A Tangled Web at Spider House
A culture of heavy drinking and late nights, alleged sexual misconduct, and a lawsuit all pull on the threads of a poisonous time at the campus-area cafe
On a brisk Tuesday afternoon in December, Spider House Cafe and Ballroom isn't exactly bustling, but it's far from empty. College students, alone and coupled, sit outside drinking beers or working on laptops, likely unaware of the legal and moral drama happening behind the celebrated social spot's wooden doors.
The rambling compound with its large outdoor patio and disco-balled event space has become an Austin institution since opening in 1995. While Spider House has drawn in UT students, bands, burlesque shows, poets, comedians, and more, it's also built a reputation as a safe space, hosting welcoming events and promoting itself to the city's LGBTQ community and progressive organizations. The venue and its owners John Dorgan and Conrad Bejarano, whose entrepreneurial endeavors have included video store I Luv Video and dry cleaning service EcoClean, have received local and national accolades, including multiple "Best of Austin" awards from readers of the Chronicle.
However, Spider House is also the scene of alleged incidents of sexual misconduct and harassment, dating at least as far back as 2013. Since Bejarano discovered the space in the early Nineties, a bar culture has been slowly built through late nights, heavy drinking, and risqué behavior, according to employees and customers whose Spider House stories have become local gossip and fueled social media frenzies.
It's not clear if or when this behavior crossed the line into impropriety, but a number of employees and others have since claimed it did. This story reflects interviews and conversations conducted in person, by phone, and via email over the past 14 months with current and (mostly) former Spider House employees and with Dorgan and Bejarano, as well as social media posts and public and personal emails and texts contemporary to the events in question.
What is clear, however, is when these allegations found their way into the legal system. Dorgan, who is still a co-owner but has been banned from Spider House and erased from its website, filed a civil suit in October against Bejarano, still his business partner, and a former employee named Jeremy Rogers. The suit accuses the two men of "libel and slander that is false, misleading, and defamatory" to both Dorgan and Spider House.
Dorgan's suit is a delayed response to allegations made last year by Rogers and his wife Tiffany Paciga (who is not named in the suit) on Facebook that Dorgan "sexually assaulted" Paciga in 2014, and to Bejarano's response, the day after the post, promising to ban Dorgan from the premises and make him a silent partner in the enterprise. Dorgan is seeking monetary relief of between $100,000 and $1 million and a declaratory judgment that Bejarano has no legal authority to ban Dorgan or constrain his ownership. Rogers filed a response on Dec. 3, denying Dorgan's claims and seeking attorney fees and any relief to which he is entitled.
While Dorgan brought Spider House to the courthouse, it was a Facebook post by Rogers and Paciga from Oct. 25, 2017, that led to the current legal actions. The post, which has been shared 175 times, alleges Dorgan "sexually assaulted" Paciga, who was not a Spider House employee, three and a half years earlier. After that event, Rogers wrote in his post, he was "livid" and went to his supervisors, where his concerns were "deflected," then sat down with Dorgan directly – who "apologized and blamed his circumstances of the evening being intoxicated and unable to think/act rationally."
Rogers continued to work at Spider House until 2015. Dorgan, he wrote in the post, was frequently drunk and "belligerent" to him and other staff, and Rogers says Bejarano never intervened. One night in the summer of 2015, the post continues, he refused to serve Dorgan, who screamed at him: "You exist to fill my cup! This is my bar! Now give me my drink bitch!" In the post, Rogers claims he refused to fight Dorgan and walked home instead, and that Bejarano apologized to him for Dorgan's outburst, but two weeks later, Bejarano fired Rogers for "obtuse and arbitrary reasons." (Brad Jones, the bar manager at the time, told the Chronicle Rogers was fired for being rude to customers.)
The Night in Question
What happened on the chilly Monday night of February 17, 2014? Tiffany Paciga went to Spider House to see Jeremy Rogers, a bartender who was then her boyfriend and is now her husband. By all accounts, it was a raucous evening; a midnight open mic was underway, and according to several sources, including a 2014 email obtained by the Chronicle and an email exchange this month with John Dorgan himself, the Spider House co-owner was in a rowdy mood.
