The corners of Sixth and Main streets in downtown Boise mean different things to different age groups. Professionals might point to City Hall or the Pioneer Building—but for thousands of college-age Boiseans, Sixth and Main is the centerpiece of their weekend nightlife. The density of watering holes inspired Boise Weekly to dub the area the "Barmuda Triangle" and, while more than a few bars and bar owners have come and gone, Ted Challenger has endured.
"I've always been drawn to the energy of a bar, for good or bad. I'd be the first to say that my behavior wasn't always the best," said Challenger, who has been Sixth and Main's most infamous entrepreneur for more than a quarter of a century. "And the people in this town? They don't forget."
There has been plenty to recall: a 2013 promotion promising a free "boob job" to one lucky Mardi Gras reveler, or the time Challenger used social media to shame and track down a man who stole money from an employee's purse.
Challenger admits his career has been colorful but, in a wide-ranging interview with questions about his checkered rise to fame, he was candid about his alcohol- and sex-fueled attraction to the industry, the rapidly-changing bar scene and the Jan. 14 stabbing at China Blue that left 21-year-old Daviel Ruiz-Gomez dead.
"It's my understanding that Daviel was an amazing person. We have complete surveillance at each of my locations and when we watched the video..." Challenger didn't finish the sentence. He looked away before adding, "It happened right between the dance floor and the bar. The video... it was hard to watch."
The China Blue Stabbing
Type "China Blue" into Google; scroll past Facebook, Yelp and FourSquare listings of the bar; and you'll find a slew of posts with headlines like "China Blue Nightclub Stabbing" or "China Blue Nightclub Owner Discusses Stabbing."
"In retrospect, I regret giving that interview to KTVB-TV. I was still in shock," said Challenger, referring to a Channel 7 interview that aired hours after the attack. "I hadn't humanized it."
Ruiz-Gomez was much loved and social media lit up with concern at the news he was stabbed at approximately 1:40 a.m. on Jan. 14. Ruiz-Gomez's wife, Danielle, posted a series of heartbreaking Facebook and Twitter updates, using #DavielStrong, and thanking friends for their prayers. She wrote, "He is in bad condition" after Ruiz-Gomez was rushed to Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center for treatment of stab wounds to the chest and torso. Three days later, he was declared brain dead at Saint Al's, where he had been on life support.
"R.I.P. my love. You are my everything and always will be," Danielle wrote on Facebook.
"I was home asleep, and I had turned the ringer off on my phone," said Challenger of the early morning events of Jan. 14. "Someone had to drive to my home to wake me up. Half awake, I thought I was having a nightmare. I got down to China Blue as fast as I could."
The following morning, Challenger gathered his employees to debrief and, more important, to check on their well being.
"They were scared. They had worked so hard to build up the reputation of China Blue. They were saddened and in shock," said Challenger. "I immediately offered anonymous grief counseling. I said, 'Just send me the bill.'"
The surveillance footage was turned over to Boise police, who arrested Jesus Garcia, 24, of Nampa. He was charged with second-degree murder shortly after Ruiz-Gomez died, adding to an already robust history of violence: Garcia was convicted in 2010 for aggravated assault, and was out on bail after being arrested in December 2016 for felony drug possession. He has also been charged with a felony count of aggravated battery for stabbing a second man (his identity has not been made public) at China Blue on Jan. 14. Three weeks later, on Feb. 2, a shackled Garcia was led into the Ada County Courtroom of Fourth Judicial District Court Judge Michael Swain. Clad in a yellow- and white-striped prisoner's uniform, Garcia flashed a smile and winked to relatives in the courtroom. Neither his attorney nor the Ada County prosecutor's office were ready to move forward with the case, so Swain pushed the preliminary hearing to Tuesday, March 7. Nearly a minute after he entered the courtroom, lawmen escorted Garcia to a waiting bus, returning him to the Ada County Jail where he's being held on $2 million bail—far higher than an initial $500,000, which prosecutors successfully argued should be raised based on his criminal history.
"Ten seconds. That's how fast it happened," said Challenger. "My doormen moved in and cops were here in a heartbeat. I think it took Boise police one minute to be on the scene. We applied first aid and paramedics were here in four minutes. The suspect? To the best of our knowledge, he was in the bar for about eight minutes."
Preventing the Next Incident
"Orlando changed everything," said Challenger.
On June 12, 2016, Omar Mateen, 29, walked into an Orlando, Fla. nightclub and began shooting, killing 49 people and wounding 53 others before he was shot and killed by police. The domestic terrorism incident stunned the nation and had American restaurant and bar owners on alert.
"It wasn't long after that incident that we began Krav Maga training. We have that training for our doormen and [door]woman every three months," said Challenger, referring to the self-defense techniques, including disarming a gunman, developed by the Israeli Defense Forces.
