SANTA ANA — A mistrial was declared Tuesday after jurors said they were deadlocked in the trial of a man accused of running a swingers' sex club from a house in upscale Cowan Heights.
Stephen M. Cohen, 43, of Trabuco Canyon had been charged with two misdemeanor counts of violating local zoning laws by operating an adult business in the residential area.
Jurors, who were split 8 to 4 in favor of acquittal after two days of deliberations, said they did not feel there was enough evidence to prove that Cohen's mate-swapping operation was actually a business. Cohen had contended that the club was a private, nonprofit organization.
"You left us hanging the whole trial," juror Ibrahim Ansari told the district attorney after the trial. "We couldn't tell if it was business."
Attorneys from both sides interviewed the jurors after the mistrial was declared and agreed that the zoning statute's definition of the word business was vague.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Stephanie George said this was the first test of the law in Orange County. "I'm obviously disappointed (with the verdict), but I'm not shocked."
She said that she has until July 17 to decide whether to refile charges against Cohen. In the meantime, she said, Cohen is under court order prohibiting him from operating his swingers' club.
William J. Kopeny, Cohen's attorney, said the jury "restored my faith in the jury system" when members were not swayed by the sexual overtones of the evidence. Although his client was not in court when the mistrial was declared, Kopeny said Cohen would "be sorry that it's not over yet."
From the opening day of trial, Cohen had admitted to running a swingers' club that held sex parties exclusively for married and committed couples and single women. But he contended that "The Club" was a nonprofit, private, social organization and not a business.
The prosecutor, however, charged that because Cohen advertised, accepted money, sent out newsletters and remodeled the Brier Lane home to accommodate sexual activities, he was running a business.
Her key witnesses--two undercover vice investigators from the Sheriff's Department--gave the jury a detailed account of the inner activities of the operation.
"I heard a lot of moaning and groaning," investigator Charles Daly testified.
He said he and his partner, Deputy Karen Bruner, joined the club posing as a couple. They paid an initial $50 membership fee and $40 for each of the three parties they attended during their investigation.
When they entered the home, they said they immediately noticed that much of the inside had been remodeled: The garage had been converted into a bar with a dance floor, the bedrooms had been partitioned into small, carpeted "cubbyholes" where couples would pair off and have sex, and one room was furnished with a wall-to-wall mattress for people who "were into the group thing," Daly testified.
Both investigators testified that they saw an array of sexual activity occur during the parties, ranging from intercourse, oral sex, topless dancing and genital fondling.
On one occasion, investigator Daly testified that in an effort not to blow his cover, he undressed and joined Cohen in a Jacuzzi to have a conversation.
William J. Kopeny, Cohen's attorney, did not dispute much of the investigators' testimony but said nothing they testified to was evidence that his client ran a business.
He said that, much like the Boy Scouts or Elks, Cohen accepted money to offset the expenses of running the club.