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National Perspective | LAW ENFORCEMENT

Raid in Lodi, N.J.--A Scene Right Out of 'Sopranos' Officers bust into the Ultima Spa, arrest 16 on sex charges. Town is noted for intrigue, including murder.

April 12, 2001|GERALDINE BAUM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The "Sopranos" scriptwriters should have been in Lodi, N.J., last week when police raided a local massage parlor and arrested 16 people on prostitution-related charges.

Forget "life imitates art." This was more a case of "if the shoe fits."

While people from New Jersey like to grouse that the state's image takes a beating on the hit HBO TV series every week, the police turned up a scene in the Ultima Spa that proved Hollywood might be onto something.

When they busted into the spa on Lodi's Terhune Avenue, police found women parading about nude, lap dancers writhing in a room decorated with pornographic photos and men having sex with prostitutes in hot tubs and private booths.

The officers also found--other officers.

Of the 140 people taken into custody, 21 were off-duty police officers, most from a nearby county.

"We made it clear that if someone popped up with a badge and said, 'Hey, bro, I'm on the job,' we didn't care," said William Schmidt, the Bergen County prosecutor who pulled together the case against the Ultima over the last year. "We didn't care if a justice of the Supreme Court was in that room--he was going to be processed like everybody else."

Schmidt cannot explain why the off-duty officers did nothing about the illegal activities going on around them. None of the cops from nearby Hudson County was charged because they were not engaged in sex when apprehended.

"The history of the Ultima is very complicated," he said, rather cryptically, "very complicated."

For years, the brick warehouse on the southern end of Lodi was rumored to be a brothel, protected by the FBI or the mob, depending on who was making the charges. Yet local officials never seemed able to close the place.

"I was screaming, 'I don't want any of these people in Lodi!' but we got nowhere," said Phillip Toronto, Lodi mayor for eight years in the 1990s. "It was terrible for Lodi. Terrible for our image."

Still, as unhappy as some locals are about the Ultima, they acknowledged that its operation robbed them of any right to complain about a similar, fictional, establishment about a mile away.

HBO crews regularly show up at the Satin Dolls, a go-go bar on Route 17, and transform it into the fictional Bada Bing strip club. In the show, the mob Soprano family owns the Bada Bing and runs its "business" in a back room under the surveillance of the FBI--as nude dancers writhe on poles and men have sex with hookers.

Back in the real-life Lodi, Ultima owner Luke Hoffmann has allegedly boasted for years that he was above the law because he was cooperating with the law--an FBI undercover agent investigating mob and police corruption.

The local papers and leaders relay many stories of the agent brazenly speeding in his car past police vehicles. In 1998, police raided the Ultima. But the charges, curiously, did not stick, and the raid resulted in an investigation of a Lodi officer for assaulting and threatening Hoffmann.

Hoffmann's lawyer, Robert Rosenberg, would not comment on what ties, if any, his client has had to federal authorities. Rosenberg did say, however, that this recent raid was evidence that Hoffmann is a "victim" of internecine warfare among legal authorities in the area.

"There seems there is an underlying battle between the Bergen County prosecutor, the FBI, the U.S. attorney, Lodi politicians and Lodi police," Rosenberg said. "And they're using the Ultima Spa as a battleground."

Certainly, the Ultima Spa is not Lodi's only problem.

Corruption, fraud, embezzlement, bribery and political recalls all are part of the history of Lodi, which is not exactly a garden spot in the Garden State. First paper mills and then chemical plants polluted the nearby Saddle River. Over the years, three chemical plant explosions have killed 13 people and injured 150 others.

Most of the borough--named after Lodi, Italy--sits along the riverbank and has modest Cape Cod-style homes mixed among commercial buildings and strip malls. Most of its 23,971 residents work in northern New Jersey factories or commute to nearby Manhattan; about half are third- and fourth-generation Italian Americans.

Toronto said that despite its small-town character, the blue-collar area has been plagued by hardball politics--and an occasional execution-style murder.

"The only reason I got elected to be mayor is I ran as a reform candidate after the chief financial officer took $750,000 from the taxpayers over a two-year period and no one noticed he was stealing," Toronto said, chuckling.

This latest Lodi intrigue became even more complicated about a year ago when a former employee of the Ultima, Millie Nevin, complained to Lodi police that the owner was threatening to fire her if she didn't have sex with customers.

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