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    Rajun Cajun in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood.

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    Photograph: Allison Williams

    Rajun Cajun in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood.

The E2 tragedy nine years later

The club’s former owners talk at length for the first time.


A 25-year-old mother of five, Nicole Rainey was enjoying a night out away from the kids when she was among the 21 people crushed to death at South Loop nightclub E2.

In the early-morning hours of February 17, 2003, a security guard working at the packed second-floor club above the Epitome Restaurant near 23rd Street and Michigan Avenue used pepper spray to break up a fight. Patrons panicked as they ran for the club’s main exit, and there was a fatal pileup in the stairwell that led to the building’s ground floor. A video camera captured the horror: an unmovable tangle of bodies—some lying facedown on the stairs, others horizontal on top of the heap. The official cause of death for the victims, including Rainey, according to the Cook County medical examiner, was “compressional asphyxia.” People were packed in so tightly for so long that their lives were literally squeezed out of them.

Compounding the tragedy, 30 children lost a parent that night. Rainey’s youngest, Malik, was just four weeks old when his mother died.

In November, Malik, now nine, went to his uncle’s funeral at Hyde Park’s St. Stephens Church of God in Christ. During the postfuneral meal in the church basement, he was seated across the table from a stranger who struck up a friendly conversation.

“Has anyone ever told you that you look like a young Denzel Washington?” the man asked.

“Nawww,” Malik said, blushing.

“You really do. When the girls figure that out, you’re going to be in trouble.”

Malik laughed.

The stranger, it turns out, was Dwain Kyles, 57, one of the two former E2 co-owners whom the city fingered for the tragedy. Cheryl Rainey, Nicole’s aunt and Malik’s great aunt, is a longtime family friend of Kyles. She used to be an organizer for the Rainbow PUSH Coalition cofounded by Kyles’s father, the civil-rights figure Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles, famously the man Martin Luther King Jr. was visiting when he was assassinated.

It wasn’t long before Nicole’s mother, Charlene, whom Kyles had never met, walked over to the table to introduce herself. (“I didn’t know if she was going to hit me in the head or what,” Kyles later says.)

Charlene gestured toward Malik. “You know,” she told Kyles, “that’s Nicole’s baby.” He was stunned by the revelation. “I just want to let you know that we don’t blame you,” she said.

“The reason I haven’t been in touch is because my lawyers advised me not to reach out to the victims’ families,” Kyles responded. “I still have the card I wanted to send to you after it happened.” If there was any way he could play a role in the lives of Nicole’s kids, Kyles told Charlene, he’d like to help out. After almost nine years, the door was finally open for him to make such a gesture: In November, an appeals court ruled that Kyles and his former business partner, Calvin Hollins Jr., were not at fault in the E2 tragedy.

“One of the most frustrating parts about this case has been being muzzled,” Kyles tells me as tears well up. “I could’ve been accused of trying to influence the outcome of the case, so I’ve been incapable of communicating with these families to tell them my side of the story so they would understand that I didn’t do something to cause the deaths of their loved ones.”

“It’s like you’re walking around with a tumor that’s engorged and then they remove it from your body. It’s like, ‘Ah, I feel lighter now,’ ” says Hollins, 61, of being acquitted. Three of his children were working at the club that fateful night, but none were injured.

It was mere hours after the E2 stampede when the city began doggedly pursuing Kyles and Hollins as the people allegedly responsible for the 21 deaths and dozens of injuries. The eight-year history of court battles is tortuous. In 2007, Hollins was acquitted of involuntary manslaughter after a judge threw out the case, deciding there was no proof of recklessness. A year later, the same charge against Kyles was dismissed. In 2009, Kyles and Hollins were found guilty of indirect criminal contempt for violating a Housing Court judge’s July 2002 order to close the second floor due to code violations relating to the club’s VIP mezzanine that overlooked the dance floor. Despite high-profile character witnesses including Congressman Bobby Rush, Kyles and Hollins were sentenced to two years in prison. They appealed.

