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Judge orders strip joint to close

The jurist says the Flesh Club in San Bernardino allowed prostitution on the premises. His tentative ruling shuts the place for eight months.

August 24, 2007|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

The 12-year battle to shut a notorious strip joint in San Bernardino got a major boost Thursday when a judge issued a tentative order closing the Flesh Club and fining the owner $25,000.

"Lewdness is lewdness, and covering it with a patina of 'free expression' is a fiction which the law will not tolerate," San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Donald Alvarez wrote in a 15-page statement that detailed sexual activity at the club.

He then ordered the business closed for eight months, required all curtains and doors on private booths removed, put in place an injunction prohibiting lewd activities, and told the owners they would be responsible for making sure that all laws were followed if they reopened.

"He ordered no contact between dancers and patrons, which means no one will ever go there again," said Joseph Arias, a lawyer who represented San Bernardino in the case. "That's the reason they go. I think [the owner] will leave town."

City Atty. Jim Penman, who has led the fight against the club, was elated.

"With more than 20 years of public service, the days don't get much better than today," he said. "The judge's decision was very strong; our evidence was very strong. Clearly, this is a house of prostitution. I expect the case to be appealed, but I think it will be an uphill battle."

The club has been especially annoying to local leaders not just for allegations of prostitution but also because it sits on Hospitality Lane, the one thriving district of hotels and restaurants in a struggling city.

Arias said he expected the club to close within two weeks.

But Flesh Club attorney Roger Jon Diamond doubts it.

"This will not be closed in two weeks, and if Mr. Arias wants to call me and place a bet, I'll gladly take it," he said. "I suspect the Flesh Club will be there for years."

Diamond stressed that the ruling was tentative, and he accused city officials of hyping it when they should be awaiting the final judgment.

"The judge can modify this, and we have a lot of legal options," he said. "It's like a boxing match or baseball game: You may be ahead for an inning or two, but the game isn't over. We can go to the U.S. Supreme Court or to the California Supreme Court, and that could take years."

Earlier attempts to close the club, which opened in 1994, foundered on questions of free speech. The U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that stripping was a form of protected speech, and for years Flesh Club lawyers used that defense successfully.

San Bernardino has spent $587,496 in legal fees fighting the club, usually to little avail. The city's one fleeting success came in 1995 when a judge ordered the club to stop nude dancing. The owner closed rather than clothe dancers. He then sued the city and won.

The club reopened in 1999; a jury later awarded it $1.4 million in lost revenue despite finding that prostitution had occurred. The case is being appealed to the state Supreme Court.

Club owner Ryan Welty has said whatever acts of prostitution took place were aberrations.

The judge didn't believe it.

In his statement Thursday, Alvarez cited testimony from private investigators and dancers about the easy availability of sex in the club, especially in the private VIP rooms.

Several dancers admitted having sexual intercourse with patrons and maintaining price lists for various sexual services. In one case, an undercover officer hired by Arias had sex with a dancer and paid her $800.

"Although Welty contended that prostitution is not allowed, he was unable to identify a single thing the Flesh Club has done to discourage 'dancers' from engaging in sexual acts with customers," Alvarez wrote.

It all added up to what he called a "troubling pattern of an ongoing pervasive business climate of blatant promiscuity and lewd behavior."

Welty, who also owns strip clubs in Upland and Industry, said he was disappointed but had no plans to close.

"I am a 1st Amendment activist, and I have fought this for 12 years," he said. "They shut us down before, and the citizens of San Bernardino awarded us $1.4 million. I don't have the luxury of giving up."

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david.kelly@latimes.com

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