MICHIGAN CITY – A Trail Creek bar owner who admittedly struck a female patron in the mouth with a bottle of liquor in 2017 was sentenced to a year of probation Thursday.
Gordon R. Gardner, owner of Decoys Neighborhood Bar & Grill on U.S. 20, was scheduled for a jury trial on Sept. 23, but entered a plea agreement with the state in La Porte Superior Court 1.
The deal called for him to plead guilty to criminal recklessness as a Level 6 felony, which he did; and judgment of conviction was entered for one count of Class A misdemeanor criminal recklessness.
The charges Gardner faced of aggravated battery and battery – felony levels 3 and 5, respectively – were dismissed.
Before accepting the terms of the plea agreement, Judge Michael Bergerson asked many questions of both the state and defense.
He wanted to know why in a high felony court, he should be considering a misdemeanor deal. And he was especially concerned about why the state was willing to plead the case to a misdemeanor just one year after attempting to classify the incident as a racially-motivated hate crime.
La Porte County Prosecutor John Lake noted it was former prosecutor John Espar who had made that call, and said he couldn’t say why with certainty.
"That happened right before the election, and I don't know if it was politically motivated at the time,” Lake said.
Bergerson asked Gardner to explain in his own words what the motivation was behind the crime.
Gardner said he was reacting to a group of four people who came into his bar and caused a disturbance by dumping their drinks out on the bartop around 2 a.m. on Oct. 29, 2017.
“I just threw it,” he said.
Asked whether racial bias played into his actions, Gardner denied it, saying he dated black girls when he was in high school, and now has black and Hispanic family members by marriage, as well as mixed-race grandchildren.
“The drinks got poured,” Gardner recalled. “I had the bottle in my hand when I came out of the liquor room, and it was full. ... I can't change what I did. But there was no pre-motivation to it all; it was simply a reaction.”
The victim’s attorney in a civil suit she filed against Gardner confirmed for the court that his client supports the plea agreement in the criminal case. However, he said she testified during a deposition that Gardner had uttered a racial slur during the incident, although not directed at her specifically.
Lake said that had he been the original prosecutor on the case, he may have filed a Level 6 felony charge in La Porte Superior Court 4, as opposed to classifying the liquor bottle as a deadly weapon and filing the Level 3 felony charge in Superior Court 1.
He said that under normal circumstances, he’d have dismissed the case Espar filed in Court 1 and refiled in Court 4. However, the state has run out of time to prosecute Gardner because of a continuance requested under Espar’s administration.
“What happened is, as a result of the continuance ... that [time] was chargeable to the state,” Lake said. “We only have like two days left [to try the defendant].”
Even if the case were to go to trial, the victim indicated last year she would not be willing to testify, which Lake said would make proving battery and aggravated battery difficult.
“I think justice is being done,” Lake said. “I think [the plea agreement] holds the defendant accountable, and I also believe that we take into account what the victim really wants in this as well.”
Defense attorney Craig Braje said his client never intended to leverage the victim’s lack of cooperation against her at trial, and that he’s been prepared to enter a plea since the case began.
"My client has consistently indicated that he committed the crime of criminal recklessness. He's never dodged it, has never made an excuse for it, has never said that he was justified in what happened,” Braje said. “…My client sits here understanding he did something wrong, that he should not have done.”
“There's nothing I can do to erase what I did,” Gardner said. “It was stupid, it was reckless. It was disproportionate to the response that I should have had. There are so many things that I could have done differently. And I just snapped. I threw it, and I can't take it back. But I did do that, and I've said that every day since it happened.”