POSTED ON MARCH 5, 2008:
Portrait of "The Camel"
King of nightspots, Steve Kitchell: feared, despised, legendary among peers
Club Cracker. "He had the best thing going that you could ever see in your life," said one former associate of Kitchell's. "If you ever want to see how a club ought to be run, go watch Kitchell at work in the beginning."
"If you libel or slander me, I'm warning you--there will be horrible consequences," said nightclub impresario Steve Kitchell during a recent telephone conversation.
His ominous warning came in response to an offer to interview him after 21-year-old Eric Bell was shot to death at Club UV late last year, once again bringing the name and notoriety of longtime nightclub impresario Steve Kitchell back into the forefront of the public's attention.
During our brief but meaningful conversation, Kitchell was apparently still a bit sensitive after the Tulsa World did what he called a "hatchet job" on him in their coverage of Bell's shooting, construing him--and unfairly, as Kitchell sees it--as the owner and operator of the premises on which Bell met his end.
He seems to place the blame for his bad rap at the feet of the local media, but even if we were to stretch our creative powers to their limits to deliberately defame him with sordid made-up stories, there isn't much UTW or the local daily paper could write about him that could be worse than the exploits already attributed to Stephen Rider Kitchell, a.k.a. "The Camel," without our coverage.
If anyone who works or plays in the city's nightclub and bar scene were asked about him, the tales told would often seem more urban legend than fact, from episodes of gruesome reprisals against enemies, to his reputed lavish, cocaine-funded lifestyle full of fast cars and faster women.
He even has a business model, of sorts, named after him.
Josh Martin, proprietor of the Mercury Lounge at the corner of 18th St. and Boston Ave., has never met Kitchell. But, he appears to have caught the attention of the club lord a few years ago after he made an off-the-cuff comment to UTW's Gary Hizer about another local bar proprietor "going in and out of business in six months, Kitchell-style."
The "Kitchell style" business model, Martin explained, is common knowledge among local professionals in his line of work, exhibited by a template that patterns the nightclub operator who "opens up, hits it really hard and does everything he can to get people in the door, and then wears the scene out in six or eight months."
"That's been his (Kitchell's) mode of operation for years," he added.
Those years number around 25, which is how long the 49-year-old Kitchell has been sporadically operating in Tulsa, running about 20 different clubs at different times since he followed his parents' footsteps into the business.
"To me, Kitchell's thing is greed. He's about making money fast," said Shon Marr, who ran security for Kitchell from 1999 to August 2005 at Club Majestic, Studio 310 and the Voodoo Room.
Marr also bought the Bad Girls club (now the site of El Guapo's Cantina at 1st St. and Elgin Ave.) from Kitchell after the bad publicity and angry protests from the death of Scott Bolton slowed the crowds at the Voodoo Room to a trickle, forcing him to close up shop yet again.
"For him, it's not about longevity, it's about door money. He lets the wrong crowd in the door, and he gets too many underaged people coming in," Marr explained.
When he worked for Kitchell, he said he'd start up a new club, and business would boom at first.
"He had the best thing going that you could ever see in your life," Marr recounted.
"If you ever want to see how a club ought to be run, go watch Kitchell at work in the beginning," he added.
Marr said, for $10 at the door, and hundreds of people streaming into his club each night, Kitchell would easily make around $80,000 in one weekend, and that's before alcohol receipts are even taken into account.
But, that success had its own price.
"He'd get going, and things are going well, and he'd start getting that bad element--the gang element--that causes problems," Marr said.
As Marr hinted, Kitchell seemed to deliberately market his clubs to that particular element.
"Any time you have a club with that kind of urban feel to it, you're going to have those problems," he said, referring to shootings at Club UV and others.
Kitchell's attitude, according to Marr, is to "get their money, and if they cause any problems, we'll just throw them out," he said.
But, as news headlines over the past few years have shown, those problems often escalate before the patrons causing them can be shown to the door.
Marr was asked, how have Kitchell's clubs been any different from other Tulsa nightclubs? It's not like his are the only clubs in which violence ensues, the recent death of 23-year-old Phillip Greer at The Hive club being just one instance among many having nothing whatsoever to do with Kitchell.
Other than Greer and Bell's shootings, there have been two other club-related homicides in the past year.
After a fight inside the Trapeze Lounge on 101st East Ave.--which isn't owned by Kitchell, Jason Edwards was followed outside and shot to death last March.
