Tomarie Bakewell doesn’t look like the owner of a notorious bar.
The 56-year-old Metairie mortgage lender doesn’t even look like the owner of an average bar, much less one that was the scene of a brawl that resulted in a fatal shooting last month before it was raided by police and shut down by the state for allegedly being a haven for drug dealing.
But in 2013, Bakewell decided to help a client she had befriended, Melissa Desilva, achieve her lifelong dream of starting a bar, and thus Bakewell became half-owner of Mojo’s on Cleary Avenue.
Bakewell would do the bookkeeping — preparing the Metairie saloon’s taxes, applying for the licenses and permits — while Desilva, a 34-year-old mother of four from Kenner, would run the bar at night when she wasn’t working as a phlebotomist at a local clinic. Bakewell was looking for an investment opportunity, and she planned to allow Desilva to buy her out over the next three years.
Desilva didn’t always have all the necessary receipts, but the bar seemed to be running smoothly, and after her initial visits, Bakewell didn’t go by it very often. It wasn’t her kind of place. It was dark, and the music was usually too loud.
But it all came crashing down on Feb. 9, when Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office deputies raided Mojo’s and arrested Desilva for allegedly selling heroin, marijuana and other drugs from the bar. Bakewell said she didn’t hear about the arrest until one of the bartenders called three days later and told her. She then helped bail Desilva out of jail.
On Thursday, Bakewell sat with her attorney before the Jefferson Parish Alcoholic Beverage Permit Review Committee in the Parish Council chambers, trying to persuade the members not to follow the state’s lead and revoke the bar’s permit to sell alcohol.
Attorney Stavros Panagoulopoulos said the request was not for the sake of Mojo’s, which is closed, or Desilva, who is likely facing a raft of charges for drug possession and distribution. The strip mall’s owners already are moving to allow the Indian restaurant next door to expand into the shuttered bar’s space.
A full revocation, Stavros explained, would prevent Bakewell from getting another permit for five years, which would effectively prevent her from opening a restaurant, which he said she might like to do.
The state has already revoked the bar’s license, putting the five-year stricture in place, but Panagoulopoulos explained that if the parish would settle for a suspension, he could try to see if there was some way to lobby the state Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control to make a change.
Stopping short of a full revocation, he said, would prevent Bakewell from being “an unfortunate casualty of the process.”
“She is otherwise a successful business owner within the parish,” Panagoulopoulos said, noting that Mojo’s paid its taxes and that Bakewell’s other businesses, Harris Mortgage Corp. and Harris Investments, are in good standing.
Committee members were skeptical.
“We don’t get many cases that are this bad, this serious,” board member Ronald Lampard said.
Bakewell told the committee that she never saw criminal activity take place at the bar and was never told about any.
“I should have been more aware,” she said. “But when I was over there I didn’t see anything that was out of the ordinary.”
Told she doesn’t look like a bar owner, Bakewell replied, “I’ve been told that a number of times.”
She said that after several visits initially, she tended to have Desilva bring the necessary receipts and documents to her.
“When I’d go in there, I’d say, ‘Turn up the lights!’ ” she said. “I guess I’m not really a bar person. I don’t like loud music; it gives me headaches.”
Bakewell said Desilva had been a customer of her mortgage company for a couple of years, and at one point she needed a second loan for some roof work.
She paid off the loan diligently and completely, Bakewell said. “I thought she was a good solid citizen that pays her mortgage on time.”
One day Desilva came to Bakewell looking for a loan to start a bar, which she said had always been a dream of hers. The clinic where she worked had just signed on to do a drug study, and she had a contract that guaranteed income she wanted to use as collateral.
Bakewell told Desilva that with no cash or bookkeeping skills, she couldn’t get a loan, but that Bakewell might become her business partner to help get the business off the ground.
“It was her dream,” Bakewell said. “It was something she always wanted, so I helped finance it to get it started for her.”
The committee asked about a July incident when Desilva fatally shot her husband after he came into the house with a gun at 3 a.m. and threatened Desilva and her children. Desilva has not been charged, and Kenner authorities said she appeared to have been the victim of domestic abuse.
“I had been helping her financially since her husband passed away ... whom she shot,” Bakewell clarified.
“It made the news,” she added softly.
Bakewell told the committee that if she were ever to go into business with someone else again, she would “make sure it’s somebody I know better.”
Board member Alan Gandolfi said he was sympathetic to Bakewell’s situation but didn’t think the parish’s decision should run counter to that of the state, which had already issued a five-year ban on Bakewell’s ability to get another license. He said bars are held to a high standard and as half-owner she was responsible for the activities that were conducted on the premises.
Desilva “let you down, and unfortunately, you’re going to be affected equally as she is,” board member Tiffany Wilken said.
“Whether you knew about it or not does not absolve you of your responsibility for what happened there,” board member Trey Luby agreed.
“I don’t see that we have any alternative,” he added, making a motion to revoke the alcohol permit, which was seconded by Gandolfi and approved unanimously.
After the meeting, Bakewell said she is still in contact with Desilva, who she said maintains her innocence. She said Desilva claims a man who helped her after her late husband hit her at the bar was the source of much of the drug activity. Bakewell said she isn’t sure what to make of that situation.
Whatever happened at Mojo’s, Bakewell said, all of the money that was put into the bar came from her. She said she has stopped supporting Desilva financially but will not yet foreclose on her house.
“I’m concerned about her four kids,” Bakewell said of the children, ages 5 to 14. “I don’t want them hurt any more than they’re already hurt.”
As for herself, Bakewell said the venture hurt her financially but that she’ll survive. She said she has no immediate plans to open a restaurant, but she’s not sure what effect the license revocation will have on her ability to provide bookkeeping services to businesses that do have liquor licenses.
“I’ll have to look into it and see,” she said. “I have this little problem now that I’ll have to tell somebody because I’d be dealing with their records, their money.”
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.