Bar visit prompts allegation, denial
URBANA – An Urbana woman who was active in the successful campaign to make bars and restaurants smoke-free in Champaign-Urbana contends she was verbally assaulted Saturday night by the owner of a Champaign bar.
The owner of the bar denies he acted inappropriately.
Cheri Manrique, 40, of Urbana said she went alone to Memphis on Main Street, in downtown Champaign, around 9 p.m. Saturday to hear a band called ESP. Manrique said she is an acquaintance of one of the band's guitar players.
"It had been a long time since I heard him play," she said.
Manrique shared her recollection of events this week with The News-Gazette and also spoke Tuesday night to the Champaign City Council. An asthmatic, she is a member of the C-U Smokefree Alliance who often spoke to the Urbana and Champaign city councils last year urging them to pass smoke-free legislation.
Manrique, who does not drink alcohol because she takes medication, said she paid her $4 cover charge last Saturday, bought a diet cola and was seated at a table close to the band.
"I was having a really good time," Manrique said. "I was happy that after all this time I could finally participate in the local scene again."
Manrique said that a short while later, an angry-looking man walked past her and began to stare her down. She identified the man as Tom Sellers, owner of Memphis on Main Street.
"He was walking around my table and staring me down," said Manrique. "At first I just waved. He was really mad. He asked me what I was doing there. He kept saying, 'Who are you?' He said 'Are you one of the smoke-free people?' I said 'Yes, but I'm just there to hear the band.'"
Manrique said the encounter left her "totally shocked," and she called her husband on her cell phone. Her husband told her to leave if it happened again.
After the band took a break and then resumed playing, Manrique said that Sellers "started in on me again."
"He was even more upset," she recalled. "He said I and the smoke-free people 'should crawl back under the rock we came from.' He asked 'How am I going to make any money off of you? You're ordering sodas. This is a liquor-pouring establishment.'
"It was just intimidating. He leaned in over my table. He was in my personal space. It was not just a casual conversation."
She alleged that Sellers returned a third time, this time with a camera, and began taking pictures of her. That prompted Manrique to get up and leave.
Now crying, she said she went outside and called her husband, who advised her to call city police. She did that.
Sellers recalls the incident differently.
"That is a total lie," he said of her account. "I simply said 'Hi, you enjoying your drink?' She said it was Sprite. I kept walking. That's all I said to that woman."
Sellers confirmed that he took a picture of Manrique, but he said he later deleted the picture at the request of city police.
When advised that Manrique planned to describe the incident to the city council during public participation, Sellers responded: "Good for her. It's a free country."
Sellers has emerged as one of the most outspoken opponents of the city smoking ban in most indoor public places, which went into effect Jan. 31. He has a sign in his bar's window urging a vote against council members Tom Bruno and Giraldo Rosales, who are up for re-election and who supported the smoking ban.
He also has yard signs in his bar for council candidates Deborah Frank Feinen and Karen Foster, and campaign literature for Foster on nearly every bar table. Foster supports overturning the ban, while Feinen supports overturning the ban for bars and clubs and has said she might support a total repeal if sales tax receipts indicate establishments are losing business.
Champaign Police Chief R.T. Finney said, after checking police reports, that officers who responded didn't believe an assault had occurred.
"We determined a crime had not occurred," he said. "The person has to be in fear of a battery. Obviously, there was some tension between the two, but it didn't rise to the charge of an assault."
Council member Rosales said he thinks Sellers should be warned by the city liquor commissioner, Mayor Jerry Schweighart, that any repeat of such an incident could lead to the suspension of his liquor license.
"They should not be able to harass the customers," he said. "Shame on the owners. It's not acceptable."
Scott Hays, president of the C-U Smokefree Alliance, said he found the incident disturbing.
"It's very upsetting, especially considering the restaurants and bars main complaint is loss of business," Hays said. "This is a clear indication they're not seeking to play by the rules."
Manrique has been with the alliance for four years, Hays said.
"All she ever wanted was to be able to hear some of the bands," he said.