By Van Smith
Published by City Paper, June 11, 2003
Nicholas Argyros Piscatelli, owner of the posh downtown nightclub Redwood Trust, plans to sell the business to one of the club’s DJS for $350,000, according to a transfer-of-ownership application filed at the Baltimore City Liquor Board on June 3. The transfer proposal comes a month after Piscatelli was convicted of drunk driving in Baltimore City District Court, and six weeks after Redwood Trust manager Jason Convertino was murdered in an execution-style double homicide at his rented Fells Point home. Piscatelli appealed his drunk-driving conviction, and the murders remain unsolved.
On May 2, Piscatelli pleaded not guilty to driving while impaired by alcohol before Baltimore District Court Judge Askew Gatewood. The judge found him guilty and handed him a 60-day suspended sentence, supervised probation for one year, a $200 fine, and a 24-year alcohol restriction on his driver’s license. According to court documents, the lengthy alcohol restriction means Piscatelli is “to not drive a motor vehicle after having consumed any amount of alcohol.” Piscatelli appealed the conviction to Baltimore Circuit Court on May 29. While a drunk-driving conviction on a liquor-license owner’s record doesn’t look good, it is not sufficient cause for losing one’s liquor license, according to Liquor Board deputy executive secretary Jane Schroeder. “The only thing that is an absolute bar [to holding a license] is a felony conviction,” she says.
The 55-year-old Piscatelli also has a prior criminal record. In Howard County in 1996, he pleaded guilty to the possession of cocaine and driving while under the influence of drugs and alcohol, and received probation. In the summer of 2001, Piscatelli sought twice to have his Howard County criminal record expunged and was denied both times.
As of press time, Piscatelli had not returned calls for comment. Attorney Peter Prevas is representing him on the drunk-driving appeal, and when asked if the conviction and the proposed Redwood Trust liquor-license transfer are related developments, he said, “I’m not aware of the transfer application, so I don’t know how to answer the question.” Melvin Kodenski, Redwood Trust’s Liquor Board attorney, declined to comment, saying, “Nick hasn’t authorized me to talk to anybody” about the pending application.
Other than Redwood Trust, Piscatelli has significant interests in Baltimore real estate. As he explained in a letter to the Liquor Board in 2000, he is a developer with a yen for investing in historic commercial properties–including the Jackson Towers in Bolton Hill and the Standard Oil building on St. Paul Place. One of his companies, American Dream Homes, won a contract in 2001 from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to handle listings of HUD-owned properties in Baltimore.
The murder of 31-year-old Redwood Trust manager Convertino (pictured, above left) was discovered on April 16, when three friends kicked in the door to his residence at 1917 Gough St. and found two dead bodies: Convertino’s and that of 22-year-old Sean Wisniewski (pictured, above right). A single bullet to the head had killed each. The crime has sent shock waves of concern through Baltimore’s nightlife community, and speculation as to the reason for the murders has been rife.
Convertino moved to Baltimore from Rockville last fall and, in addition to managing Redwood Trust, had recently started a nightlife promotions company called J. Michaels Entertainment. Previously, he had been owner or co-owner of several clubs in Binghamton, N.Y., according to press accounts there. Wisniewski, a Virginia resident, worked for Buzzlife, a nightlife promotions company based in Washington, D.C., that holds Saturday-night events at Redwood Trust.
Redwood Trust, housed in the historic Mercantile-Safe Deposit and Trust building on East Redwood Street downtown, has periodically been the subject of controversy since shortly after it opened in the fall of 2001. In December of that year, liquor inspectors raided the establishment for operating after 2 a.m., despite the fact that the city zoning board had given its approval for the club to remain open, alcohol-free, until 4 a.m. The early-morning raid, during which Redwood staff threatened and intimidated liquor inspectors, sparked a legal battle that still endures. The Maryland Court of Appeals heard arguments in March, but has yet to issue an opinion on whether Redwood has the right to host after-hours dancing.
