Rib Lake board cracks down, suspends tavern’s license for 10 days
Sometimes things go too far.
That was the case for Drink Slingers Tavern in Rib Lake.
At a special hearing on December 4, members of the village board voted to suspend the tavern’s license for 10 days due to state law infractions related to the agent not doing anything to stop drugs from being sold on the premises.
The village had received written complaints about the tavern being excessively rowdy, serving habitual drunkards and being a detriment to the community. In addition, there was a felony criminal case against the building’s owner for possessing and selling marijuana and narcotics on the premises as well as a lengthy list of state alcohol and tobacco violations related to things such as refilling bottles and selling individual cigarettes.
During the more than two hour hearing, the board heard testimony from Robert Hanke, the person who filed the formal complaint. Other testimony was from agent William Gray of the Wisconsin Department of Revenue (DOR), Det. Aemus Balsis of the Taylor County Sheriff’s Department, and the tavern’s agent Michael Butson.
“I don’t believe this belongs in the community,” Hanke said, accusing the bar’s management of running a riotous place when women patrons were enticed to expose their breasts and where people were encouraged to have as much fun and get as drunk as they wanted.
“I don’t think we should be bringing up our children this way,” he said.
“Everything you described is hearsay,” replied Dawn Dachel a friend of the building’s owner who spoke on the tavern’s behalf during the quasi-judicial hearing. “Where is your proof?” she said, noting she has never seen Hanke in the tavern.
Hanke also referenced an individual who he referred to as the well-known “town drunk” who Hanke said spends most of his time at the tavern and regularly must be assisted home due to intoxication.
“You can’t be serving to people to the point they are falling down drunk,” Hanke said, noting that he chooses not to frequent that establishment.
In addition to the concerns about rowdiness, Gray addressed other concerns regarding infractions of the state liquor and tobacco license laws.
According to Gray, in April 2018 Balsis contacted him about doing an inspection of Drink Slingers because of concerns about drugs being sold on the premises. Gray said that he explained to Balsis that his job was not to circumvent a search warrant and look for drugs. He noted that if something was found during the course of his inspection, he would stop the inspection and it would be up to law enforcement to get a warrant to conduct a search for drugs.
Gray reported that when he arrived at Drink Slingers for his inspection he noted that there were numerous infractions including not having a licensed bartender in the bar, having five video poker machines and having a fishbowl filled with four or five different packs of open cigarettes.
He said the open packs were a common indication they were selling individual cigarettes. “It is a big issue for sales and use tax,” Gray said. He also reported on accessing a locked storage cabinet that had 14 1.75 liter bottles and a funnel.
Gray noted that because the liquor licenses listed the address of the building as part of the license description he had the authority to inspect the entire building including the upstairs apartment areas for violations.
He then reported on entering the side room with a hallway leading to the back of the building where he said he smelled a strong odor of marijuana. He said he was familiar with the smell and appearance of marijuana due to his previous experience in working within law enforcement as part of the West Central Wisconsin Drug Task Force. He saw a number of open boxes of cigarettes and upon checking them found them to each to contain approximately 3.5 grams of marijuana.
He reported that he stopped his inspection at that point and Balsis, who had accompanied him, went for a search warrant to conduct a drug search.
Gray testified that Butson, the agent for the bar, was “extremely kind and helpful” but that he admitted to knowing there were drugs going in and out of the tavern. Gray stated that it was Butson’s cooperation that led him to not want to pursue charges against Butson.
According to the testimony and police reports, Butson told deputies that he knew about the marijuana and did not approve of it, but that since the owner of the building where he lived and worked was the one doing it, he did not feel he had any other options.
In addition to the marijuana found on the main level, Balsis reported that when they executed the search warrant, they found what he described as being large amounts of marijuana being located in the upstairs apartment along with a “substantial amount” of cash. He estimated the total to be just shy of $12,000. Altogether, they found just over five ounces and 85 narcotic pain pills.
He said at this point the owner of the building came in and admitted to selling marijuana in order to be able to have the funds to keep the bar open. The bar owner, Earl Soderman was arrested and charged and later found guilty in August 2019 as part of a plea agreement on the drug possession and distribution charges. He is currently appealing the ruling.
Following testimony relating to the accusations against the bar, Butson made a statement to the board on the tavern’s behalf.
He said he was on the road working as an insulation installer throughout much the time when things were happening. “I came back and was kind of in shock,” he said, noting that he has been working to straighten everything out and have it in order.
He said he thought things were straightened out because there were no objections to him renewing the tavern’s license last June. He said while the building owner continues to live there, he occasionally walks through but does not have anything to do with running the bar and has stepped down from being an officer in the business.
Following the testimony phase, board members discussed what to do as a response.
Village attorney Ruthann Koch has advised them that the penalty could be no less than 10 days suspension nor more than one year license revocation.
“It is a small town, we don’t want to close up a business,” said board member George Tesch.
Resident Jeff Thums spoke in support of the tavern remaining open, saying that he has gone there with his kids and grandchildren and reported that it was clean and there was never anything inappropriate going on.
“The last thing we need to do is close the doors on a small business in town,” he said.
Village president Bill Schreiner said he was most bothered by Butson allowing the drug trafficking to take place.
“You put us between a rock and a hard place,” Tesch said, noting it was hard to close a business, but at the same time said there should be consequences.
Board member Cliff Mann questioned if everything was in order at the tavern now. Butson replied that it was.
“We don’t want any of that crap here,” Mann said of the drugs. He made a motion to suspend the license for 10 days. Tesch seconded it and the motion passed with Schreiner being the only no vote.
Mann said he wanted to hear only good things coming from the bar in the future and it was noted by Schreiner that the board would be keeping their ears open to any complaints between now and when the tavern’s license is up for renewal next June.
The suspension was set to go into effect the day after clerk Dawn Swenson prepared the official letter. It was estimated this would take place on December 5 or 6.
There was some discussion on if the bar could continue to remain open for food or to allow pool and dart leagues to take place. “A suspension is a suspension,” Schreiner said opposing that idea.
Board member Jack Buksa agreed saying it was too fine a line between being open for food and not having being able to sell the beer and liquor there.
“I will have time to do a lot of cleaning,” Buston said.
“E verything you described is hearsay.”
—Dawn Dachel of Rib Lake speaking in defense of Drink Slingers Tavern.