Vindication finally came last November 16. A three-justice panel of the Illinois Appellate Court unanimously tossed out the criminal contempt verdict, saying the Housing Court order was ambiguous—it didn’t specify whether the club’s VIP mezzanine should have been closed, or if the order meant the second-floor club shouldn’t have been operating. “The city’s law clerk should have included three words following Mandatory order not to occupy 2nd floor in the formal order—either of the building or of the nightclub,” Justice Michael J. Murphy stated in the court’s opinion. And beyond that, he wrote, “the violation of the building court order had nothing to do with the tragedy.” The city’s law department released a statement saying it was “disappointed with the court’s decision.” (It didn’t respond to our calls and e-mails asking for elaboration on its stance.) As of press time, the city hasn’t decided whether to seek an Illinois Supreme Court appeal.

In their first at-length media interview since the E2 tragedy, Kyles and Hollins spoke with TOC about the last nine years and their plans to continue fighting the city. The appellate court’s decision gives the men additional leverage to pursue the civil suit they filed in 2008 against the city, which was delayed by their appeal. The numerous, blistering allegations levelled in the complaint include malicious prosecution; conspiracy to shut down E2 because it chiefly drew black patrons; even charges that during their investigation the morning of the tragedy, police detectives confiscated $140,000 from the club that was never returned. Principally, Kyles and Hollins allege the city made them scapegoats to distract from what they call the police and fire department’s “botched” rescue. The first-responders, the complaint asserts, waited 30 to 40 minutes before attempting to rescue those trapped. The suit asks for a judgment that would make the city pay more than $11 million in compensatory damages.

“I’m angry,” Hollins says. “The city’s case was ludicrous. They had to pin this on someone because they fucked up.”

Like victims’ family members, the pair are calling for an investigation of the E2 incident, especially what the police and fire departments did or didn’t do—a probe neither the city nor an independent entity has conducted. “We know justice has not prevailed when it comes to the full investigation of why this thing happened,” says Howard Ray. In April 2010, the 66-year-old Vietnam veteran from suburban Hillside started the Families & Friends of the E2 Victims group to unite in a push for justice. His 24-year-old son DaShand, a Robert Morris College student studying to be a sportscaster, died in the crush at E2.

As the disaster unfolded that morning, Hollins, E2’s “operations guy,” was at the club managing the staff. Kyles, the paper pusher, was asleep at his Hyde Park home. He awoke at 4am to a ringing phone. On the other end of the line, Hollins’s voice was quivering. He told Kyles to turn on the TV. News channels were already showing the gruesome images from what had just occurred. “He said, ‘People might be dead at the club.’ That was my worst nightmare in that business.”

Kyles, a soft-spoken, churchgoing father of three boys who now works in business development for the health-care industry, never fit the profile of a club owner. He was brought up at the side of his preacher dad and graduated from Georgetown University Law Center in 1979. The only remotely flashy thing about him is the small hoop he wears in his left ear.

Hollins, on the other hand, is central casting’s nightlife mogul: a quick-talking, nattily dressed name-dropper. “I knew all the celebrities in the world: Tyson, Tupac, Sinbad, Shaq,” Hollins boasts. Surprisingly, he has remained in the industry, consulting on restaurants, bars and clubs for celebrities and sports figures including Jermaine Dupri, Andre Dawson and Charles Oakley. “It’s what I know and what I’m known for,” he explains. He says he’s putting together a management staff for Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan’s upcoming Chicago restaurant.

