Feature Stories

The Fall of The Rail Club, Fort Worth's Metal Bar

The graffiti inside The Rail.
The graffiti inside The Rail. courtesy Buster O’Keefe

The Rail Club was a place for the misfits, the outcasts, the forgotten. Black was the attire. Chains and spikes were optional. Located in far west Fort Worth, it was more than a live music venue in an old strip club. It was a home for the North Texas metal community.

Every weekend metalheads would take a ride on The Rail to enjoy a few drinks, relive old memories and head bang with local acts like Creeper, 100 Proof Hatred and Warbeast.

Warbeast had planned to play an Oct. 20 show at The Rail. It would have been a special show for fans and a miracle for its lead singer, Bruce Corbitt, who would return to the stage for a full show after receiving a Stage 4 esophageal cancer diagnosis. It was just one of a half dozen kick-ass shows listed for the next three months.

Until The Rail Club’s landlord bolted the door for the club's failure to pay rent.

Brian Scheid and Chris Polone, The Rail Club co-owners, blame their partner Kevin Dunlap of Ghostlight Concerts, an entertainment group based in Fort Worth. They've sued Dunlap in Tarrant County, accusing him of theft and fraud and claiming he diverted money from the club to himself. Dunlap denies the allegations.

Outside the courthouse, the fight has grown especially nasty on Facebook, and Dunlap says he's received death threats that caused him to go into hiding.

“I have a very sad public announcement to make,” Scheid posted Thursday on Facebook. “The Rail Club is closed for good. For months myself and my partner Chris sifted through our financial records to figure out why the money didn’t add up. It wasn’t until this past weekend when Chris stumbled across some documents that showed a lot of money being diverted away from The Rail Club into a personal checking account.”

Polone followed with his own post — only less tactful.

“This is the saddest post I have ever written,” Polone wrote Thursday afternoon. “As of today, The Rail Club is out of business. … Last week, I got lucky and discovered all of the missing money that was critical to our operations (i.e. pay rent) and took that info to the authorities as well as our lawyer. I was just too late. To put it simple, our partner Kevin Dunlap embezzled 10s of thousands of dollars from the rail club. … Mr. Kevin Dunlap, if you are reading this, then I want you to know that your day is coming. May you live forever knowing that you destroyed the lives and dreams of so many.”

Social media exploded. Some posted offers to buy the building and rent it to the The Rail owners. Others called for Dunlap’s head.

“Don’t let One Bad Apple smash your dreams, Chris Karma Polone,” one fan wrote. “You’re a fighter and you will get past this so let’s all go find that f*** head and bury him somewhere.”

Dunlap took to The Rail’s Facebook page the next day to post his response.

“As for any allegations against me of embezzling, I’m waiting to be informed of what supposed evidence exists against me, because as of this moment, I haven’t been provide any; just attacked on social media with no opportunity to defend myself, which has led to death threats and legitimate safety concerns for my family,” he wrote.

Dunlap has since removed the post.

In 2015, Dunlap stepped in to save The Rail with his partners, Josh Campbell and Kyle Booker. They bought the club from founder Buster O’Keefe, who sold it to take care of his elderly father. O’Keefe had opened The Rail in 2010 as Fort Worth’s premier metal club. Local metalheads began frequenting the place and calling it a second home.

National acts like Hank Williams III also stopped by to jam. Ride for Dime, a local charity, began hosting one night of its annual weekend event there.

“The scene was happening,” recalls guitar slinger Jim Crye of Volume Dealer and Primal Concrete Cowboys. “The guitars on the walls, the metal vibe. It drew in all the top bands. It had a special vibe, like Trees.”

But Dunlap and his partners had a different vision for the place.

click to enlarge Warbeast performed at The Rail Club in 2017. - JASON JANIK
Warbeast performed at The Rail Club in 2017.
Jason Janik

“It’s definitely my goal to try to get rid of the metal stigma that we have,” Dunlap told the Observer in January 2016. “We’re not trying to kick it out the door, but we’re wanting a more genre-neutral venue.”

That genre-neutral vibe was captured with acts like Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, the Dead Kennedys and Bret Michaels from Poison.

Dunlap and his partners also remodeled the place, using money partially raised on Gofundme. They took down the signature electric guitars and rearranged the bar and the stage to open up the pit for fans. They began booking acts like David Allan Coe and the Texas Hippie Coalition.

In September 2017, Campbell and Booker sold their shares to Polone, a former promoter at Ridglea Theater, and Schneider, an executive at Wells Fargo. The club’s vibe began to change again.

“It just didn’t feel as cool and hip after Josh and Kyle got out,” Crye says. “One thing that turned me off was when they changed the payout deal for bands.”

