A student visiting New York from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore died early yesterday, apparently from a drug overdose, after collapsing on the dance floor of a popular nightclub in Chelsea, the authorities said.
The man, James Wiest, 21, lost consciousness about 6:50 a.m. inside the cavernous Twilo club, a former warehouse at 530 West 27th Street, which the city has been trying to shut down for nearly two years. The city has contended in a lawsuit that the open use and sale of designer drugs like ecstasy there creates a public nuisance.
Mr. Wiest, who was at the club with two friends from Baltimore, was taken to St. Vincents Hospital and Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead just before 8 a.m., the police said. An autopsy will be performed today to determine the cause of death, but people who were with him told the police that he had taken ecstasy, a police official said. People who take ecstasy are susceptible to overheating and dehydration, which can lead to death.
The lawsuit seeking to close the club was brought by the Police Department’s Civil Enforcement Division in November 1998, five months after another drug overdose linked to the club, said Daniel S. Connolly, a special counsel to the City Law Department.
Mr. Connolly said Jane S. Solomon, an acting State Supreme Court justice in Manhattan, declined the city’s initial request to close the club, which was based on 18 undercover drug buys made at Twilo by the police, two of which resulted in arrests. The lawsuit contends that the drug sales took place in plain view of the club’s bartenders and security staff members.
”Notwithstanding that evidence, Solomon refused to issue a closing order over the extremely strong objection of the city, through the N.Y.P.D.,” Mr. Connolly said, adding that Justice Solomon instead issued a restraining order prohibiting the club from allowing drugs to be sold on its premises.
A lawyer for Twilo, Peter R. Sullivan, said he had been told that the drug Mr. Wiest had ingested was liquid GHB, or gamma hydroxybutyrate, which is known as a date rape drug. Mr. Sullivan contended that liquid drugs are never sold inside clubs, but brought in by patrons. He said Twilo had worked hard to prevent any drugs from being sold inside the club, hiring a large, highly experienced security force that includes undercover staff members who monitor every part of the club.
”We are working very hard to try and ensure that our establishment is lawful and safe, and we are as devastated as we can be about this,” Mr. Sullivan said.
The lawsuit is continuing. Depositions and discovery have been completed and Mr. Connolly said a conference is scheduled for tomorrow to set a trial date.
A spokesman for the State Office of Court Administration, David Bookstaver, defended Justice Solomon, saying that her restraining order included provisions for regular inspections of the club and that she denied the club’s subsequent request to halt the inspections.
”At no time did the city report to the court that the terms of the restraining order were being violated,” Mr. Bookstaver said. ”At any time, they would have been able to do that.”
It was unclear last night whether the inspections were being conducted by the Police Department or some other city agency or contractor. But a senior police official said drug arrests were made at the club in 1999, after the lawsuit was filed.
A woman who knows Mr. Wiest’s family said last night that he had been a hard-working student and had not been in trouble before. She said his parents were divorced, his mother had remarried and his father, who works for AT&T, now lives in Washington State. ”This drug business is just terrible,” said the woman, who asked that her name not be used. ”He’s a very good student. I think he just graduated.”
Mr. Wiest is the second young person whose death has been linked to the club, Mr. Connolly said. The June 1998 death of Brigette Murray, a college student who overdosed after taking ecstasy at the club, prompted the undercover drug buys that led to the city’s lawsuit, he said.
Mr. Sullivan denied that the city’s litigation had been prompted by the previous death, saying there was no evidence that such a death had occurred. ”It is our understanding that the reason the litigation was brought is that the city has instituted a policy of attempting to change the way young people go out at night at nightclubs and is holding the nightclub operators responsible,” he said, adding that Twilo was a target because it is one of the city’s largest clubs.
Twilo boasts a 15,000-square-foot dance floor and a 27,000-watt sound system, which pumps out a throbbing techno beat. It is popular with people between the ages of 18 and 25, who come to dance, in many cases all night long, and lines stretching down West 27th Street between 10th and 11th Avenues are not uncommon.