Terrance Buckner was also killed under similar circumstances last March after leaving the Genesis Club at 21st and Garnett, which is also not owned by Kitchell.
Marr agreed, for the most part, that Kitchell's clubs aren't necessarily more prone to violence than others, explaining, "Since he's so (much) on the radar, every time something happens, the media's all over him."
But he said most clubs, wanting to stay in business for the long haul, are more discerning in keeping the bad element out, while Kitchell's aim is to just part anybody and everybody from their money.
"But, other clubs tend to let them in when they're slow," Marr added.
Marta Patton, deputy director of the state Alcoholic Beverage Laws Enforcement (ABLE) Commission, has a few ideas about what makes Kitchell different from the typical nightclub operator.
She told UTW that she frequently testifies against Kitchell--twice in civil cases in Tulsa County Court, and "all the time" for administrative hearings at the ABLE Commission.
Once when she was on the stand, one of Kitchell's attorneys questioned, "What's so bad about Steve Kitchell?"
"I was so glad he asked that," she told UTW.
She said he typically has 15-20 violations filed against him at any given time, from allowing minors on the premises, allowing minors to possess alcohol, or not having the bar area appropriately designated, to name a few.
"If it could be wrong, it was wrong at one of Kitchell's clubs," Patton said.
"He's always letting underaged kids in. His bouncers have even hit our agents before--after they identified themselves," she added.
True to the "Kitchell-style" business model, Club UV closed its doors within days of Bell's murder, which police characterized as gang-related.
Long before Bell's death, though, Club UV's competitors darkly referred to it as "Club Underaged Victim."
After the Club UV shooting, it came to light that the nightspot was open past the required 2am closing time by taking advantage of a city ordinance allowing clubs to stay open if they're sponsored by a nonprofit organization.
The Hive also made use of the same ordinance.
Since Bell's shooting, there hasn't been any overt action taken by the City Council to close up the loophole, but Councilor John Eagleton told UTW that the city's legal division is "actively looking at solutions" to do so.
Steve Kitchell vehemently denied any involvement in any of the club's business operations, both to UTW and to the Tulsa World.
In fact, after our less-than-cordial conversation, his attorney, Jon B. Wallis, sent a letter to UTW "to put you on notice that if you write any defamatory or incorrect information related to this incident, my client will seek all remedies available including potential punitive damages as you would now have prior knowledge as to these facts and there is ongoing litigation."
He explained that Club UV is owned and operated by Kitchell's brother, Joe Al Kitchell III, who passed away this summer.
Joe Kitchell's estate is in probate court at the moment.
"It would be incorrect and inaccurate to suggest that Mr. Stephen Kitchell has any ownership or managerial responsibility of this club," the warning letter read.
Kitchell told UTW that management of the club passed to his father after his brother died, but his father died within months of his brother.
He said it will most likely pass to his mother when the ongoing litigation involving his brother's estate is resolved.
"I'd have you talk to her if she wasn't sick, too," he said.
Steve Kitchell himself hasn't technically had sole ownership of a club in several years.
According to local folklore, that's because he can't get a liquor license because some suggest he's a convicted felon.
But local folklore, in this case, isn't true.
"He does not, to my knowledge, have a felony conviction on his record. At least, not in the state of Oklahoma," said the ABLE Commission deputy director.
"Unfortunately, there's not one thing preventing him from getting a liquor license," Patton added.
While not a felon, that doesn't mean Kitchell's record is clean.
In 1991, he was convicted for three misdemeanor counts of permitting intoxicated persons on the premises of his club.
Records from the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation also show that he was arrested in 1988 for a misdemeanor weapons possession, to which he pleaded no contest.
He was arrested again in 2004 for selling beer without a permit and attempting to sell liquor without a license, but those charges were dismissed.
He was arrested again in 2006 for threatening to perform an act of violence and for assault and battery (more on this particular Kitchell tendency later). The OSBI records did not indicate the outcome of those charges, however, and since they don't appear in court records, they were likely dismissed, or expunged from his record after probation.
Patton guessed that Kitchell doesn't have a liquor license because "he just likes to have a little buffer for himself."
Typically, he's what Patton called a "hidden owner" of his clubs.
