2 Investigates underground industry of unlicensed, untrained bouncers

Security guards for bars and nightclubs are hired to keep patrons and employees safe, and are supposed to be licensed by California’s Bureau of Security & Investigative Services.  But 2 Investigates uncovered an underground industry of unlicensed and untrained guards throughout the state, including in the Bay Area. And experts say it's putting customer and bouncer safety at risk.

According to security consultants, some entertainment businesses are known to employ unlicensed or under-licensed guards to save money, because training typically comes out the employer’s pocket.  However, in doing so, the businesses roll the dice on public safety, experts say.

The highest level of licensing means a full criminal background check and job-specific training, which includes skills to de-escalate situations.

2 Investigates found several local cases of patrons being injured or killed by guards who were not properly licensed in the Bay Area.

"It changed everything"

On April 12, 2015, Carlos Garay was in front of Penthouse Club & Restaurant on Broadway in San Francisco. He and his brother were drinking when they tried to enter the venue.

2 Investigates obtained surveillance video showing the front door guard refusing the two entry. Garay can be seen approaching the guard when his brother got in between the two men. Video shows Garay trying to confront the bouncer a second time time when a different man, later identified as the bartender, suddenly punched Garay.

“Last thing I expected was to get assaulted by the workers at the business,” said Garay.

It wasn’t the punch that got local law enforcement involved, but rather what happened next. With Garay down but seemingly still conscious, video shows the bouncer launched forward stomping on Garay’s head.

“It changed everything,” said Alyssa Saenz, Garay’s girlfriend and mother to their 10-year-old son. “I saw employees coming out and standing there around watching…like it was a show.”

The guard, Jared Welty, is serving five years at San Quentin State Prison for felony assault. Garay suffered traumatic brain injury, and doctors removed the right side of his skull leaving him with memory loss and seizures.

2 Investigates also found another case in the South Bay, but this altercation ended with a dead customer.

In June 2015, San Jose police detectives ruled the death of 24-year-old bar patron Danny Esquivel a homicide. According to police reports obtained by 2 Investigates, Esquivel was at Myth Taverna and Lounge on Post Street. Security cameras recorded Esquivel with the front door guard, Jose Bonilla, when Bonilla punched Esquivel twice.  

Video shows Bonilla threw a punch so hard that the force propelled him into the middle of the street. According to the police report, Esquivel “fell to the ground, striking his head on the concrete.”

When Esquivel arrived to the hospital hours later, he was pronounced dead.

“I feel like he died alone. That’s probably one of the hardest things as a mom to feel,” said Blanca Martinez, Esquivel’s mother.

In the guard’s police interrogation interview, Bonilla gave two accounts of what happened saying, “We shut the door and that’s it.” The detective accused Bonilla of lying. The third time, Bonilla told a final version.

“[The customer] gets in my face. He swings at me, and hits me in the chin, and that’s when I react. I was scared. I never did anything like that. Didn’t know it was going to turn like that,” Bonilla said. “I never meant for any of this to happen. I might be calm right now talking to you, but I’m dying inside.”

Bonilla served eight months in jail for involuntary manslaughter.

2 Investigates found court depositions reporting “employees at Myth were told by management not to call 911 for the victim.”

SnapChat video captured the moments after Esquivel was punched. You see a man helping put Esquivel’s lifeless body into a pedi-cab. It does not appear 911 was ever called.

Someone in the video can be heard saying “Hold his neck, bro" as several people load Esquivel's body into the pedi-cab.

According to court records, it’s unclear why staff did not call an ambulance. However, security consultants speculate some businesses tell staff not to immediately call 911, rather to contact a supervisor. This is done to avoid adding to the number of police response calls involving their business, making it appear to be a trouble spot in the city, according to some experts.

“I never got a chance to say bye to him. I never got to see him in the hospital,” said Martinez. “If you’re going to be working in the public like that, you need to make sure you know how to handle those situations.”

Martinez told 2 Investigates she wonders what good are laws if they’re not followed or enforced.

Underground industry

2 Investigates found at both Penthouse and Myth the bar security guards involved had canceled licenses.

“It’s probably 70% that are not truly licensed,” said Robert Smith, the President and CEO of Nightclub Security Consultants. “The biggest loophole being used is that club operators will hire the cheapest level of guard which is the Guard Card.”

Smith said getting the so-called Guard Card is receiving the most generic form of training. He compares bar and security having only the Guard Card to a semi-truck driver only having a basic driver’s license.

At Penthouse and Myth, Jared Welty and Jose Bonilla not only had canceled licenses, but they only had canceled Guard Cards.

2 Investigates went to Sacramento to speak with an official with the state department that oversees the security industry. Veronica Harms with BSIS said the bureau can partner with local law enforcement to take action against a business. She said they usually find out about unlicensed activity from the public or news agencies.

“We encourage people to notify us at any point in the process. If there is any harm to the public that jurisdiction would fall to local authority,” Harms said. “We hear from consumers on a regular basis and from the public of unlicensed activity. We know it does exist, and we are doing our best to stay up to date on taking action as we can.”

The public can e-mail the Bureau at bsis.incidentreports@dca.ca.gov regarding any violent incident encountered involving guards/businesses in California. You can also look up a license or report unlicensed activity at www.bsis.ca.gov.

2 Investigates tried reaching out to the owner of both Myth Taverna & Lounge and Penthouse Nightclub. One of the men listed on the business license as an owner of  Myth said he was not involved in the club’s operations and was not present on the night of the incident. The owner of Penthouse never responded to 2 Investigates’ requests. 

Written by Investigative Reporter Candice Nguyen