Additionally, Challenger has surveillance cameras capturing images in every corner of his four venues: Amsterdam Lounge, China Blue, Dirty Little Roddy's and Tailgate.
"There are 63 cameras. I can watch them on my cellphone at any time, and I certainly look at the feeds from my desktop at home," he said. "If someone does something wrong down here, I've got them on camera, and I have no problem putting their image on Facebook."
Take, for instance, an incident in January 2015 when Challenger learned someone had stolen cash from employees' purses. Surveillance footage showed a male rifling through bags. Challenger posted the video on his Facebook page. Within two days, someone gave him a name.
"That guy was down here, sliding an envelope with the cash under our door, in no time flat," said Challenger. (The matter was also turned over to police).
One of the biggest issues for any bar is customers with weapons, particularly in "concealed carry" Idaho, where citizens are permitted to keep their weapon of choice close at hand.
"But there's no place for guns anywhere near alcohol," said Challenger.
Signs warn customers their firearms aren't welcome in his establishments, but gun-toting customers have walked through his doors. On July 4, 2010, an off-duty Ada County sheriff's deputy was packing heat inside Dirty Little Roddy's.
"He was riding the mechanical bull and there it was: his sidearm," Challenger said.
Deputy Ron Lowe was asked to leave the bar but, according to police, he refused. Lowe was ultimately escorted out of the bar by law enforcement and cited for being under the influence of alcohol while carrying a concealed weapon. Lowe actually had two guns on him, neither of which was his service weapon.
The stabbing incident at China Blue triggered another change—one that Challenger insists should bring even more safety to his establishments.
"As soon as Boise police publicly released the name of the stabbing suspect, I looked him up on the Idaho court repository and saw his connection to violent crime," said Challenger. "So, very soon, we'll begin looking up people's prior criminal histories."
Challenger has invested in a new system that will require customers to swipe their driver's license or ID, which will then be checked against a criminal database.
"Anyone with a violent act in their past? They'll be gone," said Challenger. "I hope that it will be in place by the end of February."
Booze, Sex and Haters
"I was 19, working at the Red Lion hotel downtown, and I was a banquet waiter," Challenger said. "But I was always drawn to the bar."
By his own admission, Challenger "had a mouth" on him. It got him into trouble and occasionally fired, but even former employers would tell him, "If you owned your own bar, you'd probably do pretty well," and he always gravitated back to the bar business.
To say Challenger was a hustler is an understatement. Name a rule, and he bent or broke it. Once Challenger slipped $300 to a doorman in order to get himself hired. One time, he wanted to be a bar manager so badly, he got an existing manager hired somewhere else so he could take over. At 22, Challenger was offered a partnership in the Main Street Bistro. He eventually struck a deal in which he assumed the debt of his partner and took full ownership of the establishment.
"I tore out the dining room, changed uniforms and concentrated on the bar. I think Main Street Bistro was doing about $280,000 worth of business each year back then. Our best year? $2 million," said Challenger with a smile.
All the while, his reputation grew. To some, he was a nice guy, a tough guy, a fun guy, a hard-ass, a shrewd businessman, a sexist provocateur.
"When I was 22, I was a fat little kid who didn't get any attention. Suddenly, that attention shifted in my direction and people wanted to be around me. I went crazy," said Challenger. "I worked my ass off. I had my own little posse. We partied. I did a lot of wrong things. I wasn't happy. I was living a fake life."
Challenger is particular when describing his attraction to the nightlife.
"I had a strong desire for high levels of dopamine," he said, referring to the neurotransmitter that sets the pace for human behaviors, many of them hyper. "And I chased that. I wanted to fulfill that. There was the alcohol. There was the sex."
And there were more businesses. He added China Blue and Dirty Little Roddy's, he transformed Main Street Bistro into Amsterdam Lounge and, last July, bought Cheerleaders Sports Bar near Boise State University and turned it into Tailgate Sports Bar.
Challenger also was gaining a reputation for exploitive marketing.
"Bikini bull riding? Remember those ads using just a pair of tits? I had to change," he said. "I met a great woman, and I needed to be a better partner. And she has a daughter. I started asking, 'How do I treat girls?' 'Are we sexualizing them?' I had to change our promotions. It was life-changing. I put myself into deep counseling."
Despite his efforts, Challenger concedes he still has plenty of "haters."
"For instance, there was a lot of shit-talk on social media in the wake of the stabbing incident," he said. "All of my enemies came out of the woodwork. I responded by writing, 'Have you heard of the word slander?' I'm through with it."
For now, Challenger has his eye on the future. A new security system. Gender-appropriate promotions. And hiring more people, he said, that can readily adapt to the his ever-changing industry.
"When someone isn't too shy, walks up to me and sincerely wants to know more about succeeding, that's a great sign," said Challenger. "They take great pride in who they are. I take great pride in them, too."