It was only a big brick hulk of a building in a quickly deteriorating neighborhood on Chicago's South Side, but 18 years ago Dwain Kyles had a vision for it: a place for the city's middle-class blacks to socialize.

So he and Calvin Hollins opened La Mirage -- a juice bar that eventually became a nightclub and restaurant.

But now it has become one of the most infamous places in Chicago. It was the club, known as E2, where 21 people died early Feb. 17 in a stampede after security guards tried to break up a fight with pepper spray.

Ever since that night, Kyles and Hollins have been tied together, viewed by many as lawbreakers who ignored safety codes and defended by others -- including some of Chicago's most prominent black leaders -- as simply the owners of a place where a terrible tragedy occurred.

In the days after the deaths, city officials said the club owners had ignored building code requirements for safety exits and violated a court order to keep the second floor of the two-story club closed. Mayor Richard M. Daley has called for prosecution of Kyles and Hollins, declaring that they intentionally broke the law.

Kyles and his supporters, including Jesse L. Jackson, contend that the court order referred only to the VIP section directly above the main dance floor. They argue that the incident was an unfortunate accident and have called for an independent investigation.

"What I find amazing is that this is seen as a criminal act by the mayor and police chief," Jackson said in an interview. "They completely politicized this. So far, this is a tragic accident."

Recently, Chicago police, after hearing hundreds of conflicting witness accounts, turned the investigation over to the Cook County State's Attorney's Office with no recommendation of criminal charges.

Police could not determine that the events leading up to the stampede -- including the use of pepper spray by security guards -- were evidence of a crime. It will be up to prosecutors now to decide whether to charge Kyles and Hollins. This week, Tom Stanton, a spokesman for prosecutor Richard A. Devine, said, "The investigation continues. It's not a closed case."

The two club owners come from dramatically different backgrounds: Kyles is the son of prominent civil rights activists and is a Georgetown-trained lawyer, whereas Hollins, who grew up on Chicago's tough West Side, spent time in prison for killing a man. Yet, thanks to a single deadly night, their fates are now intertwined.

A Business Is Born

Kyles, 48, was born in Chicago before moving to Tennessee as a toddler. His father, the Rev. Samuel Kyles, is a Baptist minister who was with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the balcony of a Memphis motel when the civil rights leader was assassinated. King had planned to dine at Kyles's home that night.

Kyles went on to work for a black-owned Chicago company that made health and beauty aids. Favoring stylish suits, he was the image of the button-down businessman.

Hollins, 52, is a former Cook County sheriff's deputy whose education went no further than high school. On New Year's Day 1984, he got into a fight with a man trying to steal a fur coat at a Chicago nightclub called Dingbat's. He was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, was sentenced to five years in prison and served six months before then-Gov. Jim Edgar granted him clemency in 1991.

Partial to alligator shoes and diamond rings, Hollins favored the club scene and was friends with boxer Mike Tyson.

From those unlikely backgrounds, a business partnership was formed. The two met at TCB, a combination barbecue takeout, liquor store and carwash near Comiskey Park, home of the White Sox.

"They were definitely unlikely business partners," said a close friend of Kyles and Hollins who asked not to be named. "Dwain had no experience running a club, so he sought Calvin's expertise. There's no relationship or friendship outside of the business."

Kyles and his attorney, Andre Grant, declined to comment for this story. Hollins did not respond to numerous calls to his home seeking comment.

Kyles was well connected to black leaders around the country. His father was a founding member of Operation PUSH, Jackson's Chicago-based human rights organization launched in 1971. The younger Kyles was campaign manager for Rep. Harold E. Ford (D-Tenn.) during a reelection effort and worked for the Department of Health, Education and Welfare's civil rights office in Washington. Kyles also was special counsel to Harold Washington, Chicago's first black mayor, who later appointed him special counsel to McCormick Place, the city's trade show and exposition center.

Two years ago, Kyles used his political connections to obtain sought-after tickets to a Congressional Black Caucus dinner.

"He and his companion were looking for tickets, so I had them sit with me at my table," said Rep. Danny K. Davis (D), a former Chicago alderman and Cook County commissioner who was elected to Congress in 1996. "Dwain is a delightfully likable individual."

Kyles also remains close to Jackson. "I've watched him grow up," Jackson said. "Dwain is smart and disciplined."

Kyles's connections have helped keep his nightclub and restaurant afloat. Politicians frequently held parties and fundraisers there. Davis hosted a reception there several months ago for the deputy chief of staff of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D). Carol Moseley Braun, a former U.S. senator who has announced a presidential bid, held a fundraiser there. Jackson also has dined there several times. And when the politicians were there, so was Kyles.

"Dwain was the guy out front," Davis said, "the one everybody knew."

'Everybody Was Piling Up'

Everything changed just after midnight on Feb. 17.

The club was crowded with people standing shoulder to shoulder. Among the patrons were Marsha Redmon, 25, and Tiffany Williams, 24, who had planned their girlfriend's 21st birthday at the club. They were going to party at E2 and then go to breakfast after it closed at 4 a.m. It was a holiday weekend, and they didn't have to work the next day.

"We were dancing off to the side," Redmon recalled. "The dance floor was packed."

After a while, the women found a spot on the dance floor, and not long after that heard someone say there was a fight.

Within minutes, Redmon's eyes began burning, and she started coughing. Her friend vomited. Someone yelled "terrorist attack." People screamed.

"Everyone was trying to get down one flight of stairs," she recalled. "Before I knew it, I was being carried along by the crowd and ended up at the bottom of the stairs. I thought I was dead."

The crowd rushed to an exit, but a security guard tried to block them, said another patron, Trudell Ferguson, 22. The crowd pushed and shoved the guard out of the way. Ferguson fell down the stairs and injured his back, he said.

"Everybody was piling up at the the bottom near the door," he recalled. "I wish I would have stayed home that night."

Antonio Myers, one of Ferguson's friends, died in the stampede.

Redmon, Williams and Ferguson said hundreds of people were in the club that night. They also said the VIP section was open, despite Kyles's contention that it was the only part of the club ordered closed by a judge last summer. "Someone was having a party up there," Redmon said. "We saw balloons. And as the night got later, there were people up there."

Hollins, who ran the club's day-to-day operations, was there the night of the stampede. He escaped unharmed and was taken into police custody, Jackson said. Hollins called Kyles at his Hyde Park home to tell him about the incident and asked him to come to the police station.

"The police had not arrested him, but they were questioning him," Kyles's father said. "It was all a horrible accident. Just a horrible accident."

Staff writer Robert E. Pierre in Chicago contributed to this report.

Chicago city workers shore up the front of the building housing the E2 nightclub three weeks after the stampede in which 21 people died. Images captured by security cameras show a crowd at the top of an exit staircase. The panic began after guards used pepper spray to stop a fight.Nightclub owners Calvin Hollins, left, and Dwain Kyles have been condemned by some, defended by others since the Feb. 17 stampede.