Thursday, April 23, 2020

Book Review | The Beverly Hills Supper Club: The Untold Story Behind Kentucky's Worst Tragedy

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This review may well end up being one of my longest ever. I had over 200 highlights by the time I was done and it has taken forever just to meander through those. But the story is worth it, I think. The victims and survivors deserve to know the truth about the fire that claimed so many lives that night, and I think the book does an excellent job of laying out what happened and how it was covered up.

Rating ⭐⭐⭐⭐

This story is legit bananas and has all the components needed for a great movie were it not so tragically true. I found this book by chance as I was browsing the Kindle Unlimited and had never heard of this event, so I gave it a try. Even though the writing itself leaves something to be desired, the story itself is incredible and one I will never forget. I can understand why the author wrote the way he did, because his passion for righting this wrong and wanting to hold the guilty accountable seeps through the pages. My usual pet peeves are found her by the dozens, so many exclamation points throughout and I just can not stand it. Especially in this book, the content itself is so shocking, the acts of sabotage are so obvious, that the exclamation points and bolded words were not necessary to convey a certain point. I find so many of those !!! to come across as amateurish and I do not want to take away from the author's years of research and hard work at all, but editing is necessary and must be done in order to make sure this is truly taken seriously. There were a few times when the tone got too conversational for s subject so serious, and even when the author responded sarcastically to a fact he had just stated. I mean, I get it, this impacted him deeply. But those kinds of issues do him a disservice as he states his case - and has more than enough evidence to back it up. The truth needs to be told, even if those responsible are never convicted in a court of law. The victims and survivors deserve that.

I ended up with over 200 notes/highlights. I hope I can do the story justice while condensing that information down, so this review does not become a book of its own.

So, what happened?

First we get an incredibly detailed history of the alleged mob activity in Newport, Kentucky. Spanning decades, no joke. I love mob history without a doubt, and even I was skimming after a while. However, this part is still important because it showed just how active the mob was in this area of Kentucky, especially from their base in Cleveland, and how that would go on to impact the club later. While we will likely never get any confirmation by those involved who are still alive, I do believe based on the evidence presented that the fire and ensuing cover-up went all the way to the top, straight to the governor.

"It is rumored that Newport is home to a little-known 'mafia graveyeard" at the end of Grandview Avenue. Legend is that, whenever necessary, mob members would telephone Newport Police and instruct them to 'stay off Grandview tonight.' The mob would then call on friends who owned an excavating company who would dig the appropriate hole. Once the mob filled the hole with a body or two, the workers would fill in the hole and leave the site. The police would then be informed that, 'Grandview is open again'" (8%).

The author shared many stories like the one above in order to drive home the point that this was a dangerous place. I feel like the information is necessary, even if it felt like it dragged on for a while, for people to understand that this is not just some crazy conspiracy theory. The mob was very active in the area. The club and other Schilling family properties had been threatened and/or damaged time and again.

"Why discuss so many details about various mob hits, high-profile murders, and undercover operations within the Cleveland mafia and other local syndicate organizations within this publication? As mentioned in chapter one, it is imperative that the reader understand  exactly how corrupt, how violent, how ruthless, and how cunning the mafia is. More importantly, to understand that this brutal, destructive behavior didn't just happen in New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles - as many seem to believe" (% missing from notes).

Eventually we come to the week of the fire. It is noted by several of the supper club employees that maintenance men had been in and out of the building all week. They were seen by many employees, who would remark on this to investigators, but their statements were ignored. It is interesting to note that the Kentucky State Patrol were actually the ones in charge of the investigation - and not the fire department. Surely the fire marshal better understood how to conduct an investigation? More on this in a bit.

Then we get to the day of the fire. Employees have been arriving all day in order to prepare for a busy Saturday night. Two waitresses arrived to find the owner, Rick Schilling, Jr., in a conversation with two men. One of the waitresses went into the restroom while the second, Shirley Baker, waited. She was noticed by the two men and up until she finally moved away from the area, she consistently received threatening phone calls telling her to forget what she had seen. In a tragic turn of events, the other waitress was mixed up with Shirley by these men and the other woman's young son would later be murdered in an effort to keep Baker silent. On one such phone call in those following months, the caller realized they had 'the wrong one'; yet another young victim had been claimed by the fire, though he had not been at the supper club that night.

The Beverly Hills Supper Club was divided into several different rooms with varying capacities. The Zebra Room would be come a focal point as one employee, David Brock, would make its importance know years later when he found out he was not the only person to witness very strange events that day. Brock had been assigned to set up the room for a wedding reception that would be taking place that night, after the wedding itself occurred on the club grounds at the chapel. There were two maintenance men working in the room, in the ceiling for several hours. They claimed they were working on the air conditioning and this was the answer they gave every time Brock came in to check on their progress. He, and other employees who witnessed this and other people who did not belong at the club found it very odd that the Schillings would request any work be done, especially on a Saturday and especially so close to opening. The truth is, they hadn't. This would become painfully clear very soon after the fire, and employees began to realize they had witnessed people actively preparing the club to be destroyed.

