Florida Keys News - Key West Citizen
Sunday, January 13, 2013
Iconic, deadly bar lives on in law enforcement lore

On U.S. 1 just over the Cow Key Channel Bridge on Stock Island, the site of an infamous bar and deadly crime scene now hosts a nondescript automotive parts store.

The Boca Chica Lounge, open from the 1950s to the late 1980s, is remembered in Florida Keys' crime history for its danger and violence, especially a deadly shooting in 1984.

Law enforcement officers still talk about the iconic watering hole.

And it came up at new Sheriff Rick Ramsay's swearing-in ceremony Tuesday, where Capt. Penny Phelps made up a semi-believable story about him responding to the bar as a deputy.

Ramsay was the lone road deputy for the Lower Keys that night, Phelps said, and was dispatched to subdue a "300-pound man" who had busted up the place fighting. Once there, Ramsay purportedly tricked the man into handcuffing himself, according to Phelps' tale.

The story was fiction, but violent fights and other crimes were a real, nightly occurrence at the bar, according to Ramsay, three former sheriffs and a veteran detective.

"We used to say that you never worked a shift on the road until you rolled in the mud and the blood at the Boca Chica Lounge," former Sheriff Bob Peryam said. "We were always the least-armed people when we went there."

There was nothing fancy about the joint. It was a true dive: one long bar positioned in the front room, a small disco floor and pool tables in back. The back and front was separated by a chain-link fence, which sheriff's officials speculated kept beer bottles from flying from one area to another.

The bar -- its heyday in the 1980s when drug smuggling peaked in the Keys -- was frequented by shrimpers, smugglers, thieves and drug dealers, according to Peryam. Its nickname was the "knife and gun club."

The lounge was also a late-night hangout for revelers after Key West bars closed at 4 a.m.; back then unincorporated Monroe County did not mandate a closing time for such establishments.

Former Sheriff Allison DeFoor likened the lounge to the bar in the first Star Wars movie, where Luke Skywalker was introduced to Han Solo. There were so many armed men in that fictional lounge that patrons had to pass by a "magnetometer" before entering, DeFoor said.

"It was the roughest bar I've ever seen, let alone been in," DeFoor said of the real thing. "It was one of our busiest places. It is iconic, but not in a good way."

After the Mariel boatlift, Key West became a more dangerous place, according to many longtime residents and the sheriffs. The violence at the Boca Chica Lounge climaxed in the early morning hours of April 28, 1984.

Owner Rick Berard was in the bar's office when he thought he heard "firecrackers," according to Citizen reporter Terry Schmida's book "True Crime." Berard came out to see what was going on and saw people down on the floor and hiding behind tables and chairs. In the back, Juan Valdez was on the floor with a bullet wound in his chest, soon to be pronounced dead at the hospital.

He was not the only victim. Down the road, two other men were hit and killed by a "champagne pink 1975 Cadillac," according to "True Crime." The car then missed the turn at Key West's Triangle intersection and wound up in the Quality Inn pool, sans a driver. It had bullet holes in the windshield.

Some speculated that a fourth victim, found under the Cow Key Channel Bridge, had been the Cadillac's driver.

The accounts of the incident vary, but police linked the killings to the Keys' growing drug trade. The two hit-and-run victims were Marielitos with connections to the illegal business, according to "True Crime."

Then-Monroe County Commissioner Ken Sorensen had been pushing for a closing time for bars, but the legislation was not receiving any traction from his fellow commissioners.

Sorensen's proposal actually got him in a bar fight at the time, about 90 miles north of the Boca Chica Lounge.

A patron at the Friendship Inn in the Upper Keys approached Sorensen there, remarking that the commissioner had a lot of nerve being in a bar when he was trying to impose mandatory closing times.

The altercation ended with Sorensen hitting the man with a bar stool, DeFoor said.

Sorensen later received probation for his role in the fight.

Such incidents and a desire to "not have bars open when the buses were taking kids to school" eventually led the County Commission to enact a closing time for bars -- which now ranges from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. --in February 1989, said DeFoor, who also pushed for the law.

While no records were found specifying when the Boca Chica Lounge went out of business, anecdotal accounts put its demise about the time the new law was in effect, said DeFoor, who added that the lounge's owner bitterly fought it.

tohara@keysnews.com

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