Almost exactly 24 hours before a man was stabbed to death in a downtown Davis nightclub last month, police were dispatched to the corner of Second and G streets where, among charming brick buildings and leafy trees, they arrested a man for carrying a loaded firearm.
The incidents, both of which unfolded about 1:30 a.m., were unrelated. But to many residents and community leaders in this college town, the connection was clear. Downtown Davis, they say, has turned increasingly edgy at night, a change underscored by the fatal stabbing of Peter Alexander Gonzales, 23, on Sept. 19 at KetMoRee, a Thai eatery on G Street that transforms into a dance club late at night.
These incidents and others speak to a city in the throes of an unlikely identity crisis. After the fatal stabbing, the City Council passed an “urgency” declaration that included a 45-day moratorium on building or expanding new nightclubs, bars or restaurants within the city. The ordinance looked to address worries of “significant irreversible change to the neighborhood and community character.”
“This is Davis, and we’ve got a problem here,” Mayor Dan Wolk said on a recent afternoon outside Mishka’s Cafe, a popular downtown study spot for college students. “We can’t just move on like nothing happened here. We’ve got to see what’s going on and what we can do about it.”
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Authorities say a tale of two Davises has begun to unfold. One is populated by UC Davis students, an increasingly studious and high-achieving bunch. In 2015, the average grade-point average for incoming freshman was 4.07. Meanwhile, an increase in nightlife options over the past five years has turned the bucolic “Bicycle Capital of America” into a party destination for young people in greater Yolo County and beyond.
Following the Sept. 19 stabbing, five alleged Norteño gang members from Vacaville were arrested. One suspect remains at large.
Police say concern is concentrated on the G Street corridor between First and Third streets, where several restaurants and bars morph into dance clubs that draw heavy traffic on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. Wolk knows this downtown area well. He was raised in Davis, a 1995 graduate of Davis Senior High School who was elected to the City Council in 2011.
Wolk remembers when Davis had a quieter – if not quirkier – reputation. This city of about 66,000 residents once was the punch line on “The Daily Show” for financing a “Toad Tunnel” that would prevent amphibians from getting squashed by cars on Pole Line Road. Fights occasionally would break out at downtown bars, but the idea of guns and knives being drawn was foreign to a place where farmers markets remain among the biggest social gatherings.
“(Downtown) has changed in many ways for the good, but in some ways for the not-so-good in the horrific death that occurred,” Wolk said. “I think things were kind of bubbling, but the murder was the final straw. And it’s a matter of time before it happens again if we don’t do anything.”
For Davis as a whole, violent crime has declined over the past decade. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, the city reported 265 violent offenses in 2004. In 2014, the number dropped to 84.
But city officials say downtown is a different story. According to a City Council staff report prepared by Assistant Police Chief Darren Pytel and others, incidents of violence, weapons and gang-related activity in the downtown area have been on the rise since 2010. This increase coincides with nightclubs opening in the G Street area, including late-night club scenes at KetMoRee, Tres Hermanas and G Street Wunderbar.
So far in 2015, Davis police have logged 39 incidents of serious crime downtown, including 20 violent offenses, six weapons violations and two gang-related incidents. In 2014, Davis police responded to 54 incidents in the downtown area related to similar offenses, and 65 in 2013.
“We haven’t seen a significant increase in the number of calls, but we’re seeing changes in the types of calls,” Pytel said. “We’re seeing more violence, fights and weapons cases – knives, pipes, display of firearms.”
The concentration of late-night drinking establishments near Second and G streets has drawn trouble, including the stabbing of Gonzales. According to news reports, Gonzales was visiting Davis from Southern California to attend his sister’s wedding. Following the rehearsal dinner, members of the wedding party continued their celebrations at KetMoRee. Gonzales was killed during an alleged fight that erupted inside the bar.
During the past five years, five of 26 establishments licensed to sell alcohol have accounted for 71 percent of 338 reported incidents, Pytel recently told The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board.
In late September, police officials met with bar representatives and are working with state Alcoholic Beverage Control officers to increase patrols downtown. City officials are using the 45-day moratorium to examine existing zoning regulations and contemplate other steps to make the area safer.
