Even before the DUI crash that killed a 3-year-old girl and her father, it seemed everyone knew Bottoms Up Tavern was a problem.

Long Beach police had been closely watching the bikini sports bar on Artesia Boulevard since 2019 when officers confronted and killed a gunman who shot two people inside. The incident also prompted locals to gather more than 300 signatures asking authorities to do something about the bar they described as “a nuisance in the neighborhood and base for many crimes.”

Petitioners complained about repeated shootings, the intimidation they felt just walking by and the lingerie-clad women they sometimes saw outside.

One signee’s simple plea: “Please get rid of them.”

In the three years since the shooting, police sent extra patrols past the bar, dispatched health inspectors and tasked vice investigators with looking for anything out of order, but crime reports continued to mount—from assaults and robbery to chronically loud music, fireworks, fights and unruly patrons.

Most police visits ended without an arrest or even a report, but, overall, officers were dispatched to the bar 159 times between April 2019 and March 2022, according to an analysis by the LBPD. It’s an astounding number when compared to three nearby bars, where, in the same time period, police showed up 31 times, 15 times and just two times, respectively.

By late last year, police had asked for help from the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, warning them that Bottoms Up was a problem location, according to LBPD Deputy Chief Donald Mauk.

The ABC, which is responsible for issuing liquor licenses and enforcing alcohol rules across the state, already had an investigation open, according to Mauk. In December, two undercover agents bought cocaine from a patron and watched what they believed was a drug deal by one of the bartenders, but records show the sting apparently languished, with agents not returning to the bar until months later.

Their reports and details of the LBPD’s crime analysis are part of 394 pages of public records about Bottoms Up that the Long Beach Post obtained from the ABC. They describe in detail the bar’s pervasive problems—and authorities’ knowledge of them—prior to a deadly DUI crash that made Bottoms Up infamous beyond its neighborhood.

The crash killed 3-year-old Samantha Palacios and her father Jose, a 42-year-old man from Durango, Mexico, who’d married his teenage sweetheart after they moved to the U.S. They were asleep in their apartment across from Bottoms Up when a pickup truck smashed through their wall on March 1.

Samantha out on a walk around the neighborhood before her death. Photo courtesy of Esnelia Palacios.

Authorities say the suspected driver, 24-year-old Octavio Montano Islas, had just left Bottoms Up when he crashed. He ran from the scene and remains at large.

After the wreck, police and the ABC moved swiftly to uncover what accountability the bar might have. Investigators seized video footage from inside, where authorities say Islas can be seen downing beers for several hours.

He appeared drunk in the footage—spilling, stumbling and losing his phone—according to the ABC agent who reviewed the footage, but, the agent wrote, there wasn’t enough evidence to show the bartenders recklessly or willingly over-served him.

“There was no house knowledge of the sales of alcohol to an obviously intoxicated person,” he wrote, and therefore recommended against disciplining Bottoms Up in connection with the deadly crash.

But, the agent wrote, after seeing hours of video from the bar, there was plenty of other bad behavior that warranted punishment.

He’d watched as bartenders gave lapdances and let customers grope them during body shots—both violations of Bottoms Up’s license.

At one point on the evening of March 1, the video shows one bartender “giving a lapdance to a customer in the parking lot,” the agent wrote. As she dances, “a woman pushing a baby stroller can be seen walking in the background.”

A screenshot from a video included in a report from the ABC that describes a Bottoms Up bartender giving a lapdance in the parking lot.

To bolster their case against Bottoms Up, the agent also watched video from Feb. 19 and 20, when police got complaints about the bar over-serving another patron.

Video shows security guards throwing out the man, according to the agent’s report, but he’d arrived already drunk and employees served him only one drink, so discipline wasn’t warranted, the agent wrote. The footage, however, revealed an entirely new category of misbehavior: potentially cheating customers.

It allegedly shows Suzanne Blevins, one of the Bottoms Up’s owners, behind the mostly empty bar where she was combining bottles of alcohol and pouring liquor from one brand of bottle into another—both violations of the law that can carry misdemeanor penalties.

