Isabella Asmus was having fun at Club Marcella the night of Saturday, Feb. 11.
The sophomore biology major danced with her friends for hours and watched the drag shows until around 2 a.m., when she and her friends left the club.
Gunshots rang out 30 minutes later.
She found out after a friend called her, frantically asking if she was OK.
“It was such a stark contrast between that and then finding out someone got shot and killed,” Asmus, a sophomore biology major, said.
Three people were shot — one fatally — inside Club Marcella at 2:30 a.m. on Sunday, Feb. 12, according to a press release from the Erie County District Attorney’s office, leaving many UB students and Buffalonians hesitant to return.
Jorge Garcia-Leon, a 21-year-old father, was pronounced dead at the scene, according to WIVB. The other two victims — a 49-year-old male and a 59-year-old male — were taken to ECMC. Both have since been released from the hospital, Buffalo Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia said in a Feb. 13 press conference.
A 17-year-old has been charged with nine felonies — including three counts of assault, one count of criminal possession of a weapon, three counts of reckless endangerment and two counts of criminal possession of a firearm — for allegedly bringing an illegal gun inside the club, according to the DA’s statement. That gun was allegedly used by another individual to commit the shooting.
Gramaglia would not say how the 17-year-old got the gun into Club Marcella. The shooter is still at large.
That shooting came just two weeks after an on-duty security guard was shot in the parking lot outside of the club at 3 a.m. on Sunday, Jan. 29. The security guard, 36, was taken to ECMC in stable condition, according to WKBW. Police are still investigating that incident, which was unrelated to the Feb. 12 shooting, Gramaglia said.
“We are devastated by the horrendous act of violence that occurred last night,” Club Marcella said in a Feb. 13 Instagram post. “We pray for the victim and his family, as well as anyone else impacted by this tragedy. Of course, we are cooperating fully with the police and will continue to do so in every way possible.”
The club announced in another post Friday that it would stop admitting 18- to 20-year-olds beginning Feb. 24 and would be closing at 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays “for the foreseeable future.”
But several UB students and Buffalonians told The Spectrum that Club Marcella had fostered an unsafe environment and an unnecessarily violent security team long before this year’s shootings.
Maggie Hoak, an esthetician who lives on Buffalo’s West Side, said she and several friends were maced by security at the club last fall following an altercation with a security guard.
The situation started when Hoak was with her friends in the VIP area, and they tried to get her male friend into the section.
“The security guard was making a big deal about him being let in. He was adamant that my friend couldn’t get in,” Hoak said.
The security guard had left after a while, and they were able to get the friend into the private section.
When the guard came back, all the niceties from before had left.
“My friend was kind of resisting [to leave] because the guard wasn’t really giving him any reason as to why he couldn’t be up there, and they swung at him and ended up dragging him out,” Hoak said.
After being thrown outside, the group was approached again by a security guard and was told they couldn’t stand there.
“I didn’t see the mace happen, I didn’t see them spray it, but it was just that immediate feeling in our throat and in our eyes,” Hoak said. “Everyone started coughing a lot.”
The security guard used so much mace, she said, that patrons standing in line nearby started tearing up.
Christina Antoci, a senior early childhood education major, had attended the club a few times but said she would “never” go back after she watched club security “manhandle” one of her friends outside of the club on Halloween weekend, 2021. The security guard eventually took Antoci’s friend off the premises and onto the street.
“The second security guard who was working threatened anyone who was waiting in line [and] screaming to stop it,” Antoci said. “My other friend from out of town got pushed for walking over to the security guard to defuse the situation.”
The security guards at Club Marcellas are “ intimidating” and “promote violence,” Antoci said.
Club Marcella CFO Michael Slyder declined a request for comment from The Spectrum.
BPD is unlikely to shut down Club Marcella, Gramaglia said, as the owners have “always been very cooperative.”
“Their communication has been thorough,” Gramaglia said. “When they opened that club, they were working in conjunction with our district on security improvements. They have a significant amount of security officers… They have a significant camera system. They have other types of security measures and camera systems inside that I’m not aware of anybody else having.”
He added that BPD would only shut a club down for a permit violation or a violation of Buffalo’s “Peace and Good Order” law.
BPD has temporarily shut down Club Marcella before. In February 2019, authorities ordered the club to shut down 20 minutes before its 4 a.m. closing time after police were called in “several times” to break up fights, according to WIVB. Police had responded to over 50 calls at the establishment in the prior six months, which Slyder attributed to incidents that occurred in nearby parking lots.
BPD isn’t the only organization investigating Club Marcella. The New York State Liquor Authority told WKBW on Feb. 13 that it had “immediately opened an investigation” following the Feb. 12 shooting and would “take all appropriate actions” once its investigation is complete. It added that the premises were already under investigation.
Joe “Marcella” Guagliardo, the owner and founder of Club Marcella, told WIVB last December that his club was equipped with more than 70 security cameras, a metal detector and security guards — armed outside the club and unarmed inside.
“Club Marcella is a home for everyone and safety is our number one,” Marcella said. “And I’ve spent enough money on it that I know what I’m doing and what I’m supposed to be doing.”
But some students said that Club Marcella wasn’t using their security resources effectively enough.
Drew Falkner, a sophomore linguistics major taking some classes at UB, said that he’s seen security guards at Club Marcella let patrons in without checking them for weapons.
“I think that no matter who you are, you should have a thorough security check with the metal detectors, the wands and pat-downs and such,” Falkner said.
Falkner hasn’t been to Club Marcella since last Halloween. He didn’t feel safe then, and he said he probably wouldn’t go back following the past month’s shootings.
Some students said they would support a shut down of the club if it ensured the safety of others, even though it would limit the number of LGBTQ+ nightlife establishments.
Heald says it would be hard to see the club close since so many people “go there to have a great time.”
She also said local, state or federal gun control measures could prevent further gun violence at establishments like Club Marcella.
Asmus had mixed feelings about a potential shutdown.
“I wouldn’t blame them if it’s for public safety, but I do think it kind of sucks that a more open environment, an LGBTQ+ space, would have to be shut down because of violence,” Asmus said.
Annika Balk, a junior math major who called Club Marcella “foundational” for Buffalo’s queer community, said authorities should investigate the incidents and let the club “implement new strategies” to mitigate violence before resorting to a complete shut down.
Still, she said despite the positive experiences she’s had at the club, she won’t go again “in the near future.”
“I just feel like not a lot of people will go there in general, so it might already change the atmosphere of it,” Balk said. “But on top of that, going there with the anticipation that something bad might go wrong? It’s just not the best feeling when you’re trying to enjoy a night.”
Others said they wouldn’t return ever, regardless of what the club decides to do.
“I absolutely won’t go back. I don’t think it’s a safe space in general, and I don’t think it’s been a safe space for the queer community,” Hoak said. “I don’t see myself going back there and supporting them in any way.”
Hoak wants to see accountability from the club. After her mace incident happened, she posted on social media tagging Club Marcella. The club’s account viewed the posts and blocked her and her friends who were speaking out about their mistreatment.
“People are continuing to get injured and even going as far as losing their life,” Hoak said. “The rate at which it happens at Marcella’s has just gotten really out of hand and I really would like to see something changed.”
Victoria Hill is the senior news editor and can be reached at email@example.com
Grant Ashley is the managing editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Grant Ashley is the editor in chief of The Spectrum. He's also reported for NPR, WBFO, WIVB and The Buffalo News. He enjoys taking long bike rides, baking with his parents’ ingredients and recreating Bob Ross paintings in crayon. He can be found on the platform formerly known as Twitter at @Grantrashley.