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D.A. Won't File Fraud Charges in Health Club Case but Probe Continues

March 30, 1989|RICK HOLGUIN | Times Staff Writer

DOWNEY — Pending further investigation, the district attorney's office has declined to file fraud charges against the owner of a local health club who was arrested on suspicion of selling memberships without telling buyers that the facility would be closing.

"The Downey Police Department is still working on the investigation," Deputy Dist. Atty. Gail Huttenbrauck said this week. "We had to write a temporary reject pending completion of the investigation."

John Robert Prell, 34, owner of the 24-Hour Nautilus in the Stonewood Shopping Center, was arrested March 14 after he closed the club, reportedly for remodeling. He was released on $25,000 bail, which will stand until the case is fully rejected or until it goes to court, Police Capt. Bob Williams said. A bail hearing has been set for May 3, a Downey Municipal Court clerk said Wednesday.

The club has reopened and patrons were coming and going this week.

In an interview this week, Prell declined to comment on the specifics of the case, including whether the club would be remodeled and remain at the same location. But Prell said refunds would be offered to some members and the contracts of all other patrons would be honored.

Prell was arrested after more than 100 patrons picketed the health club claiming they had been deceived. Patrons said they were told the club was closing temporarily for remodeling but became concerned when exercise equipment was being removed.

Sgt. Robert Grandolfo said the Stonewood management did not renew the health club's lease and last October gave Prell notice to move out by April 1. Prell had been accepting memberships two days before he was arrested, police said.

Prell and Stonewood management declined to comment on whether Prell was attempting to renew his lease.

Downey police secured a search and arrest warrant from Municipal Court Judge Robert G. Drees before entering the club, Williams said.

Williams said investigators needed to move quickly to obtain health club records. The criminal investigation will continue but Williams declined to predict whether charges would be filed. "A few more hours and he (Prell) could have torn everything out of there and then we'd never see anything," Williams said.

Lt. John Finch said the department hopes to finish its investigation by the end of next week. "The district attorney's office has asked us to conduct some follow-up and we will do that," Finch said. "This is not an easy case. The size of it alone is immense."

Finch said the detective working the case needed more time to talk to people who call the station daily, worried that they may have been victimized. So far, there are more than 200 such people, Finch said.

Meanwhile, a sign has been posted in the window of the reopened club, reading, "We will honor all contracts. You will not lose your money." It also said that members who enrolled after Feb. 14, could apply for a refund.

But some patrons said they remained concerned.

Margie Cordero, 27, of Pico Rivera said she applied for a refund of the $60 she paid to renew her membership just days before the club closed. "They told us we were going to get our money back before April 15," she said. "We'll see." Cordero said there was less equipment in the club than there was before the closure.

Ernesto Delgado, 23, of Downey said he signed a two-year membership agreement three months ago. He is not eligible for a refund. "They don't have the same equipment," Delgado said. "I'm trying to use up as much of my membership as I can."

Prell would not permit a reporter or photographer to enter the club. He said some of the Nautilus equipment had been removed, but there is plenty of other equipment for patrons. "It's different equipment," Prell said. "It's not a question of not as much."

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