“One thing that turned me off was when they changed the payout deal for bands.” – Jim Crye

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It’s known as “pay-to-play.” Crye says the owners kept $2 of the $10 after the $100, giving the bands $8 per head after $100.

But this payout deal wasn’t guaranteed. The Observer’s longtime contributing music writer Eric Grubbs recently played at The Rail with his punk band Creatures and Chemicals. They were supposed to be part of a four-band event on a Sunday night in June. One band dropped out. The other didn’t show. There is no telling what happened to the headliner. (A band member was spotted chatting with owners outside.) Grubbs’ band nearly played a full set and sold 30 tickets to their fans and received only $25. With all the notable national acts playing shows there, they thought The Rail Club was successful, Grubbs says.

Polone and Scheid also thought The Rail Club was successful when they bought in for $25,000 each. Then they started looking at the bookkeeping and learned of the club's debt.

“After we bought in, I quickly realized what he presented to me [about the club making money] wasn’t happening,” Scheid says.

Ever since he got involved in 2015, Dunlap had been booking shows at The Rail through his company Ghostlight Concerts. If the band’s show made money, Polone and Scheid claim Dunlap would pocket the money. But if the band’s show didn’t make money, The Rail was on the hook to pay it.

“We had multiple employees say [Dunlap] was taking money off the register to pay the bills,” Polone says. “He was using the club as an insurance policy.”

After their first quarter in March, Scheid says he created a spreadsheet to track what Dunlap was spending and found that Dunlap owed the club between $7,000 and $9,000. Dunlap quickly paid back what he owed.

“He paid us back with our own damn money,” Polone claims.

Scheid and Polone soon realized the club was still losing money. Some months were more successful than others, but they claimed they couldn’t figure out why the club was taking a hit financially. Then Polone accessed Dunlap’s email account and noticed several transactions that had circumvented The Rail in regards to renting the room to bands. Polone and Scheid's lawsuit claims Dunlap told them the club didn't need rental contracts with some bands because the club would profit from liquor sales to "'high-volume bar' consumers." That didn't happen, the suit claims, and Dunlap did have rental contracts with the acts, only he diverted the rent money to himself or other business in which he had a stake.

Dunlap denies their claim and says he has receipts to back up nearly everything he had spent in regards to The Rail.

A couple of weeks ago on a Sunday, Polone tore The Rail’s office apart trying to find evidence that showed Dunlap was taking money. He went through every single file and document. He knew they should have more money because the shows were bigger than ever before. There was a Magic Mike tribute show, a Summers of Screams Tour with Mushroomhead and more.

“Every club loses money but not to the extent that we were in,” he says. “I got a lucky break.”

Dunlap is now in hiding.  Some fans have been telling him to commit suicide. He claims Polone told him to put a gun in his mouth, and Scheid posted on Facebook that he was going to kill Dunlap if he ever saw him again. Dunlap filed a harassment report with Fort Worth police.

“I haven’t been able to go home,” Dunlap says. “So many threats.”

“I haven’t been able to go home. So many threats.” – Kevin Dunlap

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He’s facing the social media mob ever since Polone and Scheid convicted him through Facebook posts before he even had a day in court. A hearing is scheduled next week over Polone and Scheid's request to lock Dunlap out of the club's account.

Dunlap denies embezzling money. He says the club has been struggling to pay their bills.

“The overhead is high,” he says, “and we’ve been behind on taxes.”

He says that they had to take out a $40,000 loan for businesses with an interest rate of more than 100 percent. They were also paying $4,000 monthly for rent but failed to pay in July and August.

Their landlord’s Austin-based attorney, Douglass Hearne Jr., sent them a written notice Aug. 17, warning them to catch up or find a chain on the door. The landlord, Tom Stamatopoulos, gave them five days to pay up and requested copies of their insurance certificates within 10 days and updated financials.

Dunlap says he made the club $60,000 in July from booking shows and told his partners to do something about the late rent.

“‘Yeah, yeah, we’ve taken care of it and sent an email,’” he recalls them saying.

Polone says they sent an email to the landlord's attorney explaining they could pay part of what they owed and then pay the rest later. They had a few upcoming shows that they believed would make money. Christian metal band Impending Doom was supposed to take the stage Sept. 7 and 8, supported by Distinguisher, The Villain, Suffer the Human Condition and a few other metal acts. They also had Little Debbie booked for Sept. 15 and Sons of Texas the following weekend.

The attorney responded with another email shortly before the club doors were chained Sept. 12.

“The Rail Club, Inc., as tenant, failed to cure said default,” Hearne wrote with an attached notice of lease termination effective immediately. “Further, September rent is now past due.”

