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Underage and overserved: Prosecutor says law goes easy on bartenders

Underage and overserved: Prosecutor says law goes easy on bartenders

By Ken Kolker
June 13, 2024

PORTAGE, Mich. (WOOD) – Police in Kalamazoo County wanted to charge a bartender with a 10-year felony for selling $220 worth of alcohol to a 19-year-old, who then died in a fiery crash.

But Kalamazoo County Prosecutor Jeff Getting said he was surprised to learn that while state law would allow him to charge the host of a graduation party with a felony, those who sell alcohol for a living, including bartenders, are protected.

He charged the bartender at Long Lake Tavern in Portage with a misdemeanor, carrying up to 60 days in jail, for serving 19-year-old Wyatt Taylor in November.

“I can’t charge the felony, but if it was you at your home who was providing the minor with alcohol, I could charge you with the felony,” Getting said. “I think it’s very frustrating.

“Frankly, I don’t see why you would treat the bartender differently than you would treat the host of a graduation party,” he continued. “That is their job; they’re a professional. I think they should be held at least to the same standard.”

Police reports show that Taylor drank at the Long Lake Tavern and kept drinking until he was drunk.

“He was a good kid who did a dumb thing, and he paid his price,” his mom Tonya Taylor said. “I’m not saying my son didn’t consume the booze. I’m not. But at some point a 19-year- old who doesn’t drink and isn’t accustomed to the effects of alcohol … This wasn’t like an uncle giving him his first beer, or sneaking beer out of someone’s liquor cabinet, or somebody even giving him two beers.”

“They served him until he was so drunk he probably didn’t know what he was doing when he left,” his dad Andrew Taylor said.

Police reports obtained by Target 8 show their son’s bar tab from when it was opened just after 11 p.m. Nov. 25 until just before 1:30 a.m. In two and a half hours, he bought two shots of Seagram’s, one shot of Captain Morgan rum, three cans of Busch Light, one bottle of Bud Light, two shots of Western Sons vodka, two shots of 1800 Silver tequila, two shots of Glenlivet whiskey and 18 Jager bombs – shots of Jagermeister liqueur dropped into energy drinks.

Also an order of hot pepper cheese balls. The tab: $220.46, plus a $110 tip.

“Eighteen Jager bombs, four or five beers, a bunch of mixed drinks, some other shots, and they sold it all to a 19-year-old kid,” his dad said.

“Somebody reduced his life to a $110 tip,” his mom said. “That’s how I feel. That’s not fair.”

They wonder if he bought some of those drinks for friends, though police reports don’t indicate that.

“There’s no way he could have drank all that,” his dad said.

“I don’t think he could have drank it all,” his mom added, “but on the other hand, how does a 265-pound kid get to a BAC of .204 four hours after?”

Wyatt Taylor was their only son, the youngest of two children.

“He was a good kid, hard-working kid,” his dad said.

He was 12 when he plowed driveways with dad’s four-wheeler, making enough to buy his own 4×4.

“He was driven,” said his mom. “He had two trucks, snowmobile, snowmobile trailer, dirt bike. He paid for all that, at 19.”

He was working as an apprentice tin knocker, doing duct work for W. Soule at Pfizer. He planned to save $100,000 for a down payment on his own house.

“He was my best friend,” his dad said tearfully. “It’s hard for me to talk about.”

They say that as far as they knew, the only drinking he did was with them at home.

“He would drink here once in a while, have a beer or two,” according to his dad.

His parents said Wyatt Taylor had gone to the Long Lake Tavern that night with his dad and sister, then decided to stay after they left. Reports show his sister argued with him after seeing him with a beer at the bar.

“She was, ‘Don’t be drinking brother, don’t be stupid, come home.’ ‘I’m right behind you sister,'” the mom said.

At 11:39 p.m., he sent a photo on Snapchat from the bar, with two cans of Busch Light in front of him.

Just before 7 a.m. the next day, about five hours after closing and after sleeping in his car in the bar parking lot, he headed home – still drunk.

A camera captured the car he was driving, a Toyota, leaving the bar. Seconds later and a mile to the north, another camera picked up a Ford Freestyle headed north on Sprinkle Road in Portage, then Taylor’s car speeding behind it.

He slammed the Ford into a utility pole. The other driver suffered a broken arm and minor head injury.

The Toyota caught fire with Taylor inside.

Tests showed he was driving up to 118 mph just before the crash, with a blood alcohol content level of .203 – more than double the legal limit.

The parents got a call from the hospital.

“Before I answered the phone, I said, ‘Something’s wrong with Wyatt. I didn’t hear him come home,'” his mom recalled.

On their way to the hospital, they looked left and saw the flashing lights down the road.

“We kind of had a feeling,” his dad said.

“I was expecting them to come in and say, ‘Your son is in surgery. He’s got some broken bones,'” his dad said. “But that was not the case.”

“The worst part was when they put us in there, we couldn’t touch him because there was a police investigation,” his mom said. “Your knee-jerk reaction is to run in and grab your baby. That’s always going to be my baby.”

The parents said they want somebody other than just their son to pay.

“I would like to see the bar lose their liquor license,” Taylor’s dad said. “They shouldn’t have a liquor license. At some point, there’s a responsibility. I understand the person who goes in there and drinks, it’s their responsibility, too, but you can’t serve someone till they’re blackout drunk.”

When police asked the bartender if Taylor was in the tavern that night, she responded: “Do I need a lawyer?”

“I don’t want to see her spend like her life in jail, she’s just a young girl, made a mistake, but on the other hand she’s got to realize that she’s responsible for those people,” Taylor’s dad said.

The bartender’s attorney, Don Sappanos, a former bar owner himself, said the woman plans to turn herself in for arraignment.

“Certainly, she feels horrible about it,” Sappanos said.

He said it’s not clear why she served him.

“I’m not sure if he had a fake ID or any of that, or she just didn’t card him. In any way, it still falls on her. It’s her responsibility,” the attorney said.

Police report shows the parents later went through their son’s wallet and belongings and found no fake ID.

The bartender’s attorney was told that Taylor’s friends walked him out and hid his keys so he couldn’t drive.

“Should they have gone farther? Should the bar have gone farther? I’m sure they’ll look at that in the future,” he said.

The Michigan Liquor Control Commission has filed a complaint against the bar, accusing it of serving a minor. A hearing is scheduled for late June.

Long Lake Tavern has a short history of violations: fines in 1999 for selling three times to minors and in 2018 for a gambling infraction.

State records show the bar is licensed to Linbo ventures and that Lisa Goff is the president, treasurer, secretary and director. Goff told police she was “holding” it for sale and had no ownership stake after the owner, Robert Sanders, died three years ago.

“I don’t want ’em to make any money off that liquor license,” Taylor’s dad said.

The parents said they want their son’s case to send a message.

“Call an Uber,” the mom said.

“If you’re a bartender and somebody is obviously intoxicated, try to help them, try to get ’em a cab, instead of just sending them on their way,” his dad said. “It’s like giving a depressed person a gun and saying, ‘Have a nice day.'”