Judge permanently closes Mississippi Coast restaurant after deadly mass shooting
A Chancery Court judge has permanently closed The Scratch Kitchen in downtown Ocean Springs, scene of a mass shooting May 5, finding its continued operation presents a danger to the city.
Judge Neil Harris ruled at the end of a hearing Friday that the potential injury to Ocean Springs outweighs the damage the business owner, Brittany Alexander, will face from having to close.
Harris’ ruling followed a day of testimony from the city, with no witnesses presented by Alexander, whom the city instead called to the stand.
The attorney for Ocean Springs, Robert Wilkinson, called city witnesses who described talking to Alexander on multiple occasions about controlling the size of her crowds.
Crowds exceeded occupancy limits during parties hosted by DJs on the weekends at the Government Street business, according to testimony given in court on Friday.
Testimony also indicated guns were present and marijuana was being smoked in The Scratch Kitchen the night of the shooting, when 19-year-old Chayse Harmon lost his life and six others were injured, including the suspected shooter.
During closing arguments, Wilkinson, implored Judge Neil Harris to permanently close the business.
“Seven people shot inside the scratch kitchen,” Wilkinson said. “Seven people. By the grace of the good Lord, there’s not more than one dead.
“ . . . It can’t continue. We don’t want mass shooting two.”
But Alexander’s attorney, Darius Taylor of Jackson, pointed out the city had never leveled any drug, weapons or other criminal charges against anyone in the business. The Scratch Kitchen also had never been cited for allowing underage drinking.
City officials also acknowledged that they had not filed any court action over violations of occupancy limits at the business until May 5, hours before the mass shooting.
Taylor said the city needed to meet an “extraordinary” burden to close a business. He said he understood they didn’t like the vulgar language in music played for the young crowd.
But closing Alexander down wasn’t the answer, he said: “This is extreme. This is over the top and they’re singling Ms. Alexander out because they don’t like the music, don’t like the people coming into her restaurant.
“When they start breaking the law, then maybe you can start seeking some remedy such as this.”
As for the mass shooting, Taylor said, “Violence is pervasive in our society.”
Scratch Kitchen Shooting victim’s family speaks
Chayse’s mother and grandparents sat through the long day of testimony. They spoke to the Sun Herald during a break.
“We’re hoping they shut that place down,” said Chayse’s grandmother, Lena Harmon, who had just baked him a 7-Up pound cake for his 19th birthday. “We want it shut down before somebody else gets killed.”
His mother, Kimberly Harmon, feels the same way. She walked out of court after testimony ended saying, “Close it down. Close it down.”
The Harmons waited in the courthouse hall for the opinion that the judge wrote up after the hearing.
Scratch Kitchen owner says she’s targeted over race
City police officers and Mayor Kenny Holloway testified during the hearing.
Holloway said he warned Alexander during a September meeting “if her business model doesn’t change, something bad is going to come out of this.”
The night of the shooting, as Holloway looked up from the blood pooling around Chayse’s body, Alexander was standing there, he said.
“I looked at her and said, ‘I hope you’re happy now,’ “ Holloway testified. He said Alexander “blew up” and had to be restrained.
Holloway grew emotional, telling the judge: “This is my city. I’m sick to my stomach. It’s personal.”
For her part, Alexander said that she felt like the city was discriminating against her. Alexander is Black, as were many of her patrons. She said Hollloway referred to Scratch Kitchen patrons as “your people.”
But Holloway, who is white, said he is careful how he speaks and would never have used those words. He said he went to The Scratch Kitchen to eat a couple of times. But those visits stopped after Alexander cursed at him in his office at the September meeting.
Holloway also denied discriminating against the business. He said the city established occupancy limits for bars and restaurants with outdoor spaces after he learned there were none. The subject came up over a restaurant and bar across the street with an outdoor space, he said, not The Scratch Kitchen.
Other shootings detailed in Ocean Springs court
The Scratch Kitchen and a number of other downtown bars and restaurants have become a popular gathering place for young people, especially on weekends.
Alexander said in testimony that she felt The Scratch Kitchen was being singled out because shootings have happened recently outside two other Ocean Springs bars, resulting in one fatality and two victims with injuries.
On April 16, a man accidentally shot himself in the leg in a parking lot across the street from The Scratch Kitchen. Alexander noted it was a parking lot also open for patrons of the other downtown businesses. But police said the man told them he was on his way to The Scratch Kitchen.
On one occasion, Ocean Springs police claimed someone had been shot in Alexander’s business when the reality was a woman fell off a table, she said.
When asked about her meeting with the mayor, she said, “I remember him saying there’s too many of us in one spot and it’s upsetting the conservative citizens.”