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Illinois court frees Dwain Kyles of blame in fatal fire

Dwain Kyles, the son of Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles, won a major legal victory Wednesday when the Illinois Appellate Court overturned his conviction in connection with the deaths of 21 people in a Chicago nightclub. by Jason Palmer
Special to the Tri-State Defender

CHICAGO – Dwain Kyles, the son of civil rights icon the Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles, won a major legal victory Wednesday (Nov. 16) afternoon when the Illinois Appellate Court overturned his conviction in connection with the deaths of 21 people in a Chicago nightclub.

Kyles, 55, who was born and raised in Memphis, was the part owner of the E2 nightclub in February 2003 when security guards released pepper spray into a crowd to break up a fight. The chemical irritant instead got into the club’s ventilation system and caused hundreds of partygoers to rush towards the doors in an effort to escape. During the stampede, 21 people lost their lives due to asphyxia when they became trapped in a narrow, steep stairwell.

In all, 12 women and nine men, between the ages of 21 and 43 died in those early morning hours and dozens of others were injured.

City of Chicago officials said the club should have never been open that fateful night due to a failed inspection in the months prior. One of the violations, which played a key role in the tragedy, was that the glass doors at the bottom of the stairwell opened inward, thus trapping those who could only see their escape to safety feet away.

Reached Wednesday night, Kyles, who graduated from Central High School in Memphis, said he was happy with the ruling, making his first public comments in years about the case. He blamed city firefighters and police for their response to the incident on the night of Feb. 17, 2003, and believes he and his business partner, Calvin Hollins, 61, were made to take the fall because in an incident like this “someone has to take the fall.”  

“The fact of the matter is those people died in that unfortunate situation, primarily because the city completely blew the rescue. They did not know what to do,” Kyles said.

“And as the facts come out it will become clear where the fault lies.”

City attorneys contend Kyles and Hollins intentionally ignored the housing court’s order not to open the club until the 11 violations were fixed. The club was opened for a party thrown by a private promoter. Attorneys for Kyles and Hollins argued the closing order was only for the second floor mezzanine level of the club that was used as a VIP area, not the second floor club itself, and the appellate court’s ruling agreed.

“Simply, under the facts of this case, we disagree that the formal order was as clear and unambiguous as the city maintains the law requires,” Justice Michael J. Murphy wrote in a majority opinion.

“At first blush the language appears clear, however, a review of the record before this court reveals the city’s law clerk should have included three words following ‘Mandatory order not to occupy 2nd floor’ in the formal order – either ‘of the building’ or ‘of the nightclub.’ The city asserted that if respondents had been acting in compliance with that order, there would not have been 21 dead and 50 injured patrons. There was no explanation as to how the building code violations related to the actual incident and tragic deaths and injuries.”

The building, which has been vacant since, sits across the street from what used to be the headquarters for the Chicago Defender newspaper. At the time of the incident, the building housed the Epitome Chicago Restaurant on the first floor and the E2 nightclub on the second floor. Manslaughter charges against Kyles and Hollins were dismissed but in 2009 both men were found guilty for criminal contempt because they failed to keep the facility up to code.

Kyles said his reputation has been nearly ruined by the tragedy, but said it is nothing compared to those who were injured or killed. He said he and his family have spent many sleepless nights.

Howard Ray lost his son, DeShand Ray, in the tragedy. He too believes the response by police and firefighters was inadequate, partly based on the reputation E2 had. Police had been called to the club dozens of times over the years due to rowdy and large crowds and Ray thinks that played a role in the type of response.

“I do believe had the city went in as a rescue manner and not as a riot control, none of those kids would have perished that night,” Ray said.

Chicago Congressman Bobby Rush served as a character witness at Kyles’ sentencing hearing and asked for leniency. He along with Jonathan Jackson, son of the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., said Kyles was an upstanding citizen who had done a lot for the black community. Rush also questioned the city’s initial response, which has been rebuked by the city.

Chicago Law Department Spokesperson Roderick Drew said the city was disappointed with the ruling and is pondering whether or not to appeal. He expressed concern about the victims’ families and released the following statement:

“In our view the respondents (Kyles and Hollins) violated a clear and mandatory court order. And but for that violation no one would have died or been injured at their club.”

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