including her youth-culture reporter, Elizabeth Wolff, a slight, loafer-wearing Brearley brunette. Wolff went to the street that weekend and saw the usual scene: puddles of vomit, women without shoes, men brawling, bouncers hoisting and tossing drunks onto the sidewalk. Some did not look like they would survive the night. “There was this girl—she had been walking toward Eleventh Avenue from B.E.D.,” Wolff recalls. “She had no shoes, she was drooling, and she looked like she was dead. She didn’t look like she was breathing. She just collapsed. Her friends were worried, but, of course, they had lost their other friends. So there was this, ‘Where do we go? What do we do? Do we get our friends?’ Eventually a cop came over and lifted her head and got an ambulance, but she was lying on the ground for 25 minutes before one came.”
By the next weekend, the police had flooded the zone. In the early weeks, there were at least 40 officers, some on horseback. They also brought floodlights, a digital flashing sign warning clubgoers that it’s a crime to show a false I.D., and a large bus, or, as the NYPD calls it, a “mobile command center.” Most serious for the club owners, the police forbade cars from passing through. They even stopped the restaurateur Roberto Vuotto of Naima, who had just run out of fettuccine, from driving in with a fresh batch from the Lower East Side.