No music, no life

Hip-hop is the third casualty in the shooting incident outside Club Elements

“All I know is I’m not going to be promoting any shows [at Club Elements] anymore,” said Keith Neves, seen here at the club.

“All I know is I’m not going to be promoting any shows [at Club Elements] anymore,” said Keith Neves, seen here at the club.

Photo By Larry Dalton

It was a grim tableau, even by the convoluted standards of street justice. The aftermath of a March 13 shooting outside a downtown Sacramento nightclub has left those close to the tragedy wondering what could have been done to prevent it.

Elias Sanchez, 26, a father of four, was gunned down in front of his wife, Sofia, at approximately 1:40 a.m. outside Club Elements, which is located at 805 15th Street. Police say the shooter, Robert Zarco, 28, then was pursued by unidentified assailants down an alley south of the club and killed with a shot in the back. Though initial reports classified the case as gang-related, authorities are now saying the shootings were the product of a long-running enmity between the victims, both of whom were from Sacramento.

Two bystanders wounded in the shooting were treated and released from the University of California, Davis, Medical Center.

Police are still investigating the case, said Sgt. Justin Risley, a Sacramento Police Department spokesman, and thus far have made no arrests. But the incident has brought an end to the hip-hop shows that helped make Elements a popular night spot. That much is clear, though between interviews with police, club owners, patrons and promoters, the explanations for why the music won’t be there anymore are nebulous at best.

Sofia said she received an urgent phone call from her husband at 12:45 a.m., asking her to come pick him up.

“My husband had called me and told me that Robert was up there and that he wanted to come home and for me to come get him,” Sanchez said. The two men, according to her, had an uneasy relationship running back to 2000, when the Sanchez family moved into an Oak Park neighbor-hood and Elias ran afoul of local gang members.

“They started asking who he is, where he’s from. He said, ‘I don’t represent nothing,’” she recalled. “They told him, like, ‘You just can’t move into our neighborhood.’”

“People shot at my house at least five times,” she said. The family left Oak Park after six months.

She also is puzzled by what she recalls as alternately friendly and hostile behavior from Zarco when her husband crossed paths with him. In 2002, Sofia said, she and Elias jumped into their vehicle and fled after Zarco and another man confronted him at a gas station. A few months later, she said, the two men crossed paths at a Wal-Mart and exchanged greetings.

That same dichotomy is what witnesses remember the night of the shooting. According to several witnesses, the two men shook hands and apparently made up after a confrontation inside the club.

Police say that Zarco then waited outside and shot Sanchez after he left Elements with a group of friends after the club closed. Sofia had arrived to take him home, but he never made it.

“His last words to me were, ‘I’m good. I’m good,’” she said. “He’d just finished telling me how Robert was buying him drinks and everything was fine.”

Ironically, the hip-hop at Elements was something far removed from the canned stylings of commercial gangster rap. Promoter Keith Neves, who booked artists for the club’s weekend shows for eight months, said he booked hip-hop artists who were political, uplifting and atypical, blending a mélange of jazz, Latin and funk offerings in addition to a stripped-down drum-and-bass set by DJ Brian Frost.

“It was as far from ‘bling bling’ hip-hop as you could get,” said Neves. “We really tried not to play any of that kind of stuff.”

“The level of talent coming out of that place was uncanny,” said Nino Machado, owner of Twelves Wax Emporium, a downtown record store. “They made a conscious effort not to play your typical commercial hip-hop there.”

“In a lot of hip-hop clubs in Sacramento, there’s just a general atmosphere of disrespect. You can only have your ass grabbed so many times before you won’t come back,” said Maura Sanford, who was a regular on weekends and was there the night of the shooting. “That didn’t happen at Elements.”

But the club did have a troublesome string of problems in the months prior to the homicides.

Sacramento police records list more than a dozen logged incidents at the club since December, including a half-dozen noise complaints, a report of a man being stabbed in the buttocks and reports of gunshots being fired outside the club on two occasions.

Police also cite the club’s impact on neighboring businesses. Noise complaints from weekend shows led the Clarion Hotel Mansion Inn to steer lodgers into rooms away from the wing on H Street across from the club.

“We tried not to rent those rooms unless we were full, because the noise was so bad,” said the hotel’s general manager, who did not want her name used.

Risley added that hip-hop is not being blamed for the incident.

“The issue has nothing to do with music to us. It has to do with behavior. It just happened that night, and that’s why they’re making the assumption, but that’s not the case at all,” he said.

The club’s manager, Eric Shipman, said the club would continue to play hip-hop selections, but the ongoing format for weekends—once defined by artists doing material that rarely made its way into commercial-radio-station rotations—has changed.

“Elements will not have a dedicated hip-hop night,” Shipman said. He also said that the club’s staff would discuss a revised format and guidelines with DJs to help ensure the transition. In the week following the shooting, Shipman confirmed, several officers did come by the club to discuss a range of security concerns.

“All I know is I’m not going to be promoting any shows there anymore,” said Neves.

What is unclear is whether the club decided to pull hip-hop on its own or was obliged to do so in response to community pressure from those fed up with the club’s penchant for incidents. With state laws restricting security guards to within 15 feet of a club’s exits, the adjacent gray area on the sidewalks and streets was a consistent problem in the equation, without a police presence to curb troublemakers.

“Not all of these incidences were the club’s fault. How do you control people that show up and don’t act appropriately?” said Risley, who did note that the club failed to provide its required two uniformed security guards on the night of the incident. “What led up to the shooting was an indication of problems, and those were consistent with security issues.” A dozen plainclothes security staff members were on hand, but, though they can remove unruly patrons, there’s little they can do on the street.

Neves said Elements submitted numerous requests for police to bolster security, which is common for clubs in major cities.

“We were trying to get one for six weeks prior to the incident,” Neves said. “But nobody in the police department ever signed up. This could’ve been prevented if there were police officers there.”

“It’s an optional thing for officers to sign up for,” said Risley. “There is a contract rate, and we put it out on a volunteer basis for officers to sign up for. Elements did do that, but there wasn’t interest in getting officers to sign up. But that doesn’t eliminate their ability to get private security. And we are not obligated to make people work those jobs.”

“You don’t have to threaten a club, but you can mention permits and things like that,” said one local hip-hop promoter. “There’s a way to get the music pulled without having to say it, and that’s what they did.”

Frost, the DJ, believes the city of Sacramento simply doesn’t want hip-hop clubs, even before tragedies happen.

“How can we control what happens outside of the club’s doors? We contacted the police department on numerous occasions [about] hiring officers to work the club yet never got so much as a return phone call,” he said. “Yet, when the drama goes down, half the entire police force is out there? It doesn’t make sense, unless you put it together that the city sets up venues that host hip-hop to fail or to make negative headlines to warrant them to charge in and ‘rescue’ the town from all these ‘negative’ people that ‘hip-hop’ brings. It’s bullshit.”

Sofia Sanchez buried her husband March 22 and was left to shoulder the burden of two daughters, ages 10 and 2, and two sons, 7 and 5, alone.

“We met 12 years ago in Sacramento, at a baseball game,” Sofia, now 27, recalls. “A year later, we had our daughter. I was 17, and people said, ‘They’re too young. They’re not going to make it.’ Well, we did. He was my father, my best friend, my husband—he was everything. I’m not saying he was perfect, but he had nothing to do with gangs.

“I postponed the funeral, so they could bury the other man first,” she said, hoping the gesture would allay further tensions. She said she has received death threats from people vowing revenge for Zarco.

“People ask me what I want,” she said. “I want it to stop.”