Rogers, Paciga, and Eva Mueller – a manager from May 2013 to June 2015 (who earlier in 2013 worked briefly in the Chronicle's advertising department) – all recall that at one point during the open mic set, Dorgan removed his shirt and got onstage with the performing comedian. Dorgan's recollection in his Dec. 12 email to the Chronicle is that the comedian invited him up to the stage after he was "bantering good-naturedly with her." He doesn't remember taking his shirt off. Mueller, who describes Dorgan as "displaying aggressive sexual behavior toward everyone" that night, says she drove Dorgan to his home a few blocks away earlier in the evening. He reappeared at Spider House shortly after.
Paciga is not certain when she arrived, but in several interviews with the Chronicle, she has strongly maintained that she'd never spoken to Dorgan before then. When she saw her boyfriend's boss in the Ballroom, Paciga told us, she decided to introduce herself, fueled by the desire to support Rogers and make a good impression. The conversation didn't last long before Dorgan started talking about driving himself home. Despite being told by an employee – she does not remember who – not to give him a ride, Paciga says she offered to drive him because it was cold outside and "he was shithouse" drunk. Dorgan accepted.
It was a short drive to Dorgan's apartment. In her retellings of the subsequent events to the Chronicle, she pulled over to let him out, Dorgan opened the passenger door, then leaned toward her and asked, "Please come inside." She said no and reminded Dorgan that her boyfriend was his employee. Still, she alleges, Dorgan "put his hand on my leg and lunged at me." Her voice shook as she described his body as being "right on top of me. ... I remember pushing him back. The [passenger] door was open, [and] he stumbled and got out of the car."
Shaken, Paciga returned to Spider House, where she says she told Rogers and several of his co-workers – Mueller confirms being one of them – about the incident. Though she remembers being "super freaked out" and "really angry about it for a while," Paciga admits she tried to laugh it off that night. "Honestly it could have been worse," she told the Chronicle.
Paciga, herself a bartender and waitress though never an employee of Spider House, credits the #MeToo movement with spurring her to come forward more than three years later. As survivors across the country started sharing their stories, Paciga told the Chronicle, she realized: "You have to talk about this" if you want anything to change. However, her fears that people would be angry or defensive at accusations involving a well-loved bar were borne out. Several days after Paciga came forward via Rogers' 2017 Facebook post, she received a handful of threatening messages over Facebook Messenger, calling her a "cunt," "liar," and a "whore," from a sender claiming to be Sarah Kostic, Dorgan's prior romantic partner. Two days later, the sender apologized; Paciga never responded.
Responses and Reactions
In his lawsuit, Dorgan admits to accepting a ride from Paciga, but insists he did not sexually assault her. On Nov. 28, a month after filing suit, Dorgan, via his attorney Richard Alexander, shared with the Chronicle an eight-page written statement that includes his version of that night. (It makes no mention of the open mic or getting onstage; Dorgan's later Dec. 12 email to the Chronicle does mention those events, but does not indicate they happened on the same night.)
As recounted in the Nov. 28 statement, Dorgan walked from his home to I Luv Video where an unnamed "favorite employee" was closing. (Dorgan declined to identify this employee to the Chronicle.) The two went to Spider House, where Dorgan says Paciga "came over to chat." Countering Paciga's assertion that she hadn't met Dorgan prior to that night, Dorgan claims Paciga was "one of my favorite people around Spider House and we chatted regularly." When Paciga offered him a ride home, Dorgan says, he assumed Paciga was coming on to him, informed his I Luv Video employee of Paciga's offer, told him he was "ditching" him, and left with Paciga.
Then, Dorgan's statement continues, he and Paciga "chatted" for another 15 to 30 minutes in her car outside his house, before he "leaned over to her and gave her a brief, gentle kiss." Paciga said no, and Dorgan states he "immediately" apologized for "misunderstanding" and went inside. Two days later, Dorgan claims he went to talk to Rogers, ran into Paciga, and apologized to both of them. He said Paciga brushed the incident aside. A few days later, Dorgan says, he apologized again to Rogers "for my misunderstanding, for not seeking clarification, and for any hurt this caused him as well."