When confronted about this later, Blevins and her husband, Marlow Stanford, denied the accusation until they were shown the video footage, according to the ABC’s account. Blevins then insisted she wasn’t trying to pass off cheaper alcohol as a better brand. Instead, she said, she was pouring high-end vodka that didn’t sell into bottles of lower-end vodka that was more popular—a violation nonetheless.

As agents probed the bar’s role in the crash, another team from the ABC was also targeting Bottoms Up. The undercover visits that started in December resumed on March 18—just weeks after the crash that killed Palacios and Samantha.

Agents quickly scored more drugs, according to their reports, by buying marijuana from the bar’s security guard. Soon, the ABC alleges, the guard was arranging to have Percocet pills, ecstasy and cocaine delivered to Bottoms Up for them.

The operation culminated on April 21 when agents raided the bar during the final $900 drug deal and arrested the guard.

Meanwhile, the neighborhood renewed its pressure campaign against the bar. Relatives of the Palacio family organized a protest, and city officials received a barrage of complaints describing how residents feared letting their kids play outside lest they be hit by an intoxicated driver or witness drunken patrons having sex near the bar’s garbage cans.

Members of the Palacios family hold up signs calling for the closure of Bottoms Up Tavern earlier this year. Photo by Fernando Haro.

In a letter to police, state regulators and local politicians, a coalition of community groups said Bottoms Up “offers no redeeming value to our neighborhood nor have the owners ever participated in any efforts to improve their operations in our neighborhood.”

Because the ABC cleared Bottoms Up of any wrongdoing in Palacios and Samantha’s deaths, the agency instead relied on those more mundane infractions, the ones neighbors complained about for years, to put the bar out of business.

In June, the agency accused Bottoms Up of 23 violations, including multiple counts of allowing lewd conduct and drug activity. The ABC also brought accusations that Bottoms Up was a neighborhood nuisance and a drain on police resources based on the LBPD’s analysis.

Police had been moving in the direction of a nuisance case against Bottoms Up even before the deadly DUI, according to LBPD’s Mauk.

“Unfortunately,” he said, “it just takes a lot of evidence and a lot of time to build cases to get to where we need to go to have a successful nuisance [case] because they’re very in-depth.”

Faced with the overwhelming accusations, Blevins and Stanford agreed to shutter the bar by July 31 and surrender their liquor license if they couldn’t find someone to buy it.

Blevins says backlash from the deadly crash unfairly drove them out of Long Beach even though investigators couldn’t prove Bottoms Up bartenders over-served the driver.

“To save face in the community, and with the accusations being proved false the political circus started,” she and Stanford said in an Instagram post. “Thusly the city had to find something to close us down.”

In an interview, Blevins said the ABC relied on petty violations, the kind she contends they could find at any bar.

She defended her bartenders, saying they were afraid to stop drug deals or kick out problem clientele for fear they’d be attacked. That’s something she said the politicians and other people railing against her don’t understand, “because you’re too afraid to go in the bar at night.”

Blevins said she’s been trying to sell the bar for years but buyers were deterred because of crime in the neighborhood. Now, she and Stanford have simply given up on doing business in Long Beach.

But records show they won’t have to go far. They operate several bars, including two just a few miles away in Bellflower: Bottoms Up Bar on Artesia Boulevard and Bottoms Up Tiki Lounge on Alondra Boulevard.

Both locations have had their liquor licenses suspended in the past, one as recently as last year for accusations that included being a nuisance to the neighborhood, ABC records show.

Bottoms Up’s long string of violations in Long Beach isn’t likely to affect the chain’s ability to operate elsewhere. Even if they’re owned by the same person, each premise has its own license, meaning a violation at one location “does not necessarily impact the track record of another location,” ABC spokesman John Carr said.

A crash, 3 deaths and questions of blame

Jeremiah Dobruck is managing editor of the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @jeremiahdobruck on Twitter.