More employees also witnessed another group of people who looked very out of place. A small group of men and women arrived at the club that afternoon, along with two young girls. While the children were instructed to sit down and not touch anything, the men and women set to work cleaning the north-south hallway walls. At least, that was their story whenever they were questioned. Yet to everyone who passed through the long hallway as they worked, many would say it appeared as though they were applying something to the walls, not cleaning anything off. Much like with the maintenance workers in the Zebra Room, employees thought it was odd for the owners to have workers coming in to clean, as that was not typically done on Saturdays - and again, so close to opening.

As early as 5:50-ish, when the first dinner guests start arriving, smoke is observed coming from the roof. Two guests, Mr. and Mrs. DeWalt, drive up and he notes a "neat column of smoke about six feet high" (29%). He points it out to his wife. Neither mention it to any staff members. It should be noted that this observation was made over three hours before the fire became apparent inside the building. I can not understand why these guests, or any of the others who later stated they also witnessed smoke when they arrived, why NOT ONE person said anything to a single staff members. This is all with the benefit of hindsight of course, but 169 lives were lost that night as the fire raged. Everyone could have been saved if just one person had mentioned the oddity to any of the employees.

"By 8:20 p.m., there would be a total of 18 people who would later tell investigators that they had seen smoke coming from the roof of the supper club. In every single case, nothing was reported" (29%).

So maddening. But again, hindsight is always 20/20. I just know for me personally, if I am entering a building that has unusual smoke coming from the roof, especially near the entrance, I am going to say something. And then leave.

Even as the fire was already quietly burning, more suspicious people are seen entering and leaving the club, giving the impression that they are maintenance workers.

"In the kitchen, Curtis Venice sees a man enter the club via the back kitchen door. he is wearing the uniform of a maintenance employee and carrying a tool bag over one shoulder. He walks directly past Venice and proceeds toward the stairs to the basement. Curtis often sees various workers in the club, but finds it extremely unusual to see one on a busy Saturday night" (29%).

Throughout the night, guests in the Zebra Room for the wedding reception reported to employees and later investigators that the room was very hot and getting hotter. This was thought to be odd, especially considering the maintenance men who were supposedly working on the AC in that very room, despite club employees being aware that there was no unit in the ceiling where the men had been working.

In other parts of the club, however, there is no indication that anything is amiss at that time - this includes the 1200 guests and staff in the Cabaret Room, on the other side of the building. Two shows were scheduled that night (I can't remember the singers name, sorry!) and there was an opening act as well. The room was filled, but time and again the majority who made it out of this part of the club estimated that the number was in the 800s or 900s. Later, it would be claimed by the half-assed initial investigation that, along with a myriad of other false claims by the team, the Schillings were guilty of filling the room over its capacity and that is why there were so many deaths.

We begin to get up to a minute-by-minute account once the fire is spotted. Calls are made to the fire department and employees begin evacuating patrons, and  others attempt to control the small blaze. Those on the other side of the building still in the Cabaret Room were told by one employee, Walter Bailey, that there was a fire and they needed to begin leaving. It is confusing as to why so many ignored his initial warning from the stage, where he had their attention. Of course, not all heeded the warning; some missed it all together as they were wrapped up in their own conversations, and others ignored it because he had described it as a small fire. Some in the press would later criticize him for his description, yet at the time he had not even seen an evidence of the actual fire. He had no idea how large it was actually growing.

To give you an idea of just how big the fire would become:

"Every fire department from Campbell Country had responded to the scene. Additionally, ambulances had been dispatched from 24 other departments in the region. Individual firefighters and departments from cities more than an hour away had driven to the supper club to help in any way possible. Eventually, 522 firefighters and rescue workers from 52 departments - manning 77 pieces of firefighting apparatus - would be engaged in a hell none would ever forget" (44%).

When the fire was finally out, a total of 169 people were dead. The cover-up would appear to have begun immediately and it seems obvious looking at it now that the governor was the one controlling it all. The mob didn't like that they weren't getting a cut of whatever the Schillings were raking in per week, month, year (and it was A LOT, given the expansions they continued to make to their club). The governor himself is implicated nearly every step of the way, and it is no secret that he had been in the company of some very questionable characters - and it also did not go unnoticed that in the days after the fire he suddenly had three times the usual amount of security with him.

In addition to the lies about the Cabaret Room being over-capacity, there were several other false reports as well. One example pertains to the sprinkler system - or lack of. This was made known that Sunday within hours of the blaze finally being extinguished and the smear campaign was on. Except, the club was not actually required at that time to have a sprinkler system, though that would not come out until much later.

Another event also occurred that Sunday that practically defies belief. State Troopers arrived at Schilling's home that night, letting him know that the cause of the fire was not arson, and the property would be bulldozed starting Monday, the very next day - Governor Carroll's orders.

"Very little, if any, investigative work had been done by Sunday evening (not even 24 hours later), and a full team of investigators from the NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) had not yet arrived on the scene" (47%).

