The Flesh Club makes San Bernardino see red
By David Kelly
Times Staff Writer
9:23 PM PST, February 25, 2007
In case anyone is confused, Ryan Welty likes to point out that the Flesh Club is not a Christian Science Reading Room, nor is it a church or high-minded civic organization.
"We are not a sympathetic member of society," the club owner concedes. "There are naked ladies in there. It's a very sexually charged atmosphere."
That's putting it mildly, say San Bernardino officials. They allege the strip club is little more than a front for a brothel. Patrons go there for sex, they say, not to see a show.
"I don't think any city would tolerate that and neither will we," said San Bernardino City Atty. James Penman.
But proving it is something else. For 12 years, San Bernardino has targeted the Flesh Club and for 12 years the club has escaped largely unscathed. The latest legal effort to close the place is scheduled to wrap up in court this weekThe red brick club sits in the middle of busy Hospitality Lane — arguably the nicest commercial street in an otherwise struggling town — with a big sign proclaiming "FLESH SHOWGIRLS Total Nude Open 7 Days."
Its very presence seems to taunt a city that has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and launched many covert operations to expose illicit sexual activity within its dimly lighted rooms.
Over the years, according to court testimony, authorities have tried repeatedly to trip up the club:
Undercover police officers, sometimes in wheelchairs to hide cameras, filmed dancers who appeared to be having sex together.
A former porn star-turned-private eye was recruited to get a job as a stripper and gather intelligence. After three days she concluded the club was "a house of prostitution."
An ex-Flesh Club dancer was successfully persuaded to testify in court last year and boasted of being called the "top hofor making $1,000 a day. Asked how often she traded sex for money she said, "I would say for every customer."
As in all spy craft, agents were sometimes compromised.
Private investigator and former Riverside County Sheriff's deputy, Duane Minard, was hired to find out what services club women would offer for cash.
According to his own court testimony, Minard went into a VIP room with a stripper for a private $120 dance. By the time it finished he had shelled out $800 for sex.
"I told him when they start asking for money, excuse yourself and skedaddle," said Joseph Arias, the lawyer representing the city against the club. "But he goes out and gets more money then goes back in. When I asked him why he said, 'It was the heat of the moment.' "
Penman wasn't amused.
"He clearly crossed the line and won't be reimbursed by the city," he said. "But the fact that he did it so easily shows what kind of business it is and how much money is involved. This is no $50 romp in the backseat with a hooker, it's $800."
The story came out in court last month as part of San Bernardino's latest attempt to rein in the club. This time it is using California's Red Light Abatement Act, essentially trying to prove the business is a brothel. If the city is successful, a judge can close the club for a year.
"An occasional act of prostitution is not enough to shut the place down; we have to show more than that," Arias said. "Exactly what the burden is remains an elusive question."
The Flesh Club has survived so long because it's hard to prove wholesale prostitution and, more important, stripping is often viewed as constitutionally protected speech.
Club lawyer Roger Jon Diamond never lets anyone forget that.
Diamond has been defending adult businesses since 1969. His clients throughout Southern California are clubs that include Temptations, Barely Legal, Imperial Showgirls, Sahara Theater, Spicy's and Club 215.
He admits such places are unpopular, that local officials rarely "give them the key to the city" or ask them to "sponsor Little League teams" but he sees them as legitimate businesses.
"It's the right of free expression versus the city's attempt to censor," he said. "San Bernardino is like most cities, they try to suppress freedom they don't like, especially when it involves erotic material."
Diamond has an encyclopedic knowledge of adult entertainment. He knows how close in feet and inches a patron can get to a topless dancer as opposed to a nude one. He knows the delicate legalities of lap dancing. If sexual contact occurs, Diamond said, it's no reason to penalize an entire business.
"At hockey games many people go to watch the fights, but theoretically public fighting is a crime, so allowing them to go on is breaking the law," he said. "You don't shut down the game because of that. In our situation, dancers are not told to be prostitutes but they do act as independent contractors and sometimes there is some hanky panky but that isn't reason to close the club."
Despite spending $587,496 in legal fees, San Bernardino has racked up a dismal record against the Flesh Club. Its one victory came in 1995 when a local judge issued a restraining order against the club, saying its location wasn't zoned for nude dancing. The club shut down. A Superior Court judge overruled the decision a year later. The city appealed, and in 1999 a state court ruled San Bernardino had not proven that the club negatively affected the neighborhood. It also declared that the city ordinances used to close it were unconstitutional.
The Flesh Club reopened in 1999 and sued for lost revenue. A jury awarded it $1.4 million in 2004 despite finding that prostitution had occurred inside. The case is being appealed to the state Supreme Court.
Welty, who also owns strip clubs in Upland and the City of Industry, denies running a brothel and says he's a convenient target for political opportunists.
"It's easy to kick people like us and there is little price to pay," he said. "Acts of prostitution occur in every strip club in the country. It would be ignorant for us to believe or claim that the place is pure as driven snow, but the fact of the matter is that prostitution is rare."
Witnesses in the latest case dispute that. They allege that management knows prostitution happens and simply urges employees to be discreet.
Raquel Gomez, who danced at the club before becoming a Christian evangelist, testified to routinely having sex with customers. She said almost every dancer did and the patrons expected it. Her price was $200. Most women had a sliding scale of fees depending on the sex acts, she said in court..
Gomez said the inauguration of private rooms made things even easier. Dancers now didn't have "to fight for the darkest corner" where they often had sex just inches apart from other couples, she testified in July.
"I loved it; ??? it gave me more freedom," she said. "It impacted me financially because I made more money."
The small rooms are dimly lighted by red lamps and covered with heavy curtains. Patrons spend $120 for three dances inside. On a recent visit, barely clad dancers led men into the rooms while the stage was mostly empty.
Sandra Margot-Escott, who spent 20 years as a stripper and also starred in porn films as Tiffany Million, testified she was hired to work undercover as a dancer in the club by Arias, the city's attorney.
Now a bounty hunter and private investigator, Margot-Escott testified that club managers said whatever she did in the VIP room was between her and the patron as long as they got their $45 cut from the $120 fee. She also said that one dancer, who identified herself as a high school girl, was charging $800 for sex.
"My experience at the Flesh Club was unlike any I had ever had working in this industry, and it was the first time I've ever worked at a club where there were not only no ground rules...but even when I asked about the rules, they were not given to me," Margot-Escott told jurors.
Club dancers are even rated on an Internet site where patrons critique their experiences.
Yet it's not just what happens inside the club that irritates the city so much, it's also the club's location.
In economically depressed, crime-plagued San Bernardino, Hospitality Lane is a narrow island of restaurants, office buildings and a few upscale hotels in a sea of gritty neighborhoods.
"That is our commercial hub, it is the economic engine of the city," said City Councilman Tobin Brinker, who represents the area. "It's a little embarrassing to have the club there."
Diamond describes the street, somewhat sardonically, as the Rodeo Drive of San Bernardino.
"The solution would have been a long time ago to sit with me and my client and say, 'Look, we don't want you on Hospitality Lane, but you can go elsewhere' but they wouldn't do it," he said.
Penman said the city did offer to find another location but the club preferred to go to trial.
"They think they have a winning case," he said. "But the First Amendment doesn't protect prostitution."
Diamond is optimistic about this latest court battle, scheduled for closing arguments today. And he hopes people will someday revise their view of strip clubs.
"I think they are a positive for a community," he said. "They bring in a lot of money. The women who dance are supplying a need. There are a lot of lonely guys out there who basically want to talk to someone. They want companionship. They just want a hug."