“We as a community have to figure out what we want our downtown to be,” Wolk said. “There are a lot of great things happening in our downtown, but I don’t like what’s happening right now on G Street. We’ve got to get that under control.”
Anxiety isn’t limited to crime associated with the city’s nightlife. In March 2014, Clayton Garzon pleaded no contest to a felony hate crime involving the beating of a Davis gay man. In December 2014, Daniel Marsh was convicted of brutally murdering an elderly couple in their south Davis home.
Over the years, the town’s time-honored Picnic Day celebrations have been marred by alcohol-fueled violence, reaching a tipping point in 2010 when more than 500 calls were logged to Davis police over issues including sexual battery and chair-throwing brawls. Two men from Contra Costa County were arrested on suspicion of assault on a police officer.
On a recent Saturday night, most of the downtown businesses had shut down for the evening, save for the bars and restaurants. The party didn’t get started until about 11 p.m. at the G Street clubs, which quickly filled with revelers. Hanging out with friends at Our House bar on Second Street, Chris Klein, a 2012 UC Davis graduate who also attended high school in Davis, said he’s seen a change in the nightlife.
“We’ve got more and more people coming from out of town,” Klein said. “We’ve got a lot of people from Vacaville, Dixon, Woodland that come into this town looking for the younger women. I think it’s still a safe town and the bars take a lot of precautions. The majority of people coming out here on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday are just coming out to have a good time. But once you we start getting gangs coming in, no matter what town you’re in, that’s a problem.”
Davis police said they are compiling statistics related to crimes committed by non-residents. Pytel said that many students use identification cards that reflect their hometowns instead of their Davis residences. However, when “generally looking at arrest statistics, (outsiders) do account for a good number of arrests, and especially violent arrests,” he said. “Officers are reporting they’re seeing fewer UC Davis students downtown, and we’ve seen it transition to more people coming into Davis to enjoy the nightlife. It’s become a regional destination.”
Locals and students also account for some of Davis’ more serious crimes. Early on Sept. 18, Frederick Joelli, 29, was arrested in downtown Davis on suspicion of weapons and drug violations, including possession of a loaded firearm. Officers recovered a vial of pills and cocaine in their search of the area. According to UC Davis’ office of the university registrar, Joelli was a third-year student at UC Davis’ law school.
The incident alarmed Sergio Saenz, owner of Tres Hermanas in Davis. It occurred near his restaurant, which becomes a dance club at night. Saenz said he’s decided to shut down Tres Hermanas’ club at the end of October. In the summer of 2014, a patron who’d been kicked out of Tres Hermamas pulled a knife on a bouncer, he said, and crime only seems to be getting worse.
“I got home and had a feeling in my stomach that it was a sign,” Saenz said. “Then (the KetMoRee stabbing) happened the next day and I thought, ‘Wow, this is it.’ It reaffirmed the decision I’d made. I’m just done with that.”
Davis’ 45-day moratorium affects plans for Blondie’s Bar and Grill, which is slated to open on G Street about a block from KetMoRee. Blondie’s intends to operate as a restaurant by day and feature a dance club some nights. The City Council will consider an economic hardship exemption for Blondie’s on Tuesday.
“We shouldn’t be approving another nightclub without having this community conversation,” Wolk said. “I have to be honest: I don’t think we should have more of these nightclubs downtown. If we’re going to have nightclubs, it can’t be the status quo. You’ve got to have more security. You’ve got to have more limits.”
But for now in downtown Davis, the beat goes on.
At Tres Hermanas on Saturday, a DJ spun hip-hop tunes by E-40 and Mac Dre for a packed crowd. The bass could be heard from the corner of Second and G streets, where an inebriated woman was being held up by friends so she wouldn’t fall into the street. Saenz and his security crew hovered at the edge of the dance floor, on the lookout for conflict that could turn into a fistfight – or worse.
“Davis is this wonderful town, like if you’ve seen ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ ” Saenz said later. “But it’s a different town after 11 p.m.”