DIGGING DEEPER: Did underground nightclub factor into Peoria building explosion?

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**NOTE: The video clip that appears in the beginning of this story is not located inside the former ‘Playground’ business. The operator of the former business’ Facebook page, took a live video inside of another Peoria nightclub called Status.** ‘Status Nightclub’ has no affiliation with this story, nor any of the activities mentioned below.**

25 News is digging deeper into the mysterious explosion of a south Peoria building.

Last month, 24 Peoria firefighters responded to what they thought was a vacant property.

After taking a closer look, we learned it’s not only the same place a young man was shot and killed just a week prior, but it was also the home of an underground night club.

25 News reporter Lauren Melendez is digging deeper into the activities there and if they played a role in the fire.

The single-story commercial building on W. Antoinette used to be the South Side’s hub for cheap alcohol, a quick bite and adult entertainment. Those familiar with it knew it as The Playground, but the city called it a major code violation.

From the club’s Facebook page, a typical night for The Playground was a DJ and a few dozen people having what appeared to be a good time.

A couple months after that post appeared, the club was closed.The party came to a permanent end when the building went up in flames on Sept. 29.

“The explosion occurred, and when we responded it was fully involved when we got there, and you could tell it was an explosion because of the bricks and the amount of fire,” said Stan Taylor, the Peoria Fire Prevention Chief.

Taylor says the building was vacant several weeks before the explosion, with only electricity running.

“I believe the gas was shut off,” said Taylor.

But the nature of the explosion caused them to reach out to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, an organization they only call in extreme circumstances.

“The characteristics of it he felt like it may have been a fuel vapor explosion,” said Taylor.

Taylor explains fuel vapors can be caused by propane or gasoline. The fire department began looking at the possibility of arson. He said that even before the fire, his department already had suspicions about the place.

“We had become aware that there were some activities that may have been not correct in that structure,” said Taylor.

The building’s owner, Mike Miller had been renting the property, which was in his family for years, to a tenant. That tenant, as Peoria County public records indicate, was James E. Hightower. Prior to the incident, there were no code violations listed for the property, nor any citations associated with safety.

To his customers, Hightower was known as Jig — someone who’d had a number of run-ins with police in the past.

Records show he’d been arrested for alleged offenses including criminal trespassing and possession of cocaine His most recent citation was on July 20th of this year, when Hightower was cited for selling alcohol at the club without a license.

“You’re selling alcohol without a license. That would be subject to a $500 penalty and each act is of course another penalty so it would add up kind of quick,” said Peoria city attorney Don Leist.

Hightower paid a fine in that case.

Peoria Community Development Director Ross Black said they’d tried to get a warrant to look into illegal alcohol there sooner but said it can be hard to prove these types of crimes.

“If somebody wants to have backyard BBQ, and they have 20 or 25 friends, then no harm no foul as long as they’re not charging and as long as they’re over the age of 21,” said Black.

But party promotion on The Playground’s Facebook page seemed to indicate they continued to host events, including a birthday bash with adult entertainers where they imposed a cover charge. That was technically not permitted, since the space was located in a residential neighborhood was not zoned for a nightclub.

“That’s clearly not a private residential use and it has to go through all of the appropriate processes,” said Black.

The community development director explains this constituted an illegal underground  business, posing safety threats since it wasn’t being subjected to city inspections.

“A nightclub or any other type of assembly use like that where you potentially have a lot of people in a small area, we’re going to want to make sure that there is adequate exit capacity and that there emergency lighting,” said Black.

25 News reached out to Hightower to ask him about the business and the explosion. He agreed to meet, but he never showed up to the interview location. However, in a previous phone conversation, he claimed he was trying to get his paperwork together when the club first opened.

He also said he suspects someone else torched the club. However, he’s not off the hook with authorities yet. Officials said they always speak to building owners and tenants as a general protocol in such a situation.

City leaders say if nothing else, his is an example for small business owners and entrepreneurs to do business on the books.



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