Police aren't directly blaming bars in Oak Bluffs for the July drowning death of a 38-year-old Watertown man, but toxicology tests released to state police last Wednesday proved the victim's blood alcohol level was well over the legal limit when he fell into the harbor just steps away from five waterside restaurants that serve alcohol.
The autopsy report adds fuel to a police crackdown on town bars and restaurants charged with violating liquor licensing regulations.
"The person who walked into the harbor was highly intoxicated. Whether he was drinking in public or in a liquor establishment, it should have been stopped. Someone could be alive today," said Oak Bluffs police Det. Warren Gosson. "Liquor enforcement is a very important element of the police response to public safety."
State police investigated a tip that the drowning victim, John L. Travers, had been drinking after hours at a restaurant on the harbor, but could not prove the allegation. He was last seen on the bulkhead at about 3:30 a.m., according to police.
"He was definitely well over the legal limit," said state police Sgt. Jeffrey Stone. "According to witnesses, he had been drinking all day at private parties and at establishments all over the downtown Oak Bluffs area."
The medical examiner's report found that Mr. Travers's intoxication "was definitely a contributing factor to his death," Sergeant Stone said.
In the aftermath of the drowning, some residents and town officials have raised concerns about the growing liquor scene, especially near the harbor. Last winter, selectmen granted an all-alcohol license to Mark Wallace for a new restaurant he was planning to build on the harbor, now called Menemsha Blues.
Selectmen also approved a request from Nancy's Snack Bar owner Douglas Abdelnour, upgrading his license from beer and wine only to include hard liquor. The snack bar has since expanded to the second floor, and now includes a 140-seat indoor restaurant and an outdoor bar overlooking the harbor.
All told, Oak Bluffs selectmen have issued 26 seasonal or annual liquor licenses - 15 for beer and wine and 11 for all alcoholic beverages. Edgartown, in contrast, has granted slightly fewer alcohol licenses, 22 in all.
Members of the harbor management committee have questioned what they perceive as the newly sanctioned bar atmosphere along the harbor.
But police say expansion of the scene on the Oak Bluffs harbor is not necessarily a bad thing. The diffusion takes some pressure off Circuit avenue, where drinking establishments traditionally have been concentrated, said Detective Gosson.
On the other hand, said Sergeant Stone, the harbor is "out of the way and a tough place to see what's going on. It's a whole different scene on that strip than it was 10 years ago."
Last month, Oak Bluffs police officers on foot patrol reported violations at two restaurants on the harbor, charging that one, Tsunami, had allowed after-hours drinking, and another, Fishbones Cafe, had permitted patrons to consume alcohol off the premises on the town bulkhead.
At a hearing last Tuesday night, selectmen ruled that both restaurants had violated regulations and issued them a warning. They could have opted to impose a $300 fine or a five-day suspension of their liquor licenses for a first offense.
Fishbones owner Sean Murphy had argued that police had failed to prove that the people they witnessed drinking on the bulkhead near his restaurant had obtained their alcoholic drinks from Fishbones.
Oak Bluffs police were back in the bars over Labor Day weekend, making sure that license holders were abiding by the new regulations. After two nights in the bars, police ended up charging the owner of the Lampost, Peter Martell, with four counts of hindering and delaying a police investigation.
According to Detective Gosson, Mr. Martell refused to allow police to enter the Lampost on August 31 and Sept. 1. Police also charged Ritz Cafe owner Janet King-Stead with one count of hindering police when they entered the bar over the Labor Day weekend and began to take into protective custody a man who appeared to be intoxicated.
Each charge could carry a $5,200 fine and jail sentence of not more than two months, the detective said.
Other alcohol license holders have also been cited for violations. According to police, the Rare Duck exceeded a noise limit, and both Balance and the Island House were over-occupied. Police have cited other license holders for minor violations such as failing to frame their alcohol permits.
Not surprisingly, some owners of bars and restaurants are bristling at the police enforcement. "This thing has gotten out of hand," said Mr. Martell, who owns the Rare Duck in addition to the Lampost. "It's getting to the point where I'm afraid to open the door because I'll be in violation of something. We need to come up with some reasonable criteria."
Mr. Martell said his staff receives special training to avoid serving a patron who is already intoxicated.
To Detective Gosson, this is the most serious issue. "Owners themselves have a duty to protect the public and their own patrons, and should shut people off when they're over-intoxicated," said the detective. "When they leave the establishment, whether on foot or in a vehicle, they're putting people in jeopardy."
Selectmen chairman Todd Rebello yesterday downplayed the controversy around alcohol enforcement in town, saying there haven't been any serious violations. "There was nobody getting out of line," he said.
Mr. Rebello recused himself from last week's public hearing where Tsunami was charged with allowing after-hours drinking. The chairman said that he was a part owner of the building where the harborside restaurant is located.
Selectman Roger Wey said selectmen need to make sure that new alcohol license holders keep the focus on serving food, not alcoholic drinks. "We don't need any more bars in town where people just go to drink," he said.