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San Bernardino seeks to bounce strip club

The city wants to shut down the dance club, alleging it's just a brothel. The battle has lasted 12 years.

February 26, 2007|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

In case anyone is confused, Ryan Welty likes to point out that the Flesh Club is not a Christian Science Reading Room, nor is it a church or high-minded civic organization.

"We are not a sympathetic member of society," the club owner concedes. "There are naked ladies in there. It's a very sexually charged atmosphere."

That's putting it mildly, San Bernardino officials say. They allege the strip club is little more than a front for a brothel. Patrons go there for sex, they say, not to see a show.

"I don't think any city would tolerate that, and neither will we," said San Bernardino City Atty. James Penman.

But proving it is something else. For 12 years, San Bernardino has targeted the Flesh Club, and for 12 years the club has escaped largely unscathed. The latest legal effort, a criminal prosecution, to close the place is scheduled to wrap up in court this week.

The red brick club sits in the middle of busy Hospitality Lane -- arguably the nicest commercial street in an otherwise struggling town -- with a big sign proclaiming "Flesh Showgirls, Total Nude, Open 7 Days."

Its very presence seems to taunt a city that has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and launched many covert operations to expose illicit sexual activity within its dimly lighted rooms.

Over the years, according to court testimony, authorities have tried repeatedly to trip up the club:

* Undercover police officers, sometimes in wheelchairs to hide cameras, filmed dancers who appeared to be having sex together;

* A former porn star-turned-private eye was recruited to get a job as a stripper and gather intelligence. After three days she concluded the club was "a house of prostitution";

* A former Flesh Club dancer was successfully persuaded to testify in court last year and boasted of being called the "top ho" for making $1,000 a day. Asked how often she traded sex for money, she said, "I would say for every customer."

As in all spy craft, agents were sometimes compromised.

Duane Minard, a private investigator and former Riverside County sheriff's deputy, was hired to find out what services the club's women would offer for cash.

According to his court testimony, Minard went into a VIP room with a stripper for a private $120 dance. By the time it finished he had shelled out $800 for sex.

"I told him when they start asking for money, excuse yourself and skedaddle," said Joseph Arias, the lawyer representing the city against the club. "But he goes out and gets more money then goes back in. When I asked him why, he said, 'It was the heat of the moment.' "

Penman wasn't amused.

"He clearly crossed the line and won't be reimbursed by the city," he said. "But the fact that he did it so easily shows what kind of business it is and how much money is involved. This is no $50 romp in the backseat with a hooker, it's $800."

The story came out in court last month as part of San Bernardino's latest attempt to rein in the club. This time it is using California's Red Light Abatement Act, essentially trying to prove the business is a brothel. If the city is successful, a judge can close the club for a year.

"An occasional act of prostitution is not enough to shut the place down; we have to show more than that," Arias said. "Exactly what the burden is remains an elusive question."

The Flesh Club has survived so long because it's hard to prove wholesale prostitution and, more important, stripping is often viewed as constitutionally protected speech.

Club lawyer Roger Jon Diamond never lets anyone forget that.

Diamond has been defending adult businesses since 1969. His clients throughout Southern California include Temptations, Barely Legal, Imperial Showgirls, Sahara Theater, Spicy's and Club 215.

He concedes that such places are unpopular, that local officials rarely "give them the key to the city" or ask them to "sponsor Little League teams," but he sees them as legitimate businesses.

"It's the right of free expression versus the city's attempt to censor," he said. "San Bernardino is like most cities; they try to suppress freedom they don't like, especially when it involves erotic material."

Diamond has an encyclopedic knowledge of adult entertainment. He knows how close, measured in feet and inches, a patron can get to a topless dancer as opposed to a nude one. He knows the delicate legalities of lap dancing. If sexual contact occurs, Diamond said, it's no reason to penalize an entire business.

"At hockey games many people go to watch the fights, but theoretically public fighting is a crime, so allowing them to go on is breaking the law," he said. "You don't shut down the game because of that. In our situation, dancers are not told to be prostitutes but they do act as independent contractors, and sometimes there is some hanky-panky, but that isn't reason to close the club."

Despite spending $587,496 in legal fees, San Bernardino has racked up a dismal record against the Flesh Club.

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