Wisconsin lawmaker says his bar where overdose victims bought drugs isn't 'bad establishment'
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Police in Wisconsin say the fentanyl-laced drugs that killed one person and caused three more to overdose in a village north of Milwaukee were bought at a state lawmaker's tavern that has been the subject of multiple calls to police in recent years.
Republican Rep. Rob Brooks has owned the Railroad Station in Saukville since 2007 and said he was aware of issues with drugs at the bar shortly after purchasing it but thought they had been addressed.
A regular patron of Brooks' bar sold cocaine laced with fentanyl to 28-year-old Nick Hamilton and three friends attending a birthday party there on May 5, Village of Grafton Police Chief Jeff Caponera said Monday. Hamilton overdosed that night and died in the hospital on May 8. Brooks said he was not at the bar that weekend.
“It's a tragedy what happened, no doubt, and we'll do everything within our power to ensure nothing like this happens again,” Brooks said on Thursday. “We’re not running a bad establishment.”
But Joe Hamilton, Nick Hamilton's father, questioned Brooks' sincerity. Brooks has not reached out to the family or responded to their calls and did not publicly comment on the recent death or answer questions about the bar until Thursday.
"It ticks me off. It seems like he doesn’t care, like he doesn’t care about the community,” Joe Hamilton said on Wednesday.
While Brooks has sponsored measures to crack down on drug distribution as a member of the Assembly, police have been called for drug-related complaints at his bar.
In 2018, an undercover informant told Ozaukee County Sheriff’s deputies that a patron regularly dealt drugs at the Railroad Station on Thursday evenings, according to police reports obtained by The Associated Press. Officers searched for the man at the bar and other locations but did not find him.
Brooks said he was not aware of the 2018 police report and had no reason to suspect drugs were being used or sold at his bar in recent years.
In the incident tied to the bar this month, Nick Hamilton and three friends overdosed in the early morning hours of May 6 at a home in Grafton. One of the victims called police after realizing that Nick Hamilton was not breathing and that another victim had been mauled by a dog while unconscious. Officers performed CPR and administered Narcan, a nasal spray that can reverse opioid overdoses, according to a police statement.
Police have not named the surviving victims but said two were expected to recover quickly and the woman who was mauled had received surgery for wounds on her face.
Joe Hamilton called on Brooks to do more to deter drug activity at the bar, including installing surveillance cameras and keeping a closer eye on the business.
Brooks questioned the usefulness of cameras but said Thursday that he does plan to install them. “Security cameras are not going to prevent something like this,” he said. “We can’t put security cameras in bathrooms or other areas or cover every square inch of the property.”
Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 times more potent than heroin, is highly addictive and can be lethal in doses as little as 2 milligrams, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency. Experts have attributed a national surge in overdose deaths in recent years to fentanyl being laced into many other illicit drugs. The state Department of Health Services said roughly 1,280 people in Wisconsin died from fentanyl overdoses in 2021.
Brooks and fellow Wisconsin Republicans have pushed for harsher criminal penalties to crack down on fentanyl distribution. Brooks cosponsored a bill in February that would set a maximum prison sentence of 60 years for someone convicted of reckless homicide for providing drugs that led to a fatal overdose, up from the current 40. The bill passed the Senate and is awaiting a vote in the Assembly.
“What’s he going to do now? Promote it more because of the loss of my son? In reality, four people could’ve died, and they almost did," Joe Hamilton said. “Can I say Robert Brooks knew? No, I can't honestly say that. But I know that he's been there enough.”
When asked about other incidents police have responded to at the Railroad Station, Brooks said, “We're a bar, and there is alcohol served.”
Last year, officers arrested a regular patron of the bar after he allegedly beat the son of the bar’s former owner for calling Brooks a racist. The victim told police that a patron repeatedly punched and kicked him in the bar’s parking lot, breaking three ribs and a bone in his face as well as puncturing his lung.
Brooks was not at the bar when the fight took place.
A case in 2014 reached the Wisconsin Supreme Court after an off-duty Railroad Station employee ejected an intoxicated man who had been ordered to leave. The off-duty employee allowed a man to fall down concrete steps and then dragged him onto the grass outside the bar, according to court filings. The man suffered head injuries and hypothermia from the cold weather.
Brooks owns several other businesses in the Saukville area, including a restaurant and rental properties. He was first elected to the Assembly in 2015. A bill he authored that was signed into law in his first term allows landlords to evict tenants with five days' notice for using, making or selling drugs at a rental property.
Brooks stepped down from a top legislative leadership position in 2018 amid backlash over racial and sexual comments he made to female lawmakers. He ignored calls from former Republican Gov. Scott Walker to resign from office, saying he made “stupid comments while under the influence of alcohol."
Harm Venhuizen is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow Harm on Twitter.