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Anatomy of a Murder

Pink Poodle
Beaten to Death: Kevin Sullivan, 38, died of 'multiple traumatic injuries' after walking into what police say was a trap at the Pink Poodle strip club.

Six weeks after Kevin Sullivan was beaten to death there, a grim picture emerges of the Pink Poodle strip club, the family that owned it and the bouncers who worked the doors

By Will Harper

EMERGENCY ROOM DOCTORS at Valley Medical Center had pronounced Kevin Sullivan dead at 10pm, but blood still oozed from a 1-inch gash above his right eyelid the following morning at nine, when the autopsy began.

Whoever beat Sullivan to death had focused on his face. One laceration completely split the left side of his lower lip, leaving it dangling. When his nose broke, massive amounts of blood had rushed into his lungs. Though his face took the brunt of the beating, his internal organs were also bruised and cut. According to the autopsy report, Sullivan died of "multiple traumatic injuries."

Being drunk probably didn't help. No defense wounds on his hands or forearms were evident, suggesting the 6-foot, 212-pound carpenter was taken by surprise and didn't attempt to defend himself, authorities say.

"The body is that of a well-developed white male appearing his recorded age of 38 years," medical examiner Massoud Vameghi noted for the official record. A forensic technician snapped photographs of the corpse as Vameghi continued his exam. "The hair is gray-brown, long and partially soaked with blood."

Kevin Sullivan was, according to court documents, a transient. In the past year, he's listed three different home addresses. The night before he checked into the morgue, he had wandered into a hostile world of sex, drugs and violence. His accused attacker, who has been identified in press reports as being associated with the Hell's Angels, was, in fact, a member of the motorcycle gang and had close ties to the president of the local chapter, an investigation has confirmed.

Metro has also uncovered information which shows that the FBI investigation into individuals linked to the events of Aug. 24, announced weeks after the alleged murder, began long before the night Sullivan was killed and that bouncers at the strip club where he was beaten to death had been previously accused of brutality.

On the evening of the killing, Sullivan turned up at Alex's 49er Inn, a blue-collar bar near the corner of San Carlos Street and Bascom Avenue in the Burbank district. Sullivan apparently was no stranger there: An employee at the bar said that she had served Sullivan before the night of his murder.

In the bar's dim light, he could easily have blended into the shadows unnoticed. Guys with muscle shirts and tattoos will boisterously ask the barmaid for another bourbon. Others nurse their beers, staring vacantly at two television monitors hovering at each side of the bar.

Assistant District Attorney Dave Davies says that while at the 49er Inn, Sullivan bumped into David Kuzinich, the husky manager of the Pink Poodle, the 30-year-old strip joint across the street from the bar. Kuzinich and a dancer from the club apparently came into the bar during a break. According to Davies, a drunken Sullivan started making unwanted advances toward the stripper, causing Kuzinich and him to trade words.

After catching a buzz, Sullivan headed over to the Pink Poodle because he wanted "to see some pussy," court papers say. Prosecutors say that Kuzinich actually lured Sullivan to the strip club, inviting him to watch the dancers for free and drink a cup of coffee.

By the time Sullivan made his way to the Pink Poodle, his blood-alcohol content was .19, more than twice the legal driving limit, according to the autopsy report.

Because county law prohibits the strip club from selling booze on the premises, guys will often start the night at the 49er Inn and head over to the Pink Poodle after they've had a few drinks. Though they are neighbors, "there's no love lost between Alex's and the Pink Poodle," according to a lawyer who has represented the 49er.

Two years ago, the 49er Inn sued the Kuzinich family, accusing a Pink Poodle bouncer named Mark Patapoff of beating up a patron. Police reports say the customer was bugging some of the dancers who had walked across the street for a nightcap after work. The victim, Mohammed Hussen, sued the 49er Inn for negligence because that's where the fight occurred. The 49er blamed the Pink Poodle's overzealous bouncer and an acquaintance of his.

Patapoff was never prosecuted and denied hitting Hussen, who later moved out of San Jose and dropped his lawsuit.