Polone and Scheid showed up to work on a Wednesday and found a chain on The Rail’s front door. They were shocked. Polone thought for sure the landlord was going to work with them. He says they were only one month and 14 days behind. They planned to make it up over the weekend with the Christian rock band, though it’s hard to imagine how without bar sales. Because he never received a response to their email with the proposition, Polone says he thought The Rail could still open.

They were devastated when they saw the chains — not just for themselves but also for their staff. For many of them, The Rail was their main source of income and, in some cases, their only source.

A day later, Scheid took to Facebook.

“Sorry at this moment in my life, I don’t give a fuck,” he wrote. “I’m laying in the parking lot of the club I used to own until this son of a bitch robbed me of everything I worked the last year for. #sorrynotsorryforexpsingafraudandsomeone thatcost25peopletheirjobs. If I ever see him again I will kill him.”

Polone shared a couple of Facebook live videos and wrote a few emotional posts. He says that he contacted their lawyers and law enforcement, according to his Sept. 13 Facebook post. He followed it with another post that linked to #SaveTheRailClub GoFundMe page.

“I will not roll over and die!!!” he wrote. “If this is what it takes then so fucking be!!! If you guys help us raise this money, I swear to god Brian and I will rebuild The Rail Club and make it bigger and better.”

They raised $1,266 of their $75,000 goal. The Facebook post with the link has since been removed.

Dunlap blames bad bookkeeping because he had linked accounts to his PayPal account, which he uses not only for Ghostlight and The Rail, but also to sell Pokemon cards on eBay. He says he can think of a few occasions when some money from The Rail Club was leftover in his PayPal account and says he has business receipts for any money he spent.

There may have been a time or two, he says, where he made mental notes to pay back The Rail Club if he did use the club’s money, but he wasn’t “doing anything malicious.” He compares it to the time he says Scheid used The Rail Club’s company card to go play poker at Choctaw Casino or the times in the past when they had to use money from Dunlap’s other bar, Whiskey Business, to pay the club’s rent. In both situations, he says, they always paid back the club.

“If he could show me one piece of paper, I’m really looking and found a couple of transactions, but short of that, I can’t find anything,” he says.

Polone, who is the custodian of records for Fort Worth Rail Club Live!, the club's corporate owner, filed an affidavit for the temporary injunction and wrote that Dunlap had deposited $18,000 of the club’s money into his personal account. He says that doesn’t include the money they lost from shows after the landlord kicked them out.

Dunlap has been hosting some of the shows at Whiskey Business. He claims he’s spent up his savings to help pay The Rail’s rent, as well as cover the bands that were scheduled to play The Rail until it closed. He was meeting with his attorney Friday and plans to be at the hearing Tuesday morning. He says he was told that the landlord plans to rent the building to someone who wants to open a strip club.

The landlord’s attorney says they haven’t had anyone sign a lease to open one.

About a month ago, Dunlap planned to step away from The Rail after five years. He says his partners had made some “stupid business decisions” when business slowed down. They had a few shows that didn’t go their way and they were losing money.

“To people who do music business, I have a very pristine and very good reputation,” he says. “Ask yourselves: Would these people do business with me if I was that kind of person? The Rail Club’s closing has been a long time coming.”

“Ask yourselves: Would these people do business with me if I was that kind of person? The Rail Club’s closing has been a long time coming.” – Kevin Dunlap

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After the doors were chained, the landlord gave permission for Scheid and Polone to collect their belongings in the club. They then graffitied the walls with "Fuck Kevin Dunlap. Dick sucker."

O’Keefe, former owner of The Rail, was not happy about the graffiti.

"I have kept my thoughts to myself about why the Rail Club closed until now after seeing what the owners and employees did to the Logo last night," O'Keefe wrote on Facebook. "This broke my heart when this picture was sent to me this morning. You people blame everything on Kevin when in reality you Totally MisManaged the club! You were more than a month behind on rent and have been more than once! You are thousands of dollars behind on taxes but yet you pay yourself a check every couple of weeks instead of paying your bills first! No Landlord is going to lock you out of a building over 1 months rent as was stated when all of this came out.
I said in the beginning when they started hiring all of these people for different positions that it would never work. They didn't last ONE YEAR!! That say's it all right there. Why would anyone donate money to help them open another club when they totally ran this one in the ground??

"So many Great Bands have played there and we lost one of the Greatest Ever on stage, Mike Scaccia, R.I.P.
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Christian McPhate is an award-winning journalist who specializes in investigative reporting. He covers crime, the environment, business, government and social justice. His work has appeared in several publications, including the Dallas Morning News, the Fort Worth Star Telegram, the Miami Herald, San Antonio Express News and The Washington Times.