Rusty Wilson wants to believe that…
Well, that he has been believed.
That strange split sentence isn’t just some fun writing device. It’s pretty much the full description of what’s puzzling the well-known — and occasionally controversial — owner of Kite’s Grille and Bar.
Here’s some background to a unique situation that leads straight to Monday’s meeting of the Riley County Law Board:
Earlier this year, and particularly the weekend of Fake Patty’s Day, Wilson felt that he and Kite’s were being targeted unfairly by the Riley County Police Department — to the point where he thought it was out-and-out harassment.
“I just wanted a level playing field,” Wilson says. “Why are all the cops at my place looking for underage drinking, when it’s going on all over town?
“I had tried once in 2012 to meet with Brad (RCPD director Brad Schoen), but he kind of just dismissed me. It was like they felt they could do whatever they wanted, and I was just being a pain.
“In particular, one young officer was making it his private war, trying to catch people in Kite’s. I have videotape of him moving drinks in front of younger girls, so he could cite them for being underage.”
Convinced he needed a more receptive audience (and one with authority over the police), Wilson took his case to the law board at its March 22 meeting.
Schoen and the board heard Wilson’s complaints, responded to his charges, and that was that.
Unsure that anything would come of that first appearance, Wilson requested to be put on the agenda for the law board’s next regular meeting.
That one comes Monday night.
So is Rusty ready for battle?
“Honestly, no,” he says. “Since that last law board meeting, the officer I felt was targeting us hasn’t been in Kite’s. The officers who have been around have been respectful. They’re still checking to make sure things are OK — which they should do — but it’s like we’re working together to keep things right.
“One officer noticed that a back door, which we are required to keep open during business hours, was locked. Instead of rousting me or anyone else, he said, ’Hey, Rusty, did you know this door was locked?’
“I was surprised and upset, and I jumped all over my manager for screwing up. But it felt different. It was like there was a sense of cooperation with the police to make sure the rules are followed.”
Wilson is adamant that he’s no cheater, either — perhaps looking the other way so that younger kids can be served.
“It’s terrible business,” he says. ”It’s not worth it.
“You get caught, it’s costs all kinds of money to defend yourself, and the ABC (Alcoholic Beverage Control, a division of the Kansas Department of Revenue) will suspend or revoke your license.
“We do everything in our power to catch underage drinkers.
“Wait a minute…”
Rusty disappears, and returns with a massive box. It must contain thousands of driver’s licenses, from Kansas and elsewhere.
“Every one of these is either fake, or belonged to someone other than the person who tried to use it,” Wilson says. “Each one has another card with it, showing that the person was cited by the police for MIP (minor in possession).”
So given all this, what is the strategy for Monday’s law board appearance?
Keep turning the screws?
Wilson is no stranger to legal battles — he’s run for the Kansas State Senate (2008) and lost, been sued for $3.6 million by Farmers State Bank over a business loan (dismissed), threatened to close his restaurant in Junction City over the location of a grease receptacle, and defended himself countless times with the ABC.
“I’m not afraid to fight for what I think is right or fair,” says the man who plays drums at a progressive Methodist church service every Sunday, and still runs the farm that fed his grandparents. “I’m never going to let myself get pushed around, like I’m doing something wrong if I’m not.”
“Honestly, I think I might go to the law board and thank them for listening to me. I don’t want to fight unless it’s absolutely necessary, and the evidence since I went to the law board in March suggests that they heard me…that they believed me.
“You have no idea how much I want that to be true.”
In other words, Wilson says, this is another battle which he’ll fight if he must – but which would cost him dearly in the long run.
“Hey, I started working at Kite’s in the 1980s,” says the 50-year-old unofficial mayor of Aggieville. “I served the first hard liquor drink at Kite’s, and when the business was liquidated in 1995, I bought the right to the name at an auction for $5,000.
“Now this corner (12th and Moro, where Kite’s and Wilson’s other bar/restaurant, Rusty’s, are connected) does $4 million a year in business.
“I don’t want to screw this up. I work hard and people joke that I never sleep, but I’ve put my life into this. Into Aggieville. Into Manhattan. Into our relationship with K-State.
“And I’m not kidding myself. I need the police.
“That’s not an empty statement. Kite’s and Rusty’s have won awards, been named on most-popular lists — even nationally — and the only way that happens is if we do a good job, work hard and we play by rules.”
Over the course of an hour, Wilson says four or five times that he would be “out of business” without help from the police — and without a decent relationship with the cops, the city and the university.
“Look, nobody’s kidding anyone here. I’ll say this to the law board if they ask me: You just can’t keep every underage kid out of a bar.
“All you can do is work like crazy to prevent it. I spend $150,000 a year on security, which is a pretty good chunk of money. This is serious.
“You have to have great managers, and you have to be able to trust them. Hey, if I’ve got a manager on the door, and he lets in an underage girl who flirted with him because he thinks he’s gonna get lucky…
“OK, that’s human nature. What were we thinking when we were that age?
But the bottom line is that I have to know that and stop it. That’s why I’m totally in the hands of the people I hire — and the police who watch the place, because sometimes they’ll find somebody we missed. It all has to work together.”
Wilson is quick to point out that, while it would be a tremendous relief to reach an understanding with the RCPD and the law board, he still has other battles to fight.
“Take a look at the state statute that covers underage drinking, or serving anyone you shouldn’t for any reason,” he says. “It reads that you can be cited, have your license suspended or revoked, if you serve that person ‘knowingly or unknowingly.’
“How is that reasonable? Punishing me for serving someone I had no idea on earth should not be served?
“I’ll never give up fighting to get that ‘unknowingly’ part taken out of the law — but believe me, it’s hard. We should, as a group, have a lobbyist working full-time on that, but bar owners are notoriously hard to organize. And unfortunately, a lot of them are pretty tight with their money.
“So it’s frustrating. But yeah, I’ve got a lobbyist trying to help. I’ll stay at it.
“You have to bust your backside to make a good living in this business anyway, and there always will be people who want you to fail — for whatever reason. And the hours are brutal if you want to be good at this.
“But I love it, and I love keeping up the tradition that Kite Thomas started when he first opened this place in the 1950s.
“If we’ve gotten to where there’s a spirit of cooperation with the police, I’ll thank them over and over.
“Trust me on that.”