The Pride of Angels

THE PINK POODLE is small and cramped. The stage, bordered by white Christmas tree lights, takes up about half the club. On the final night of his life, Sullivan had taken a seat at a booth away from the stage. At some point in the evening, Kuzinich allegedly placed a phone call to Steve Tausan, a 36-year-old Hell's Angel who worked as a bouncer at the club. Tausan's nickname, according to court records, is "Mr. 187," a reference to the penal code for homicide.

Tausan was proud of his affiliation with the biker gang. In 1993, he and James Elrite, president of the local chapter of the Hell's Angels, signed on as plaintiffs in a discrimination lawsuit against the Saddle Rack for refusing to let them in the club while wearing their colors.

Biker pride may have driven events that led to the brutal Aug. 24 beating. Prosectors say that Kuzinich instructed Tausan to "take care of" Sullivan for insulting the motorcycle club. Phone records allegedly show a series of four or five calls between the Pink Poodle, a pay phone near the 49er Inn and Tausan's home before the murder.

Sgt. Jim Arata, a spokesman for the sheriff's office, says that Sullivan was attacked near the bathroom, which is tucked away in the back of the club. According to Assistant District Attorney Davies, when Tausan arrived at the club, Gary Costanza, another bouncer, nicknamed "Sharkey," stood next to Sullivan to alert Tausan to his target, whom the biker had never seen before. Tausan then beat Sullivan to death with his bare hands, prosectors say.

When sheriff's deputies arrived at the scene at 9pm, they found Sullivan propped up on a chair near the club entrance, being attended to by David Kuzinich. He died an hour later.

Six weeks later, the unexpected presence of the FBI and other federal agencies suggested this was not a typical murder case. On Oct. 8, federal authorities joined sheriff's deputies in raiding the Contra Costa homes of David and Peter Kuzinich Sr., the Pink Poodle itself and four other properties owned by members of the Kuzinich family. Police seized phone records and videotapes from the club's security system. They charged Kuzinich, Tausan and Costanza with conspiracy and murder. (Costanza also had been previously accused of beating a club customer, though he denied ever hitting the man, James Rascon, who has since filed a lawsuit against the Pink Poodle.). On Tuesday, Tausan and Kuzinich pleaded not guilty to the charges. Costanza's lawyer says he expects his client to do the same next week.

In the series of arrests early this month, police also busted someone who appeared not to have any involvement in Kevin Sullivan's death: Elrite, the Hell's Angels chapter president who had filed the discrimination lawsuit with Tausan four years earlier. Elrite and his wife, Molly, were hauled off to county jail, charged with making methamphetamine inside a shed at their San Jose home.

Wrong Place, Wrong Time

AT ELRITE'S ARRAIGNMENT, a defense lawyer provided a clue to why authorities, including the FBI, have linked the Pink Poodle to the motorcycle club. Attorney Victor Vertner said prosecutors are alleging that the Hell's Angels used the strip club to launder cash.

What the prosecution's reported theory and circumstantial links between the Poodle and the biker club don't explain is how a 38-year-old carpenter named Kevin Sullivan fits into the puzzle.

While the FBI investigation of the Pink Poodle has been well reported, spokesman George Grotz told Metro that a federal probe into possible drug trafficking and cash laundering predated Sullivan's Aug. 24 murder.

Judging from his rap sheet in Santa Clara County, Kevin Sullivan had a history of drug use and violence. In 1990, Sullivan was convicted for using methamphetamine. He had been charged with intent to sell drugs, vandalism and battery and was convicted of assaulting his girlfriend.

He drove a 1986 Nissan pickup--until a judge impounded it after he got busted for driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs in February. He had been arrested six years earlier for the same crime.

His father, James Sullivan, has told reporters that his son struggled with a drug problem until this spring, but that he believed that Kevin had been trying to get his life back in order. If so, James Sullivan's son sought order in the wrong place, around the wrong people.

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From the Oct. 23-29, 1997 issue of Metro.

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