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Mobsters, Sex Add Glimmer to Gold Club Trial

Courts: The South meets 'The Sopranos' in federal case against Atlanta strip joint's owner, six others.

May 29, 2001|JEFFREY GETTLEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — There's nothing quite like the sound of a wise guy singing.

"So, I says to him, 'What if the guy shows up to test-tee-fie, I'll get 12 1/2 to 25,"' recalled Joey Gross, a former Mafia man turned government witness. "And he says to me, 'Youse just go to trial, fuggedaboudit.'

"And so there I am sittin' in the back of the courtroom and I sees this guy and I think I'm cooked but when the judge asks him to talk, he just keeps his trap shut."

"Where would you be now if that man had testified against you on attempted murder?" asked Assistant U.S. Atty. Arthur W. Leach, trying to build a case of extortion.

"Where would I be?" Gross moaned. "Where would I be? I'd be doin' 12 1/2 to 25 somewhere. That's where I'd be."

Sights Focus on Decadent Strip Club

One of the juiciest mob trials in recent years is unfolding in downtown Atlanta as federal prosecutors try to connect the Gold Club, a decadent Atlanta strip joint where $350 bottles of champagne pop like flashbulbs and limos spill open with A-list celebrities, to the infamous Gambino crime family in New York.

Whacking people, La Cosa Nostra and characters like Shorty, Dino, Mikey Scars and even Madonna are all part of the sprawling case against the Gold Club's owner, Steven E. Kaplan, and six others. They face federal charges of money laundering, extortion and credit card fraud, along with paying off cops and running a prostitution racket. The case is quickly becoming one of those examples of life imitating art. Or at least HBO.

"How many of y'all watch 'The Sopranos'?" a lawyer asked during jury selection.

Another lawyer jumped up on a table during opening arguments and began to slip out of his jacket and perform a striptease.

"Counsel," warned the rather august U.S. District Judge Willis B. Hunt Jr., "please keep your feet on the floor."

It's been a challenge to keep a trial that features strippers, mobsters and celebrities under control. Already a courtroom sketch artist was scolded for making his drawings too detailed.

Atlanta is known for its anything-goes strip clubs, which offer full nudity and booze, illegal in most big cities. And the Gold Club is known as the premier flesh house. According to defense lawyers, George Clooney, Mick Jagger, Madonna and scores of top athletes, including Patrick Ewing, have visited the windowless establishment whose doors are guarded by fake-gold lions and thick-handed security guards.

Even the king of Sweden, according to defense lawyers, sat in one of the gilded rooms above the smudged mirrors and gyrating hips and watched a private strip show that would make the toughest con blush. His spokeswoman said it wasn't true.

The trial is still in its salad days. It's expected to last at least three months. There are seven defendants, dozens of witnesses, hundreds of criminal counts and thousands of pages of reports.

"This is an organized crime case," said Leach, the lead prosecutor. "This is a case about greed and desire for power and the fear of a national crime family."

According to a grand jury indictment, Kaplan funneled money to the Gambinos, usually $700 per week, in return for protection. The pudgy, balding 42-year-old was also a loan shark and ordered beatings of people who owed him money, prosecutors said. He allegedly allowed cocaine and Ecstasy to be sold at his club and paid off cops and employees at Delta Air Lines for cheap tickets.

The most scandalous charge is that Kaplan turned his strip club into a brothel, supplying dancers to stars and athletes, including the New York Knicks basketball team. The idea was to develop a loyal celebrity clientele to lure other customers, prosecutors said.

Ewing and others are expected to be called as witnesses. The tabloids, already camped out in front of federal court in downtown Atlanta, eagerly await the feast.

"We're not commenting," said Knicks spokesman Jonathan Supranowitz.

'You're Allowed to Be Friends With John Gotti'

There's no doubt testimony has been entertaining, but it's not clear how much it's helped the government's case. "Lil' Joey" Gross' statements last week were part of a strategy to prove Kaplan used mob muscle to expand his business and hush people up. Other witnesses have shown pictures of Kaplan with Mafiosi and said he once owned a pizza shop with a known wise guy, or mobster.

But, said defense lawyer Steve Sadow: "All they've really done is proved my client went to dinner with people like [imprisoned mobster] John Gotti. And whether or not the FBI approves, you're allowed to be friends with John Gotti."

Defense lawyers have reminded jurors that many witnesses, such as acknowledged Mafia hit man Dino Basciano, are guilty of crimes worse than those being tried here. Kaplan is not a member of the Gambino family, which may be one reason prosecutors have had little difficulty in finding people to testify, or "sing," in exchange for shorter sentences.

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