As the Tulsa World's Clifton Adcock reported shortly after the Bell shooting, Steve Kitchell's name might not be down as the owner of Club UV, but court records name him as a shareholder in the Shark Corp., which does own it, with Joe Kitchell III listed on incorporation records as president.
"He's usually the sole stockholder," Patton said of Steve.
Also according to court records, he was the manager of The Ministry of Sound, which was the club's name before it was Club UV.
Patton said Kitchell's typical pattern is to let the aforementioned violations add up as "a part of doing business," and then go out of business before the paperwork catches up with him, thereby avoiding the fines and responsibility.
Then, he'll create a new corporation, since the new corporation isn't accountable for the misdeeds committed under the previous one, once again "running his parents out front," Patton said, or another relative, by having someone named as president other than himself.
Based on his method of running his businesses in short but lucrative, all-out sprints instead of measured, moderately paced distance runs, and maximizing his cash intake while minimizing his legal responsibility, the Mercury Lounge proprietor agreed with Marr, calling Kitchell "one of the most brilliant bar owners in Tulsa, if you're Ok with the way he does things."
Not Everybody's Business Model
But Martin, for one, is not exactly "Ok" with Kitchell's way of doing things.
"Every time he screws up, everyone else has to pay the price for it," he said.
"He gets in trouble and closes the club down after he's made his money, but the rest of us who are still in business still have to deal with the enforcement aftermath and deal with the perception that everyone in this business is like him," Martin elaborated.
He explained that when something happens at a Kitchell-associated club (remember--he doesn't "own" them), and it winds up on the evening news, the Tulsa police have to deal with the public's knee-jerk reaction of blaming them for not seeming to be doing their job.
So, to show that they're hard at work, they have to bust a few bartenders for selling to underage club goers, Martin explained, which means sting operations at his bar and others.
But, you're not selling to underage people? What do you have to worry about, if you're not doing anything wrong?
Martin answered that an oft-used police tactic is to send someone into an establishment to buy alcohol who was born in the right year to be 21 years old, but is still a few months or weeks shy. In the bustle of a crowded club on a busy night, he said, bartenders often only look at the year, but skim past the month or day of a person's birth.
Competitors' added headaches in the fallout of a Kitchell-related club catastrophe aren't the only force working against his reputation, though.
According to several people who have worked with, worked for or crossed Kitchell over the years, this reporter is hardly the first to be on the receiving end of his threats.
Through the course of our investigation, the list seemed endless of people who'd run afoul of the nightclub kingpin, with stories to tell of the bad experiences they'd had with him.
Much, much shorter, though, is the list of people willing to speak publicly about him, except on condition of anonymity.
And that's not even limited to disparaging comments, either.
"His reputation precedes him, but honestly, as a competitor, he's always been nothing less than professional. He really has treated me very respectfully," said one local bar owner.
He qualified, "That's to my face, anyway. I don't know what he does behind my back."
Even with a statement so innocuous, the bar proprietor practically pleaded that his name not appear in a story about Steve Kitchell.
Whether it is fear, caution or an attitude that there, but for the grace of code enforcement, go I, there is a reluctance--an almost frantic anxiety--among clubowners to publicly comment about Kitchell.
As for what Kitchell has done to him and other competitors behind his back--a disgruntled former employee told UTW that he's used a few underhanded tactics to give himself a competitive edge against other bars, clubs and restaurants in town.
"He'd call the fire marshal or the health department to make a complaint if he sees you're busier than he is," the source said.
And, of course, that source also refused to speak to UTW about his former boss, except on condition of anonymity.
"He's just crazy enough that I don't want my name attached to this," he said.
"He's threatened to kill me before, and was trying to find out where I live, and I've got . . . little kids," he said.
The source said he doesn't know how much bite there really is behind Kitchell's bark, but said he'd rather not put himself in a position to find out, now that he's out from underneath his thumb and past having him as a threat, or even a nuisance in his life.
And that isn't a period the source remembers fondly.
He said Kitchell's clubs are typically understaffed, and his employees are underpaid.
While that's a pretty common complaint by any employee in any industry, and with most bosses, good or bad, his complaints didn't end there.
While the pay was sparse and the work apparently outweighed it, the person said Kitchell was usually pretty good about paying them for the work they did during regular hours, "but only if you got to the bank fast enough," he qualified.
Also, if a Kitchell employee took a pre-approved vacation, it wasn't uncommon to come back to find his or her job filled by someone else.