Odd couple Kyles and Hollins met in 1982 when Hollins was looking for a lawyer to help him sue Mr. T. At the time, Hollins, a former Cook County Sheriff’s police officer, co-owned the once-popular Rush Street club Dingbats. Mr. T was then Laurence Tureaud, a door guy at Dingbats looking for a shtick so he could enter NBC’s televised “America’s Toughest Bouncer” contest. Hollins and a fellow ex-bouncer, John Bitoy, argued they created the Mohawked, chain-wearing persona for the eventual A-Team star, as detailed in Hollins’s 1988 book Mr. T: The Unmasking of a Folk Hero. On the recommendation of a friend, Hollins contacted Kyles, a lawyer who would soon work for the city’s economic development office under Mayor Harold Washington. The young attorney didn’t take the case (he referred a more seasoned practitioner; a Cook County Circuit Court judge eventually ordered Mr. T to pay $5 million), but he and Hollins kept in touch.

Kyles and Hollins’s relationship was one of convenience in at least one critical sense. In 1984, Hollins shot an unruly patron outside of Dingbats and was convicted of manslaughter. His sentence was later commuted but, as a convicted felon, he couldn’t get a tavern license. So Hollins became the silent partner with the nightlife know-how while Kyles’s upstanding name appeared on all the business paperwork.

In 1986, the pair rented the 16,000-square-foot building at 2347 South Michigan Avenue that would eventually house E2, two blocks from McCormick Place, and opened their first venture, Le Mirage, a booze-free teen dance club. Because of his position in the city’s economic development office, Kyles had the inside track on the location. “I thought if we could have a business right there on Michigan Avenue, we would do very well because we would be fed by the expansion of McCormick Place and the burgeoning South Loop.” They soon reconcepted into the sports bar Hero’s, then morphed the building into the Clique, an African-American nightclub they ran from 1990 until 2000. It became a star-spotting scene. “Jordan, Jay-Z, Puffy, Eddie Murphy,” Hollins recalls, “you never knew who was going to be there.”

In May 2000, they opened Epitome, an upscale restaurant, on the building’s first floor. They dubbed the 8,000-square-foot dance club above it E2. The place became a hot spot for fund-raisers held by African-American politicians, including a ladder-climbing Illinois senator named Barack Obama. The place also hosted shows by the likes of R. Kelly and 50 Cent. “On a good night,” Hollins says, “we’d have a line around the block.”

“Unfortunately, the police department saw our popularity as a problem,” Kyles says. Annoyed neighbors launched a petition to have the business shut down due to frequent reports of violent disturbances. In three years, officers had been called to Epitome/E2 80 times to respond to fights and even shootings, police Supt. Terry Hillard revealed in the wake of the tragedy.

“We weren’t angels,” Kyles admits. “There’s no club that doesn’t have problems. People are coming out into the street after drinking. But [police] manage it downtown, folks leaving Rush and Division sloppy, pissing and drunk. We were not an exceptional problem.”

Beginning in early 2002, Hollins and Kyles allege in their case against the city, inspectors began showing up frequently with intentions of crippling their business and bumping it out of the rapidly gentrifying South Loop. “We had people who were very close to us who worked in the police department and they would share what was said in meetings,” Kyles says. (E2 often employed off-duty police officers as security guards.) “We knew there was a determined effort to undermine our existence in that space because they were uncomfortable with our clientele: African-American professionals dining and dancing next to people who were jobless and struggling.”

On July 19, 2002, a Cook County Circuit judge ordered E2 closed for 11 code violations, including fire safety and structural problems—the most serious involving issues with the roof trusses in the building and construction of the VIP rooms. The city sought an injunction, which would’ve shut down the club while the code violations were being addressed. But seven months later, with the injunction still pending, a security guard’s use of pepper spray at around 2:18am incited a stampede toward the doorway during a popular weekly ladies’ night party.

At 2:24am, emergency dispatchers got a call from someone inside the club saying a pregnant woman had been pepper sprayed. A second caller at 2:25am reported a woman with asthma needed help. At 2:28, the fire department arrived. At this point the city’s account diverges from that of E2’s owners and victims’ families who have civil suits pending. The city maintains the emergency response was appropriate, totalling 17 ambulances and 288 firefighters, paramedics and police officers who saved lives by removing potential victims from the top of the stairwell.

