Local News

Saturday, Sep 05 2009 12:00 PM

Trout's nightclub manager sues musicians for slander and wins $1.5 million

BY DAVIN MCHENRY, Breaking News editor dmchenry@bakersfield.com

The manager of Trout's has sued and won a $1.5 million judgment against a Bakersfield Sound-era musician and his wife for allegedly slandering him and the nightclub.

Allen Thomas Rockwell, known as T. Rockwell, sued Bobby and SanDee Durham in 2008 claiming they spread rumors about him stealing money from the bar's owner, handing out drugs, soliciting sex orgies and putting video cameras in the bathrooms at the nightclub.

The couple also told people the bar had been run into the ground and was only frequented by drug addicts and homosexuals, with the latter often stripping off clothing and taking over the dance floor, the lawsuit says.

Bobby Durham is a locally-born singer and guitarist who mixed with some of the pioneers of the Bakersfield Sound in the '60s and '70s, but, with the exception of charting a few singles in Australia, never hit the big time like Buck Owens or Merle Haggard.

Trout's is one of the last remaining country music nightclubs from the Bakersfield Sound era.

The Durhams performed at Trout's for "years" according to Rockwell. They left suddenly in 2007 and became regular performers at Buck Owens Crystal Palace, he said.

Most of the slander, according to the suit, was done by SanDee Durham. Four people signed statements saying SanDee had made remarks in front of them, according to court records.

Rockwell's lawsuit claims the slander triggered a steep decline in the nightclub's receipts. Before the rumors started, the suit says, the bar was regularly taking in more than $80,000 every three months. That number eventually peaked at more than $100,000 in fall 2006 -- and then started dropping fast.

By the end of 2008, the bar hit rock bottom when it made only $31,000 in one quarter.

In all Rockwell sued the couple for $1.5 million. He won a "default" judgment in July after the Durhams and their lawyer stopped appearing in court on the case.

The Durhams declined to comment on the case, referring calls to their lawyer, Stephen Wainer.

"You'll have to talk to our attorney," SanDee Durham said. "He has everything under control."

Wainer wouldn't comment when asked whether the Durhams had actually made the statements that were the focus of Rockwell's lawsuit.

However, Wainer said he plans to go to court to get the judgment thrown out. He argued that Trout's hasn't actually seen any drop in income in recent years. The owners have been siphoning off money, instead of putting it into the bar's accounts, he said.

Wainer also said he plans on filing a suit against Rockwell for overstating how much money Durham earned while working at Trout's. In one year, Rockwell told the IRS he paid more than $50,000 to Durham for performing at the bar, Wainer said.

"That's a lot of money for a guy who played a couple nights a week," the attorney said.

The tax forms filed by Trout's have left Bobby Durham facing more than $21,000 in back taxes and penalties, Wainer said.

Rockwell said his attorneys told him not to comment on the allegations of siphoning money or overstating Durham's wages. Seth O'Dell, one of the attorneys on the case, said he hasn't heard anything about a motion to set aside the judgment or about the Durhams' filing a lawsuit.

"I've seen nothing to indicate Trout's or Rockwell have done anything improper," O'Dell said.

Even if the judgment holds up, collecting $1.5 million from the Durhams might be difficult. According to court records, the couple's major assets appear to be a mobile home worth about $26,000 and a nearly 20-year-old Jeep.

O'Dell said he wasn't sure how aggressively the firm would be in collecting on the judgment.

"Not every lawsuit is merely a money grab," he said. "Some lawsuits are conducted because of the principle of the matter."

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