Dorgan's statement does not make note of Rogers' response, nor does it refer to the outburst in 2015 that Rogers said preceded his firing from Spider House. It goes on to address a second Facebook post published by Paciga on Oct. 26, 2017, the day after she and Rogers went public: "Um, I definitely brought this issue to management within minutes of it's [sic] occurrence," wrote Paciga, who added a screenshot of a negative Facebook review she gave Spider House in November 2014 – 10 months after the incident allegedly took place – that read, "The owners are pigs who harass women. Place is trash, food is trash." This, Dorgan writes in his statement, is the "only" piece of evidence that has "yet been provided" to support Rogers and Paciga's claims.
No one other than Paciga and Dorgan can know what happened inside her car that night, but the Chronicle has obtained an email dated Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014 – a week after the incident. Originally sent to Dorgan from Spider House's then-General Manager Jeremy Durnford, the email (in part) reads:
"I have been told about all the actions you took on the evening of Monday the 17th and am appalled about what I have been hearing. I have some of our female employees ... explain to me how you were trying to kiss them, grab them inappropriately, and even tried to follow one of them into the bathroom. All of which told me that you are lucky they love Spider House or else a law suit would of [sic] been in order, they have also stated that if anything remotely happened again they would be suing. This is scary as Hell, think about not only the reputation that would follow you forever, but Spider House as well and everyone involved.
"Speaking of reputations, all of this plus the actions you took getting behind both bars, getting on stage, taking your shirt off and demanding drinks and screaming you are the owner, could and will kill any sort of positive reputation we as a team have been working so hard to build."
Durnford's email, which does not mention Paciga or Rogers, goes on to urge Dorgan to apologize to "all the employees" who were there that night. Upon sending, Durnford then forwarded the email to Dorgan's business partner Bejarano and two others in upper management, noting: "This is what I sent to John. Let's please get this resolved as fast as possible, its [sic] killing productivity!" It is unknown how Bejarano responded. Later, other employees would allege that Durnford himself enabled and participated in misconduct at Spider House.
Unpacking the Past
Paciga isn't the only one with a story. On a brisk day in early October, Megan Groover sat with me outside an East Austin coffee shop. With a cigarette in hand, Groover, who tended bar at Spider House from 2011 to 2017, spoke fondly of the bar, noting that she still has friends who work there and visits as a patron from time to time. When asked why she left, she says she was tired of juggling two jobs, and there were "just honestly a couple of things that I didn't want to deal with anymore."
Groover recounted one night in 2015, when she and Dorgan sat alone drinking beer while waiting for a (male) co-worker to finish closing out downstairs. All was fine until Groover got up to use the restroom and immediately sensed Dorgan following her. "I immediately get in one of the stalls, lock it, and he's banging on the door." As she finally forced her way out of the stall, Dorgan, she remembers, grabbed her in a hug that made her "super uncomfortable."
She pushed Dorgan away, she said, then ran downstairs to her co-worker, locked the door, and cried as the two waited until Dorgan left. Explaining her reaction, Groover elaborated: "Because he just like – he just wouldn't stop. ... He liked to grab you and not stop." Groover said this was the worst incident, but that she was routinely "physically grabbed" and verbally assaulted by Dorgan. His behavior, according to Groover, was "so tolerated for so long. It was like, OK, it's just a creepy guy, it's just a creepy owner."
In response to Groover's allegations, Dorgan told the Chronicle in his Dec. 12 email: "I did once feign following a female employee to the restroom. I think it was clear that I was just being silly. I did not get close to the door and I can't imagine having grabbed her. I believe I asked her later if I had offended her and was told no." Reached that same day, Groover's co-worker from that night, who asked that his name not be used, admitted he couldn't remember the event but said that such behavior "is not outside of [Dorgan's] character."
It's been several years since Eva Mueller worked at Spider House, and in conversations and emails with the Chronicle she describes her time as a manager there as a "toxic work environment that was riddled with bullying, sexism, harassment, slander, and unwanted sexual advances." She addressed via email why she waited to come forward: "Because of my friendship with Mr. Dorgan and position within the company, I excused these behaviors. ... I believed that Mr. Dorgan had the best interest of his company in mind, so I turned a cheek often to his drunken behavior as many of us did."