But Hollins claims he witnessed firefighters putting forth no rescue effort while people were dying in the stairwell and that police handcuffed patrons attempting to go back into the club to save their loved ones. “I sympathize with the fact that they probably thought it was the usual Sunday-night brawl outside the club. They didn’t realize the magnitude until after the fact,” he says. “But as trained emergency responders, they should’ve known.” The city did not respond to requests for comment regarding these allegations in the pending litigation.

As years of court battles dragged on, millions of dollars in attorney fees took their toll on Kyles and Hollins. Both declared bankruptcy before using $2.5 million in liability insurance in 2006 to settle with the victims’ families, some of whom named Kyles and Hollins in civil suits. “It certainly was not an admission of guilt,” Kyles says. “We thought they should have the money.” (The settlement still has not been distributed by the court.)

“Financially, this has been a struggle,” Kyles says. “I’ve had to claw my way back.” He says his reputation as an attorney has been tarnished—something not even all his political and familial connections could offset. “It’s been difficult for people who would’ve tried to make opportunities for me. They have to be concerned about backlash and retribution.”

Hollins says he frequently has sleepless nights remembering his fruitless attempts to pull people from the stairwell as they died in plain sight. “I still see those faces,” he says. “I see those people reaching out to me for help, grabbing for life.”

Immediately following the incident, longtime Kyles family friend Rev. Jesse Jackson invoked race as a contributing factor to the tragedy. He publicly asked if emergency crews answered the E2 call “in riot mode or rescue mode.” Similarly, Kyles and Hollins believe those crushed to death were victims of their circumstances: African-Americans partying at a black-owned club on the South Side of Chicago. “[The first-responders’] mind-set wasn’t that these were kids in trouble. To them, these were niggers acting up,” Hollins says. “If these were white kids at the House of Blues, they would’ve brought in a bulldozer to get those kids out.”

In the weeks following the E2 tragedy, Mayor Richard M. Daley said city emergency agencies would review their responses. “We appointed a panel to look at some of the things we can change,” Daley said at a press conference. But the mayor’s appointees didn’t inquire about the emergency response; they looked instead at “building code and safety enforcement policies and procedures,” according to the panel’s final report. “It was done to make people think there was an investigation,” Kyles asserts.

The Daley panel’s findings were little comfort to DaShand’s father, Howard Ray. Neither was the city’s pursuit of Kyles and Hollins, whom Ray says aren’t to blame. The Families & Friends of the E2 Victims is circulating a petition for an independent investigation, which will be sent to the Department of Justice once the group amasses 5,000 signatures. Ray says he’s also filed complaints with the Independent Police Review Authority and the Internal Affairs Division, which investigate police conduct. Eric Muellenbach, general counsel for the IPRA, says the department will log Ray’s complaints among the 10,000 it gets yearly. But because E2 is outside the five-year window to make a complaint, it would take Supt. Garry McCarthy’s approval for IPRA to investigate. Ray has hope that will happen. “My son will not rest in peace and I will not be able to leave this earth until justice has been served,” he says.

On Friday 17, the ninth anniversary of the E2 incident, the victims’ families will gather at the site of the stampede for a memorial. “We’re going to read off proposals for the city, the state and the Chicago Public Schools to help the children that were left behind,” Ray says. Attorney Melvin Brooks, who’s representing Ray and seven of the other victims’ families in civil suits, says it’s likely his clients will finally go before a judge early this summer.

Hollins and Kyles are also awaiting their next day in court. “I pray that the city’s held liable,” Hollins says. “There are 30 kids whose parents died in this tragedy, and for nine years they’ve been without any kind of justification or financial support.”

Kyles agrees with his former business partner. “I really feel a special responsibility to those children,” he says. “We’re going to find a way to stay in their lives.” In late December, Kyles and his wife, Donna, brought Christmas presents to Nicole Rainey’s kids. They gave Malik a sweater and a remote-controlled truck. It’s a start, but it’s neither justice nor closure.

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