In February 2002, Redwood Trust made headlines again, when Baltimore Ravens defensive end Michael McCrary told police he was assaulted by patrons at the club and suffered a cut to his nose that required stitches. Within days, the Baltimore homicide unit, which investigated the case because of McCrary’s high-profile status, executed a search-and-seizure warrant at Redwood. Backing the homicide unit were members of the police vice squad, which seized small quantities of cocaine and other drugs at various locations inside the club. As a result of the drug find, the Liquor Board charged the club with a narcotics violation, but found it not guilty.
“The fact [is] there were drugs there, obviously,” Liquor Board Commission Chairman Leonard Skolnik said at the June 6, 2002, hearing on the narcotics violation, according to a hearing transcript. “There’s no question. Even though, whatever you call it–it’s not guilty. There’s no way that we can hold the licensee responsible for some drugs that were on the floor. Obviously, you got to be careful, your people are careful, you got to make sure they understand people can’t use drugs in your establishment. That’s it.”
In addition to the controversies surrounding the club and its owner, there is also some question about who, exactly, owns the club. From Redwood Trust’s earliest beginnings in 2000, Piscatelli has represented himself to the Liquor Board as the sole owner of the club and the real estate where it operates. The reality, as reflected in press accounts, Liquor Board documents, and interviews, is that Piscatelli appears to have partners in both the nightclub and the property.
The company that owns the building, 200 East Redwood St. LLC, purchased it for $500,000 in May 2000 and reportedly sunk at least another $1 million in improvements–work that last year garnered a historic-preservation award from Baltimore Heritage, a local preservation-advocacy group. Press reports and records in the Liquor Board files, however, reflect at least one other partner in the real estate: Paul Chrzanowski. In several Liquor Board reports on the club, inspectors reported that Chrzanowski represented himself to them as the property owner.
Chrzanowski also holds the liquor license for Club 2314 on Boston Street in Canton (formerly Fusion and, before that, the Spot) and owns 1722 N. Charles St., which houses after-hours club 1722. In the fall of 2001, 29 patrons were arrested at 1722 and police seized 41 bags of cocaine, 183 doses of Ecstasy, and 82 small plastic bags of the club drug ketamine. Michael Kohl, who has worked as a manager of Redwood Trust, runs 1722.
Redwood Trust LLC is the company that owns the nightclub. Piscatelli has repeatedly claimed 100 percent ownership of the company in Liquor Board documents. A brief conversation with the proposed new owner, Redwood DJ Leonard Kern–who formerly worked as manager for Chrzanowski at 2314 Boston St.–reflects otherwise.
“I’m presently one of the owners there,” Kern told City Paper on June 3, even though the transfer of ownership has yet to be approved by the Liquor Board. “I filed to be added to the license,” and Piscatelli is to be “taken off the license,” he explained before cutting short the interview and saying he’d call back after conferring with his attorney.
In a June 5 follow-up interview, Kern said, “It’s really nobody’s business” who owns the club. The transfer application reflects that Kern has put $5,000 down on the $350,000 purchase price, and that he will lease the building for five years at $12,000 a month–twice the $6,000 monthly rent the business was paying previously. Kern’s attorney, Melvin Kodenski, told City Paper that “it’s probably better to talk to the principals” about the proposed sale of the club.
The Liquor Board’s Schroeder says applications for transfers are made “under penalty of perjury,” so ownership information provided in the application is presumed to be true.
“It was always my understanding that Piscatelli was the 100 percent shareholder,” she says. Information to the contrary “suggests that the person has lied” in the application, she says, and “we would follow up” to ascertain whether that in fact happened.
If it were determined that ownership of the club was misrepresented, the Liquor Board could charge the club with a violation and bring it before the board’s commission for a hearing. When asked about Kern, Schroeder says, “I don’t think he’s shown up as an owner prior” to the pending application.