According to this source and others, while it's an unenviable enough position being one of Kitchell's employees or competitors, it's worse being one of his enemies.
One of his most bitter nemeses' is downtown developer Michael Sager, so his contribution would be expected in any piece about Steve Kitchell.
Sager didn't have anything good to say about him, but he declined to say anything bad until an ongoing lawsuit with him is resolved.
According to what little Sager would divulge about it, according to the lawsuit he filed against Kitchell, he owes him several months' rent from the period he was leasing space at Sager's 310 E. 1st St. property for the Studio 310 club.
While Sager was tight-lipped, others were more than happy to comment on Kitchell's ways of dealing with people who cross him, but only if their statements aren't tied to them.
Death threats, promises of physical violence and other attempts at intimidation are common utterances from the lips of Steve Kitchell, according to a long line of people who've worked with him or crossed him.
"He threatened to kill me," said one.
"He told me he was going to break all the teeth out of my face," said another.
There were quite a few comments like these from reluctant and anonymous interviewees, all similar in that they recounted instances in which Kitchell allegedly threatened their lives, current facial composition, ability to walk, and other assets they preferred to keep, as well as threats of lawsuits, such as the one directed at UTW.
Tales also abound of hapless patrons in his nightclubs who offend him in some way or another and are taken into a backroom or alley by bouncers and beaten to a bloody pulp for their trouble.
Reportedly, one of his favorite methods for inflicting violence upon persons who offend him has earned him the nickname "The Camel."
According to the aforementioned disgruntled former employee, Kitchell's preferred tactic for retaliating against a perceived offense is to spit on a person to provoke an attack. Once the person responds with the predictable aggression, the entourage of security personnel with whom Kitchell surrounds himself then leaps into action, adding injury to insult.
While the stories of Kitchell's violence and thuggery seem as endless as the people willing to tell them, Marr, for one, told UTW that, while there's a kernel of truth in most of them, they're mostly tall tales.
"These rumors have been going around for years," he said.
"He's had 18, 19 or 20 clubs over the years, and the stories got exaggerated," he said.
For instance, Marr said a real life occurrence of someone getting kicked out of one of Kitchell's clubs for unruly behavior would commonly mutate after a few days into a tale of the person getting physically thrown out, and eventually snowball into an episode of someone getting dragged into a back room and beaten beyond recognition by Kitchell's henchmen, or by Kitchell himself.
"None of that crap happened when I worked for him," he said.
"The police presence was so heavy there, how could it?" he added.
But, what about the spitting?
"Yeah, he spits on everybody. That's why they call him 'The Camel,'" Marr answered.
And once someone takes a swing at "The Camel," he said the nearby security personnel "aren't going to let their employer get his ass kicked."
For the most part, though, Marr said Kitchell does his own dirty work.
Standing at 5'8," and--depending on which court and criminal records are referenced--weighing between 180 and 200 lbs., Kitchell has been described by many has being "built like a bulldog," but he apparently doesn't have a bulldog's generally docile disposition.
"I've seen him get in fist fights. He's not a pussy. He doesn't back down from a fight," he said.
Except, the fights he picks aren't always fair fights.
According to the police report for his 2006 charges for assault and battery and threatening to perform an act of violence, he had a dispute with then 69-year-old Donald Freeman over some property. Kitchell threatened him and spit on him, while his wife took pictures of the altercation with her cell phone, presumably for later enjoyment.
The police report didn't mention anything about Freeman retaliating, though. He merely wiped the spittle from his face before calling police.
Marr was also asked about the reported death threats, and threats to rearrange faces, teeth, etc.
"In the heat of an argument, he's likely to say all kinds of crazy shit, but he's too old and out of shape to do anything about it," Marr said.
But, there are also tales of Kitchell sending henchmen and enforcers to do it for him, but those, too, might also be exaggerations based on actual facts.
For instance, about a week after Hizer's article ran containing Martin's aforementioned comments about Kitchell, he said a pair of large, well-muscled men paid him a visit at the Mercury Lounge.
"You need to watch what you're saying. Steve's not going to like that," he said he was told.
As he related to UTW, Martin responded, "Then he should come tell me himself."
Kitchell reportedly never paid Martin a visit in person, and after a few beers, his paid enforcers were as friendly as could be.
"The most threatening thing about them was their size," Martin said.