Suspicious, no? The author also notes that in an interview in 2009, the former governor refused to say why he ordered the site to be demolished.

"In fact, he scoffed at reports that a good portion of the building was destroyed on Monday. This account is easily proven, however, with the numerous photographs that had been taken that day. Carroll also stated during the interview he did not remember ordering the building's destruction, yet he is clearly seen in the various photographs - complete with hardhat - standing next to one of the bulldozers" (47%).

It is not outside the realm of possibility that Governor Carroll was helping out his buddies by covering up the true cause of the fire. There were reports of Carroll often being in Newport, according to the former mayor of the city. He even recalled seeing Carroll a few months before the fire at a Christmas party - a party hosted by Sam Schraeder, called a "local gangster and Cleveland mafia main-man" (48%) by the author. It was also reported that he was investigated on at least three separate occasions for involvement with the maob.

The investigators from the NFPA who did manage to arrive before the building was entirely demolished on that Monday were told rather quickly, by Carroll no less, to "look for another cause" (48%) beyond arson. The governor also pushed for all kinds of theories to be reported, such as an exploding oil generator. When the generator was found undamaged, he switched gears again, off on some other theory, but continuing to push the idea that the fire started in the basement. As the bulldozers went to work on Monday afternoon, the Zebra Room seemed to become the main target.

"It appeared that crews had been told to deliberately destroy the specific area of the building where the fire had supposedly started. In fact, by the end of the day Monday, any trace of evidence in the Zebra Room was gone" (49%).

To prove how utterly insane this was, the author notes that he conducted research of his own and spoke with experts in the field of fire investigations. He states that all "were shocked to discover that the entire site was not roped off at daybreak Sunday, allowing investigators to work through the debris piece-by-piece, for weeks if necessary, in order to find out an exact cause for such a large-scale disaster. They added that even the most extremely basic fire investigation would generally take a minimum of five to seven days" (49%).

By Tuesday the investigators on the scene were not allowed to enter the basement of the club. It seems most likely that the fire started in the Zebra Room, yet that room was completely demolished by Monday night, and all access to the section of the basement beneath it was pretty much off-limits to anyone but the Kentucky State Police. It is also incredibly suspicious when the author reports that of all the photos taken by the state police, there were fewer than twenty images total of the Zebra Room, and even less of that section of basement below.

A new investigation into the fire was opened during Governor Steve Beshear's time in office, yet according to the author, "His task force experts in the field of fire investigations. no one with expertise in fire behavior, building construction, electrical engineering, or fire protection engineering" (74%).

This too struck me as odd. It was also at this time that it was discovered how much evidence was missing from the original files. The author stated that it was discovered that many of the large crates had indexes that listed what could be found within a given crate. Yet, various items were missing, the most notable being "hundreds of photographs and color slides, the majority of which were to be of the basement area of the club" (77%).

So photos remain missing, employee statements about the suspicious persons were completely ignored, and somehow in all of this, the fact was overlooked that no aluminum wiring had been found anywhere near the Zebra Room, despite that being the determination of the investigators from the Kentucky State Police. It truly looks like Carroll pushed hard to get the investigators to lay blame squarely at the feet of the Schillings, though there were records that refuted everything the original report said. The owners were blamed "for a variety of negligent acts including gross overcrowding, code violations, and a failure to immediately report the fire" (77%), even though none of that was found to be true when a grand jury investigated.

There s truly so much more I want to share about this whole tragic event, but I feel like that would then perhaps dissuade anyone reading this from seeking out this volume to discover the rest of story for themselves. The story is completely engrossing and I could not put it down once I got through the slow beginning about the history of mob activity in the area. It is clear to me that the fire was deliberately set, and a cover-up attempted to ensure that no one would ever figure out what really happened that night. Luckily, there are former employees and survivors who won't give up until the truth is told.



  1. You *really* are in a tragic mindset ATM - It's almost as if we're living through some kind of Global Disaster...... [grin].

    1. RIGHT??!! Though, in my defense, once you pick a book on KU, you are immediately shown fifty others just like it. So, this is KU's fault really! But I think I am done with disaster books now for a while, just have a few left to review and that's my plan for tonight now that Eleanor has gone to her dad's.

  2. I’m intrigued by your review, thanks for sharing your thoughts

    1. Thank you! I feel like I was all over the place with it - there was just SO MUCH information that was ignored, or even removed from the case files. I had never heard of this event and reading about it now, that really surprises me. It was massive.

  3. Replies
    1. The story is incredibly fascinating. I did not even share nearly as much as I wanted, this review went on so long. I am looking for other books on the subject as well. After the fire was out and the firefighters went in, they found a group of five people sitting at their table, obviously dead. It remains a mystery why they never even attempted to leave. Or maybe they did, saw they'd never get out, and so sat back down together to die with some dignity instead of being piled up in the doorway? Such horrors. I can't even imagine walking through the club when the fire was finally out.


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