Palace Under Siege



Mark Fuller

Violence erupted in the streets of Hamilton, NY last weekend when a party at the Palace Theater disintegrated into a bloody brawl, the likes of which this community has never seen.

Stories and rumors concerning the event graced the tongues of area residents and decorated newspapers and television screens throughout Central New York this week, making it impossible to escape the disturbing aftershocks of the stabbings that gripped this small town.

Startled and frightened by what happened, Colgate and Hamilton residents wonder how this after-party turned into a brawl equipped with knives, airborne furniture and even a handgun.

On Saturday night, April 16, the Palace had been rented to an outside group known as Holla Entertainment. The group, made up of SUNY Morrisville students, though unassociated with the college, had procured the venue for the purposes of throwing an after-party following a Morrisville fashion show. Several hundred people had filled the Palace by the time violence broke out.

At 1:17 a.m. Sunday morning, the Hamilton Police were contacted by the 911 Emergency Center, which reported a fight involving approximately 200 people was in progress at the Palace Theater.

“The two Hamilton units responded and entered the building to find several separate fights taking place,” Hamilton Chief of Police James Tilbe said.

Three additional police units arrived shortly thereafter, two from different sheriff’s offices and one from the State Police. The crowd inside the palace was described as having gone from peaceful to belligerent in a matter of moments.

Colgate junior Emily Colahan was present for the brawl, observing behind the bar that night as a prospective employee.

“Everything was fine. It was really crowded and all of a sudden everyone ran [from the bar] to the balcony,” she said. “Girls started running up the stairs and screaming. Down on the dance floor, there were four groups of guys fighting.”

Though the upper level remained relatively peaceful, the congested dance floor below had erupted into chaos with people throwing couches and barstools at each other.”

According to Colahan, the fighting went on for a while before anyone came.

“We were trying to call 911 from our cells, and we couldn’t get through,” she said. “Suddenly, a big security guard was hit in the head with a barstool.”

Though the security guard suffered the worst injury from the brawlers, other employees were indiscriminately punched and pulled into the fight.

“Witnesses report that a young man was thrown down the back stairwell where he landed on his head,” Tilbe said. “Bleeding profusely, the man punched a security guard who tried to help him and escaped through the back door, leaving a trail of blood behind him.”

Broken bottles and knives wounded several people inside.

After some time, the fight spilled into the streets, where it began drawing the attention of Colgate students.

“We heard something going on and then someone yelled ‘Fight!'” Colgate junior and Jug bouncer Taylor Swick said. “I went around and saw a kid throwing a trash can at a police car. A bottle was thrown at the front door and someone else threw a bottle at the [group of Colgate] students’ feet.”

The event lulled and then fully erupted again in the streets.

“I came back and it was an all-out brawl — maybe 200 people,” Swick said. “There were a lot of cop cars then, and a K-9 unit even showed up. Tons of Colgate students were watching, and an officer with a German Shepard had to force students back away from the scene. At that point, I saw someone pull a knife, and everybody was running from the dogs.”

Within 15 minutes of the initial encounter, 30 police units from all around the area had responded. The massive back-up came in the form of State Police and Madison, Oneida and Chenango County police, among others. Officers even came from as far away as Lafayette.

“By the end, we had about 40 police units on the scene,” Tilbe said. “Our officers tried to contain the fight inside. When it moved outside, it’s our responsibility to contain the situation and make sure it does not spread.”

The large police presence – 47 officers in all – quelled the brawl and made sure onlookers did not become involved.

Early on, the Southern Madison County Volunteer Ambulance Corps (SOMAC) was made aware of the event and instructed to ‘stand by’.

“As soon as the crew got to our quarters we were told there was an injured man who needed to be treated,” SOMAC director David Snyder said. “The crew responded, picked up the patient and transported him out of there.”

Ultimately, this patient — the security guard who suffered the head laceration- was the only injured person attended to by SOMAC. Five other people were driven to Community Memorial Hospital by friends to receive treatment. Additionally, two more were taken by private persons to a Utica hospital. Out of the eight total people injured in the brawl, six were treated for stab wounds and two for head lacerations. One of the stabbings resulted in a punctured lung, but most of the injuries were non-critical.

“I would say this is the worst case of violence I have seen so far,” Snyder said.

The victims, whose names are not being released, have not been overly helpful in the investigation process. At the Palace, amid a mess of broken glass, furniture and dried blood, police recovered a jackknife and a piece of broken plastic from the ammunition cartridge of a .380 caliber handgun.

According to Tilbe, no shots were fired, but the evidence proves that a handgun was present on the dance floor. Outside, investigators recovered a box-cutter from the street and two knives from the grassy area in front of Tops- apparently thrown from car windows. All pieces of evidence are to be sent to the laboratory for blood analysis. The ongoing investigation is a joint operation including the Hamilton police, Madison county sheriff’s office, New York state police and the New York state liquor board.

It is important to establish that, at least by appearances, there were no Colgate students involved in the event.

“Right now, I would not put one Colgate student inside the Palace that night,” Tilbe said.

The event does nothing to polish the image of Morrisville students, however, who already have a reputation for violence resulting from an incident in the fall of 2003 when a gunshot was fired at a similar Morrisville event at the Palace.

SUNY Morrisville’s Public Relations Director Jessica DeCerce wanted to establish that the event “was in no way sponsored, sanctioned or affiliated” with the college. DeCerce said that the college will be interested in the results of the investigation in light of the fact that Morrisville students were injured.

For investigators, the interview process has been difficult because the people present seem to have come not just from Morrisville but also from around Central New York. Video surveillance footage from inside the theater is being reviewed as part of the process.

Hamilton police are hopeful that the footage will shed some light on what took place. Presently, the police have no suspects and are still welcoming statements from anyone with information.

The Hamilton and Colgate communities have felt the shock of last weekend’s events.

“This event has confused and jarred many students,” SGA President senior Ram Parimi said. “I am sure the necessary steps will be taken by the administration and authorities.”

In the Colgate context, the first of these steps is the cancellation of all non-Colgate sanctioned events at the Palace for the rest of the year.

“The Palace, at least right now, will be restricted to community and Colgate uses only,” Vice President for Communications and Public Relations Jim Leach said. The Hamilton Central School’s junior prom and Hamilton Theater Group performances will not be cancelled.

On Wednesday Associate Provost Trish St. Leger sent an e-mail to students explaining this decision. The Palace, which does operate as a private business, is owned by the same corporation that runs the bookstore – a corporation managed by Colgate University. It is in this regard that Colgate has the authority to cancel unsanctioned events and speak on behalf of Palace officials.

Certain after-effects of Sunday morning’s brawl have set local people ill at ease. This week, the event spawned a bigoted email sent out under false pretences to parts of the Colgate community. The email, which Dean of the College Adam Weinberg forcefully condemned in a reply on Wednesday, made offensive comments about the African-American population at Colgate, suggesting a connection between the Colgate students and the Palace incident. Weinberg apologized for the perpetrators and challenged the authors to identify themselves.

Despite the email incident, Colgate and the Hamilton community have responded with a newfound appreciation of each other. Talk will certainly continue for some time, but all sides agree that, at least in the context of placid Hamilton, the Palace brawl was unlike anything they had ever seen.