She recalled an incident in the summer of 2013 shortly after she became a full-time employee. While sitting at a picnic table with two friends, she alleges Dorgan laid down on the table, grabbed Mueller's hand, and placed it on his crotch. She says she pulled back and laughed off Dorgan's behavior. One of the women sitting with Mueller that night, who asked to remain anonymous, separately confirmed this account to the Chronicle. Dorgan, in his Dec. 12 email, says, "I cannot imagine ever doing this."
Once Paciga and Rogers made their claims public in 2017, more stories emerged of mistreatment at the hands of Spider House. The couple last month created a GoFundMe to raise money for their legal fees, and there they claim that, since sharing their story, "multiple victims and witnesses have stepped forward to share their stories/experiences of assault, harassment and general malpractice at Spider House." They reference an anonymous group called the Spider House Survivors (formerly Spider House Victims).
In March 2018, that group released a statement via email to undisclosed recipients including several Chronicle reporters, claiming to represent 25-plus people; those alleged victims have not been confirmed. In a follow-up email exchange with the Chronicle, the anonymous sender said the group formed to "be a shelter for fellow victims." Its stated goal: "See Jeremy Durnford relieved of his position as GM [the position he held at the time] as he has proven to be apathetic and unfit to safely lead or protect his staff, business partners or customers."
"Spider House Victims" also asked for Bejarano, who it insisted knew of Dorgan's behavior for many years – the two have been friends since their high school days in El Paso – to "publicly acknowledge and explain" why he allegedly continued to enable Dorgan. "Why did he continue to allow it to happen for such an extended time? We deserve to know... Until these things happen, it is our responsibility to spread what factual information we have to the public that is directly collaborating with them in [an] effort to prevent further damage to the Austin community."
After Rogers and Paciga went public in 2017, Durnford and I exchanged a handful of emails. In one, he referred to Spider House as a "family" and told me, "I want to assure the community that had we known" about Paciga's allegations, "swifter actions would have occurred. I am sincerely disappointed that this has come to light and will always do the best I can to make Spider House a safe, open and fun place for all."
Today, Jeremy Durnford has left that family. He departed Spider House back in August; his Facebook page currently lists four jobs, including his current position at an East Austin establishment. Spider House – along with five years of work experience – is absent. When reached via email on Dec. 13, Durnford declined to comment on issues pertaining to Spider House.
On the Business Side
Since Rogers and Paciga went public in 2017, Dorgan's involvement with Spider House has remained ambiguous. In a post on the Spider House Facebook page on Oct. 26, 2017, the day after Rogers' Facebook post, Bejarano wrote that the "current management team was unaware" and "appalled" by the events that allegedly transpired between Dorgan and Paciga. He continued, stating Dorgan was banned from the property and "is now and forever, a silent partner. While there is nothing we can do to remedy the past, we are taking the appropriate steps to make sure our Spider House Family feels comfortable and secure."
Notwithstanding this statement, Dorgan told the Chronicle in his Dec. 12 email that Bejarano has never taken legal action against him, and that he still owns 50% of the business, legally organized as Cafe Ro, Inc. by Dorgan, Bejarano, and Jay Vickers in December 1995. In his suit, Dorgan claims he acted as the chief executive while Bejarano "worked on various projects" until 2015, when Bejarano sought to take over as chief operating officer. Dorgan does not note in the suit, or in his subsequent communications with the Chronicle, why Bejarano may have sought to make that change.
Nevertheless, Dorgan says he handed over day-to-day operations in April 2015, shortly before Jeremy Rogers was fired. Afterward, Dorgan's lawsuit claims, "operating costs" increased "due to lack of attention to details" and "Bejarano['s] inadequate supervision of mid-level managers." In September 2017, after making "repeated" pleas to Bejarano, Dorgan claims in his suit that he retook the reins at Spider House. Barely a month would pass before Rogers and Paciga shared their story; 24 hours after that, Bejarano published his statement on Spider House's Facebook page. Dorgan, in his lawsuit, says he wasn't consulted by Bejarano before that post, which contains "libel and slander that is false."
