STATESBORO — Rude Rudy’s, the bar where an 18-year-old Georgia Southern student from Forsyth County suffered a beating on Aug. 28 before dying a few hours later, has closed, and its owner has agreed to a lifetime ban on getting another license to serve alcohol in Statesboro.
Rude Rudy’s owner Jonathan Earl Starkey agreed to a settlement with the city’s Department of Public Safety rather than go through a Statesboro City Council hearing Wednesday.
The parents of the student, Michael Gatto, spoke after the called meeting ended in the announced settlement rather than a full hearing.
“This morning, the mayor and city council of Statesboro are sitting as a tribunal to carry out a judicial function and not as a legislative body,” Mayor Jan Moore had announced, convening the 9 a.m. special meeting.
But as was quickly revealed, the outcome had already been worked out.
City Attorney Alvin Leaphart announced that the Department of Public Safety and Starkey had agreed “to waive their respective due process rights” for the hearing.
He then handed the mayor and council the proposed agreement and a consent order to be adopted as the council’s judgment.
“Respondent Jonathan Earl Starkey agrees to cease and desist operating the business known as Rudy Rudy’s located in University Plaza” was the first point of the agreement, which Moore read aloud.
As the second point, Starkey agreed to voluntarily surrender any alcohol license the city had issued to him “and/or any entity in which Jonathan Earl Starkey has a legal or equitable interest.”
In the third and final point, Starkey agreed “to forever forfeit all rights or privileges in obtaining an alcoholic beverage license from the city of Statesboro” and that neither he nor any business he has an interest in will ever apply for one.
Starkey did not appear before the council, but was represented by his attorney, Wes Taulbee.
Moore noted that Starkey and Taulbee had signed the agreement and that she and Public Safety Director Wendell Turner had agreed to its terms.
By approving the consent order, city council members also agreed to the settlement and made it their final judgment in the administrative hearing.
Councilman John Riggs made the motion, Councilman Phil Boyum seconded and the vote was unanimous with all five members present.
“First, I want to thank the witnesses that have given testimony in evidence in this case to our Police Department,” Moore said. “By virtue of that evidence, we were able to come today to this settlement agreement.”
She then invited Gatto’s family to speak. Gatto had arrived in Statesboro as a Georgia Southern University freshman two weeks before his death.
Shortly before 1 a.m. Aug. 28, Statesboro police responded to a call to Rude Rudy’s and found Gatto unconscious from head injuries. He died at a Savannah hospital later than day.
Police charged James Grant Spencer, 20, of Johns Creek, identified as a Rude Rudy's bouncer, with felony murder and aggravated battery.
Parents speak to council
Gatto’s father, also named Michael Gatto, and mother, Katherine Gatto, stood together at the microphone facing the council.
Speaking softly, Katherine Gatto first thanked the mayor “for her efforts to facilitate some much-needed changes in this city” and Statesboro police for their efforts.
She then went on to describe the pain felt by the entire family in the loss of her son, saying, “His entire adult life was stolen from him, needlessly and avoidably.”
She called Rude Rudy’s a “predatory establishment” and asserted that Statesboro has a problem with alcohol, and not limited to one bar.
“Like a pedophile running a candy store next to a preschool, it sits adjacent to Georgia Southern’s campus, marketing its steeply discounted, accessible drinks and it’s ‘drink until you’re drunk’ atmosphere to the university’s students,” she said. “The problem is, most of those students are underage, and Rude Rudy’s knows that. It’s their bread and butter.
“In fact, it is for most bars in this city, and it’s no coincidence that business is down since police have been randomly checking patrons’ ID’s,” she continued. “Despite numerous incidents, this bar and many like it have inexplicably escaped scrutiny over the years.
“Underage drinking is profitable here in Statesboro, and there’s lots of fingers in the pie. … The city of Statesboro has largely looked the other way, and my son’s dead.”
Another mother also spoke, thanking the council and mayor for accepting the Rude Rudy’s closure and stating that her daughter had been exposed to “a horrible predatory environment.”
The woman did not give her name, and would not be named by the Statesboro Herald because her daughter is the victim of an alleged sex crime.
“She was 18 years old, she’d been served alcohol, and as a result of the alcohol that was served to her by Rude Rudy’s employees, my daughter was sexually assaulted by a Rude Rudy’s employee,” the woman said.
Officials have confirmed that a document related to this alleged incident was included in information gathered for the hearing.
Starkey is not accused of any crime. The city council’s jurisdiction was limited to deciding the status of his alcohol license.
“At this point, Mr. Starkey has turned in his license, it’s been accepted, he has agreed to never reapply and is now barred from ever reapplying or holding an alcohol license in the city of Statesboro,” Taulbee said after the meeting. “We’re extremely sorry to the Gatto family, and that’s the only comment we have at this time.”
The mayor said, “This resolution was equitable in the face of the evidence collected by the Statesboro Department of Public Safety in their investigation of the death of Michael Gatto.”
“While this certainly does not bring Michael back, I believe this is a step in the right direction as we move towards making the city of Statesboro a safer place for those that live here, work here, and for those who choose to come here to further their education,” she said.
Boyum told reporters that the settlement amounted to Starkey agreeing to the most severe punishment the city could have inflicted.
“There’s no more stern punishment that the council could have vetted than taking his alcohol license away and banning him from ever having an alcohol license again, so I think from a punitive standpoint, he got the book thrown at him,” Boyum said.