Legendary Colfax dive Hangar Bar faces city shutdown after customers’ alleged crack bust

The city claims it’s a “nuisance” because customers sold drugs at the bar.

Hangar Bar on East Colfax Avenue, July 27, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Hangar Bar on East Colfax Avenue, July 27, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

(Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

staff photo

The Hangar Bar on East Colfax Avenue could be forced to close its doors next week, just as it planned to celebrate its 80th anniversary, according to owner Lorie Thomas.

“Well, you can probably just go ahead and write the Hangar’s obituary at this point,” she wrote in a Facebook message to Denverite on Monday afternoon.

The bar is the subject of a “nuisance” investigation by the city government. Under Denver’s laws, the city can take legal action against the owners of property where suspected criminal activity occurs.

The little old bar with the shingle roof is a mainstay of the East Colfax neighborhood, with an oversized beer-can B-17 bomber hanging over its bar.

What happened?

In this case, the allegation is that people sold drugs in the bar.

A legal affidavit by Det. Alex Busse claims that an undercover officer on April 18 bought crack cocaine from a man on the back patio of the bar. A woman was subsequently arrested with about 0.5 grams of the drug. An hour later, an undercover officer allegedly made another buy, and a man was reportedly arrested with $2,500 and 45 grams of cocaine base.

The affidavit made no allegation that the bar’s ownership or staff were involved in the transactions. Thomas said that the people accused in the bust were not employees, and that she has now banned them from the bar.

In one of the cases, an undercover officer reportedly approached a man who was standing in front of the bar to initiate the transaction.

Later, an officer told a bartender that he was waiting for one of the suspects.  “Oh, is she talking?” the bartender replied before throwing up his arms and walking away.

What is the city doing?

Regardless of whether the bar’s staff was involved, Denver’s laws allow the city to pursue “nuisance” cases against any property where certain crimes — such as drug dealing or prostitution — are committed.

The city now is pursuing a temporary restraining order, which could shut down the bar while a trial proceeds. That will be the subject of a court hearing on Aug. 13.

Eventually, a judge could order the bar closed for one to three years or more under city law. But Thomas still has a chance if she can prove it wasn’t her fault.

She would have to prove that she didn’t know and shouldn’t have “reasonably” known about the criminal acts or suspects, and that she took reasonable steps to prevent the activity. If she proves that, she could be ordered to fix the problems instead.

The building went up in 1924, according to property records.

Hangar Bar is at 8001 East Colfax, a part of the avenue that is still dominated by strip malls and motels where people can rent rooms for weeks to stay off the streets. A few blocks down stands a former strip club, PT’s, which the city recently purchased for redevelopment.

It first became a tavern in 1936 under the management of a woman named Rose Baker, according to the bar’s website. It has been known as “The Hangar” since 1938, when two other women took over and turned the bar into a hangout for pilots and crewmen at nearby Lowry Army Airforce Base, the website states.

Lorie Thomas bought the bar building in 2006, according to property records. She believes that the city is acting on complaints from “new neighbors,” but she’s not sure what the complaints are about, she wrote. She expressed unfamiliarity with the drug-deal accusations.

“Gentrification is bearing down on the East Colfax neighborhood like a steam train and the Hangar Bar has suddenly become ground zero in that seemingly unstoppable evolutionary process,” the owner wrote. She is hiring security, will install more lighting and will shorten the bar’s hours. Currently, it’s open from 9 a.m. to 2 a.m., according to its Facebook.

“We are open to suggestions and want to do everything we can to prevent the loss of a much beloved — and thriving — locally owned and operated business. We feel it would be such a shame to see the oldest continuously operating business in the district, with a colorful and storied 80-year history, shut down forever and have in its place another boarded up building on Colfax for the next one to three years or more,” Thomas continued.

This story was updated with further comment from Thomas.