In his Nov. 28 statement via his lawyer to the Chronicle, Dorgan claims Bejarano was "deliberately deceptive" in claiming on Facebook that he and management hadn't before heard of the Paciga incident. Rogers told the Chronicle directly that Mueller and Durnford had both been informed about the February 17, 2014, incident; in his 2017 Facebook post, he wrote he felt there was "no sign or promise to take action to rectify what happened," so he addressed the incident with Dorgan.
Paciga herself says she only told Mueller, Rogers, and another woman working in the bar that night. Jay Cesak, who was an assistant manager at the time and is now Spider House's general manager, says he "knew nothing of this" until 2017 when the couple came forward. Brad Jones, who worked in another managerial role at the time, also told the Chronicle he was not informed of the incident, and insisted if any of them had "heard those allegations at that time, I promise, we would have done something." Dorgan claims that Bejarano's statement sought to shift blame solely to him, when in fact Rogers and Paciga had specifically called out Bejarano and "management," referring to Durnford.
It remains unclear what measures Bejarano actually implemented after his public commitment to prove Spider House was still a safe place. Screenshots of texts between Bejarano and Dorgan, shared with the Chronicle as part of Dorgan's Nov. 28 statement, indicate Bejarano did not in fact seek to exclude Dorgan from business operations at that point. "I feel it's important for you to feel your not alone in this. And your business sense is still important to me," Bejarano wrote to Dorgan at a date and time unknown, but following a prior text from Oct. 27, 2017.
The texts continue: "This will be forgotten in time Don't give up! On the surface, employee and general public needs to see your a ghost. Until this blows over. With all the national press and Tim League just bad time and people are reacting personally." (This is a reference to the Alamo Drafthouse owner and that company's sexual misconduct controversies.) A second text, presumably from the same time period, concedes "its really really bad." Bejarano tells Dorgan people are canceling shows and refusing to play (in response to Rogers and Paciga's story). "Only way out is showing in a statement that you no longer have financial interest."
Dorgan told the Chronicle that he'd heard recently that Bejarano "evidently told the management that I was no longer an owner." Current General Manager Jay Cesak, who's worked at Spider House for five and a half years, told the Chronicle on Dec. 12 that it's been at least two years since he's seen Dorgan. And while Cesak couldn't speak to Dorgan's involvement on the business side, he insisted that Dorgan's "definitely banned. He's not allowed on [the] property."
When asked for a response to Dorgan's lawsuit, Bejarano replied via email to express his "disappointment" with the Chronicle for "feeding off the typical social media frenzy on a situation that is very difficult for all parties." Bejarano wrote that the incident between Paciga and Dorgan "should have been handled between each other, rather than drag innocent parties into the mix." He also reiterated that he had no prior knowledge of the incident before Rogers' Facebook post.
Today, Dorgan said he's "cut off all communication with Conrad [Bejarano] and only assists in legal and accounting matters. It's been a huge relief."
"On the Same Page"
Despite this complicated history, not everyone has soured on Spider House. Cesak, who was promoted to general manager six months ago, told the Chronicle he couldn't ask for a better place to work. "I love the community we have here. I love everyone here."
Though adamant he's never witnessed or heard of inappropriate behavior happening on-site, Cesak has made some changes since taking over as GM. The first step, he said, was organizing a mandatory staff training led by SAFE, the local nonprofit working to end sexual violence and misconduct, which Bejarano attended as well. "We needed to make sure everyone's on the same page" when it comes to harassment and appropriate work relations, Cesak said.
He's also implemented a new off-site human resources department to "make sure if there's any grievance, there's an avenue" for handling the issue properly. An independent phone line and email account have been set up for employees who aren't comfortable discussing issues with a manager or co-worker. As a business, "you've got to put these steps in place," Cesak said. Though he kept his feelings about Dorgan mostly to himself, Cesak said Bejarano is a "great person to work for."
Last December, when asked what they hoped for after coming forward, Rogers and Paciga said they didn't expect to see Dorgan bought out of the business, but said they'd like a "public admittance and an apology from Dorgan, Bejarano and Durnford collectively." Now, the saga will continue in court, but Paciga and Rogers remain disillusioned with the way their allegations were handled. On a Nov. 30 phone call, Rogers again said, "What Tif and I really want ... we really want John and Conrad and Durnford to see justice."