That was the extent of his run-ins with Kitchell, or with Kitchell's hired goons. That is, if they actually were Kitchell's hired goons.
"I can't say for sure that they didn't come in of their own accord," Martin said.
Some of Kitchell's notoriety also comes from having been suspected in the late 1990s of being a major figure in the regional cocaine trade, but Marr downplayed that notion as well.
"They say Kitchell's a big cocaine distributor, but I never saw any drugs around when I worked for him," he said.
"The Tulsa police questioned me about it, and that's exactly what I told them," he added.
Marr said the only reason the Tulsa Police ever had for suspecting Kitchell of being a drug kingpin is that a man they arrested in the parking lot of the Ocean Club in 1997 identified him as his main supplier.
"After that, they raided his house and his club, but they didn't find anything," he said.
Marr said he "knows" that's the reason for his old boss's suspected drug involvement because the man made the mistake of showing up a few years later in one of Kitchell's clubs where Marr worked at the time.
"Kitchell threw him out and told us, 'He was the one who said I was a big-time coke dealer,'" he said.
Rather than any sordid criminal activity, Marr said, "His arrogance is what gets him in trouble."
He and others said Kitchell likes to show off the quick money he makes during his nightclub business binges, and to portray himself as a dangerous person to cross.
"He's a flashy guy--he likes to be seen in Corvettes, expensive jewelry and limos," said Marr.
"He's got the big house at the lake, the 40-foot speedboat, and he always drives Hummers and Corvettes," said another source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
This particular anonymous source also said Kitchell liked to have creditors and employees come to him to get paid, usually at his club in the mornings after a busy night, so he could use it as an opportunity to display his power and money-making prowess.
"He just likes to show off, to show you what he's got," the person said.
According to this source, after waiting in line for an audience with him to petition for their typically overdue payment--whether a bill for services rendered or a paycheck--Kitchell deliberately had creditors enter a room to find him counting the tens of thousands of dollars in cash he'd made from the previous night's earnings, with a sawed-off shotgun or two within arm's reach, and some security personnel within earshot.
"They've been robbed at gunpoint a couple of times," Marr said in explanation of the readily available heat and manpower Kitchell likes to keep on hand.
In addition to showing off his bling-bling, hired muscle and expensive cars, Kitchell also reportedly wears shirts and other merchandise from the Mirage Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, and regularly claims to be in negotiations to purchase it and move out of Tulsa to manage it.
Marr said he wasn't aware of Kitchell's rumored ambitions to take over management at the Mirage, but told UTW, "He's said for years that he's going to Vegas because he's done with Tulsa."
"I think he's just shooting his mouth off. That's a pipe dream, that he could buy the Mirage," he added.
It's that same tendency to "shoot his mouth off" that makes him seem more dangerous than he really is, Marr said.
In contrast to most of the others who spoke to UTW about Kitchell, Marr didn't care about having his name appear alongside his comments about him.
"I'm not lying, so I don't have anything to hide, and I'm not afraid of him," he said.
He also said his willingness to go on-record has nothing to do with the fact that most of his comments seem to offset much of the bad hype surrounding "The Camel."
"I hope I haven't painted a pretty picture of him. I think he's an asshole," Marr said.
"I wouldn't call him a friend. I don't think the man has any friends. Me, I've got at least 10 people I could call in the middle of the night if I broke down on the road, but he doesn't have anyone he could call. At least, no one he wouldn't have to pay," he continued.
Marr said he expects there to be repercussions after his old boss reads this article.
"I'm sure I'll get an angry phone call from him," he predicted.
Friendless he might be, but Kitchell isn't completely alone in the world.
He has a long-time fiancé, whom Marr said he met in the Ocean Club about a decade ago, with whom he has a nine-year-old son.
"I think they might be married on paper, though," he added.
For all of his well-publicized faults, according to Marr, Kitchell isn't all bad.
"He is a good father. I know that much--he's a great father to his kid," he said.
Also, Marr added, "His dad and brother were nice people, and his mom still is. His brother was a really nice guy. I don't know why Steve is the way he is."
Of course, we would have preferred to have "The Camel" himself address all the rumors and urban legends surrounding him, to comment on their basis in actual fact, but he wasn't interested.
Apparently convinced that all that bad publicity is the media's fault, Kitchell said he would only agree to an interview if he could pre-screen the questions and have full editorial control over the finished product.
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