Hells Angels implicated in fire at Columbia strip club

nophillips@thestate.comApril 4, 2013 

The Hells Angels are implicated in the 2012 burning of a controversial Columbia strip club as part of an insurance fraud scheme, but only one person has been named as a suspect.

Owners of the business and the property, meanwhile, insist they were not involved in the fire at the former Crush Nightlife property at 3722 River Drive.

Crush closed last month after it became the target of Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott and 5th Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson, who were beginning to build a nuisance case against the club. The club had become a focus after repeated problems, including shootings two weekends in a row in January. Stan Hudgins, the club owner, said he shut the club’s doors after Lott’s deputies twice raided the business.

Crush caught fire in the early morning of March 8, 2012. The blaze caused an estimated $100,000 in damage. At the time, officials said the cause was under investigation. The club was rebuilt and reopened.

A document filed in U.S. District Court in Columbia said that Daniel Bifield, a former president of the Rock Hell City Nomad Chapter of the Hells Angels, allegedly was part of a group that attempted to burn the club. The reference to the strip club fire is in a footnote in a 51-page government document filed in response to a defense attorney’s motions.

“In March of 2012, Bifield – along with other named and unnamed members of the enterprise – attempted to burn down Club Crush in Columbia, SC, as part of an insurance fraud scheme. During the early morning hours of March 8, the club was partially burned down after firefighters were able to top the fire set by Bifield and his associates,” the document said.

In December, Bifield pleaded guilty to a racketeering conspiracy charge, which included arson as part of the Hells Angels’ alleged organized illegal activity. However, Bifield filed a motion in February asking to withdraw his guilty plea, and a hearing on that motion has not been held.

No other individual has been named in connection with the arson.

Efforts to reach Bifield’s federal public defender were unsuccessful.

Bifield was one of 19 Hells Angels indicted in May 2012 on a long list of charges including racketeering, conspiracy, money laundering, drug trafficking and illegal gun sales. A handful of the Hells Angels have been acquitted of the accusations, while others have been found guilty on some charges. Some cases are pending.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Beth Drake said she could not confirm or deny any ongoing investigations into the Crush fire, including whether someone else was involved in the alleged arson.

At the Richland County Courthouse, a lis pendens has been filed on the property by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The most recent filing was dated March 15, but it was the third such notice. Lis pendens notices typically are filed by banks when property is under foreclosure. The notices also expire after 30 days, which explains why the U.S. Attorney’s Office has filed three since January.

The U.S. Attorney’s office filed the lis pendens to warn any potential buyers that the government could have a claim in the property, Drake said. But she declined to elaborate on the government’s interest in the property.

But the government would have to take further steps to seize the former club’s buildings and land.

“The United States government isn’t seeking to seize the property as part of the Hells Angels case,” she said. “There would have to be a separate criminal or civil proceeding.”

The Columbia Richland Fire Department and the Richland County Fire Marshal’s Office declined to release their reports on the 2012 blaze, even though the state Freedom of Information Act specifies that they release reports. The fire department referred The State to the FBI, which declined to comment.

Sheriff Leon Lott declined to comment on the arson investigation because it is under federal jurisdiction.

“I hope there are other arrests to be made,” Lott said.

The arson accusations are just one more reason the club needed to be shuttered, the sheriff said. Before it closed, sheriff’s deputies had been called to the club 142 times in two years.

“It all goes back to us wanting to close that club down for being a nuisance as well as for being as dangerous as it was,” Lott said.

While Hudgins owned the strip club business, the building and land are owned by Jerry Britt of Columbia.

Both men said they were not involved in the fire.

“Of course not!” Britt said when asked if he hired the Hells Angels to burn down the building.

Britt, who has been battling cancer, said he has lost money on the building.

Britt said he has not been contacted by the FBI and he also said he was not aware of the lis pendens notice on the property.

“I know (I) haven’t been charged with nothing,” he said. “If I have, nobody told me.”

As for Hudgins, he also said he has not spoken with the FBI, but he had met with the Richland County sheriff’s arson investigator.

“The feds haven’t talked to me because they have no reason to,” Hudgins said.

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