Saturday, June 25, 2005

Game Over: RAM MVP

Owner of Famed Taco Land Is Slain

By John Tedesco, Jim Beal and Mary Moreno
Express-News Staff Writers
Web Posted: 06/25/2005 12:00 AM CDT

Ramiro "Ram" Ayala, whose iconic bar Taco Land became an institution for underground music for more than three decades, was shot to death early Friday in a possible robbery attempt, police said.

Two employees at the near North Side bar, doorman Douglas Morgan, 53, and bartender Denise "Sunshine" Koger, 41, were injured in the shooting — Morgan critically.

At 72, Ayala was known to patrons as the gruff bartender with a sweet spot, a gray-haired curmudgeon who opened his dive bar to everyone, from upstart bands with no experience to street people.

With his trademark sunglasses and black rocker T-shirts, Ayala was as offbeat as the bands he booked.

"Ram's everybody's dad," Mitch Webb, lead singer of the local country rock band The Swindles. "He adopted all the homeless people in the area and countless musicians."

Bands across the country wanted to play gigs at the squat brick building at Grayson and Elmira streets. The Dead Milkmen named a song after Taco Land, and the bar cropped up in lyrics by local groups such as Los #3 Dinners.

"Without Ram there, it will never, ever, ever be the same," said Los #3 Dinners lead singer Eric Friedland. "That was why you went to Taco Land, because of him."

Witnesses told police two men in their early 20s had been playing pool and drinking beer at Taco Land early Friday, as the city celebrated the San Antonio Spurs' victory over the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Championship.

Robert Flores, a homeless man who did odd jobs at Taco Land, said two bands scheduled to perform had canceled, so few people were lingering in the bar at 1 a.m.

One of the pool players stood out to Flores because he'd never seen him at Taco Land before.

The man was leaning against the jukebox drinking beer shortly before he walked over to the bar and struck up a conversation with Ayala, Flores said.

Flores didn't hear what was said, but he saw the man stick a gun in Ayala's gut and fire a shot. Flores said he ran out of the bar and didn't see what happened next.

"I can't believe this man went off like that," Flores said.

The two men fled in a silver sports car. They were described as short Hispanic men, one with a light build, the other a little heavier. One of them went by the first name "Rick," or that's what they told other patrons.

The slim man wore a red or burgundy polo shirt and blue jeans, had a crew cut, and spoke Spanish and English.

The second man had a white San Antonio Spurs T-shirt, tattoos on both arms, and light or hazel eyes.

Police found a cash register knocked over with a few dollar bills strewn across the floor.

Investigators said they had no leads.

Although the club seemed like a reliable safe haven to regulars, Taco Land had its rough side. Police knew the spot well, and in recent years had responded to an increasing number of emergency calls.

In 2000, Ayala said in an interview he first opened Taco Land in 1965, selling tacos and enchilada plates to workers from soda pop bottling plants that once operated nearby. After the plants shut down, he turned the business into a bar in 1969.

Taco Land became a draw for an eclectic crowd that on any given night had homeless people drinking beer with uppercrust college students.

"He touched people from every walk of life, from kids (in) Alamo Heights, to kids from Trinity to kids from the West Side," said Laura Escamilla-Fouratt, who worked on a documentary about Taco Land in 1999.

"I think that's kind of what everyone liked about Taco Land," she said. "It was interesting for everyone."

If he liked you, Ayala would offer a sip from "baby," the bottle he kept in a paper bag. You were expected to take a swig of what could be good tequila, cheap Scotch or a more ambiguous mix of fiery liquid.

His affection came out in other ways, too.

"Ram would only heckle bands he liked," said Sanford Nowlin, lead singer for the band Boxcar Satan and a business writer for the San Antonio Express-News.

Roland de la Cruz, guitarist with Los Mescaleros, said, "He could be a tough guy but he was a sweet man. When it came to the club, it didn't matter who you are, you could play there."

There are Ram stories Escamilla-Fouratt has never been able to confirm — that he was a projectionist in old movie houses and that he was a Korean War vet — but his work ethic and devotion to his bar always held true.

"He was really, really proud of Taco Land," she said.

Ayala suffered a heart attack in May 2003 and in recent months spent less time behind the bar, instead holding court from a stool beside the pay phone. The phone would ring periodically throughout shows, and Ram would answer it, barking "What?"

"I love the people that come here. All of them," Ayala said in 2000. "I've got good people and bad people that come here, but 99 percent of the people are good."

To pay homage to a man so many considered a patron saint to the music scene, Friday night's gig became a makeshift memorial with bands More Fire from Austin, Los De Verdad from Houston and local bands Valley of the Kings and Total 13. A crowd of about 400 to 500 people had gathered by 9 p.m.

Mark Cruz, Ayala's son, said he knew there was trouble when he saw the club on television after the Spurs coverage.

He rushed to the scene, and then to Brooke Army Medical Center, where he learned his father had been pronounced dead.

Earlier Friday, shocked patrons gathered outside Taco Land and left a shrine of flowers, candelarias and tributes along an outside wall.

Eddie Cruz, Ayala's youngest son, said he didn't know what would happen to the bar. But he hinted that without Ram, there is no Taco Land.

Express News Staff Writers Vianna Davila, Karisa King, Sheila Hotchkin, Hector SaldaƱa and Michelle Mondo contributed to this report.

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