If nothing else, credit the Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation with persistence. Just three weeks after the Florida Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco rejected the MBI's request to revoke or suspend strip club Cleo's liquor license, the multiagency vice squad once again targeted Gerald Uranick's bars. On March 17, following an eight-month investigation, MBI's agents raided Club Harem on Lee Road and Crystal Cabaret on South Orange Blossom Trail, arresting seven employees and dragging them out in handcuffs before a wave of television cameras that the MBI — which was conducting the raids with cops from Winter Park, Maitland and the state — had alerted via press releases. (As many as 26 people could ultimately face charges, according to documents obtained by Orlando Weekly.)
Once again the MBI wants a strip club's liquor license revoked or suspended. In many respects, this operation mimicked stings that went before it: Undercover cops went in several times a week, threw money around like drunken sailors, got to know the dancers and waitresses personally, then asked them to hook them up with small amounts of cocaine or Ecstasy, or perhaps slide their panties to the side to expose themselves.
Whether the MBI actually succeeds in crippling Uranick's businesses, or whether any of those arrested does serious jail time — instead of pleading out to time served and a small fine, as happened with many of the Cleo's arrests — remains to be seen.
Also like the Cleo's case, this operation has, once again, prompted allegations of police misconduct. The surprise this time is that the complaints aren't against the MBI.
Instead, former Club Harem night manager Misty Bell, 36, says she was improperly detained and strip-searched by Winter Park cops in retaliation for a sexual harassment complaint she filed a month earlier against a Winter Park detective.
Bell's arrest is based on a Feb. 28 drug buy, according to an affidavit Winter Park cops filed seeking an arrest warrant. Shortly after 8 p.m. that day, two Winter Park detectives sent a female informant to buy cocaine from Bell, who five days earlier had allegedly told the informant that she could get the cocaine. The informant asked to buy $25 worth of coke. According to the police affidavit, Bell set it up.
Her alleged dealer showed up a few minutes later, collected the money, then left to get the dope. Meanwhile, Bell — who used to be a cop herself in Texas — patted down the informant, saying that she had to be careful because of a harassment complaint she'd filed in January against Sgt. Randy Davison. The dealer returned shortly after 10 p.m. with the cocaine, according to police, who also say that Bell and the informant made arrangements for future deals.
Club Harem is very small; you can tour the entire place in about 15 seconds. As anyone versed in local lore is aware, it used to be called The Booby Trap, named for the two white domes that rise up off Lee Road like breasts with pointy nipples. The domes are separated by a small bar. During the day shift there's hardly anyone inside.
On the advice of her attorney, Jerome Hennigan, Bell won't discuss the drug charges against her, though she did say, "I've never been charged with anything in my life." But her allegations against Davison made television news and led to the sergeant being demoted after an internal affairs investigation.
Bell stated that Davison came by Club Harem routinely, though he wasn't undercover, and would often follow her back to the manager's office. He would also call Bell's phone regularly. On Jan. 16, the complaint states, Davison asked Bell to follow him outside. When she did, he kissed her and asked her to take a ride in his car, which she believed was an invitation for sex. Bell says she rejected Davison's advances, but could not make him leave because he was a cop and she didn't want to cause a problem.
Davison told internal affairs investigators a different version of the story, that it was Bell who pursued and tried to kiss him, and that he resisted because he's a family man. While the investigation ultimately declared Bell's allegation of sexual harassment "non-sustained," it did uphold charges that Davison's conduct was unbecoming and violated personnel policies prohibiting "immoral, unlawful or improper conduct." He was demoted to patrolman.
But it wasn't Bell's arrest that brought allegations of retaliation; it was how Winter Park cops handled her during and after the raid. According to a complaint Hennigan filed with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Winter Park cops singled Bell out during the raid and took her to the men's bathroom to be strip-searched. With the door propped open by a chair, several male officers watched a female officer pat Bell down. The female cop found a small amount of money, then asked the male officers if that was good enough. They said no, and the female officer ordered Bell to remove her shoes, socks, blouse and bra, all with the door open.
Bell was the only person forced to strip, according Hennigan's report. Other female employees were given "cursory" searches, but Bell says hers was the only one that required the removal of her shirt and bra.
Hennigan thinks the search was illegal because Florida law mandates that not only must a person be searched by an officer of the same gender, but also that "any observer shall be of the same gender as the arrested person." Not only were a handful of male cops watching, Bell says, but by leaving the door open throughout the entire search, everyone could see what was going on. (It may not have been possible for those outside the bathroom to see what was going on. Club Harem's bathroom is small, and the door is usually propped open by a chair, but it is also at a right angle. When you enter, you have to turn right to use the urinals or toilet. The door can be open, but all that's visible from outside is a wall.)
Cops only found a small amount of money on her, and Bell, who was then crying, was allowed to put her clothes back on. She was told she wasn't going to the Orange County jail; she was going to Winter Park police headquarters. She asked if Davison would be there. According to the report, "One of the same male officers who had witnessed her nude search immediately responded yes and that he was waiting right around the corner. Mrs. Bell was frightened, continued to cry, and was led around the corner only to be confronted by another Winter Park police sergeant (not Davison)."
Bell spent several hours at Winter Park police headquarters being interrogated by hooded cops. Later, she was transported by van to the county jail, where she was again strip-searched. "They didn't search the other people," Bell says.
And then things got weird again.
The arrest warrant issued by a judge listed a $7,500 bond. But the paperwork Winter Park cops sent over specified a $10,000 bond. That clerical error kept her in jail until 4 p.m. the next day, long after she would have otherwise been released. "Given the circumstances surrounding Mrs. Bell's earlier search and interrogation this ‘error' is yet another glaring example of vindictiveness by Winter Park Police Department officers," Hennigan wrote in his letter to state officials.
The Winter Park Police Department declined to comment on Bell's charges; Capt. Rex Straw says the department is conducting an internal review.
When Hennigan alerted a local TV station to the screw-up, Winter Park attempted to dismiss the story by issuing what they said was the proper paperwork. The only problem: That paperwork was backdated to March 24, six days after Bell was released on bond.
While the bust was going down — and being broadcast on TV — Bell's husband took their kids to her mother's house to avoid media attention. While he was gone, however, Department of Children and Family Services agents came by her house, acting on an anonymous tip that she was allegedly dealing drugs in front of her kids. DCF agents tracked the kids down at their school, interviewed them, then dropped the matter.
For the cops, a conviction against Bell — a manager — would be a big win. One of the problems the MBI had when it went after Cleo's was that it couldn't nail the management, which would have helped prove that the problems in the club were known and that vice occurred in the open. If Bell is convicted, it's another strike for Club Harem. She is scheduled to be arraigned May 25.
Bell says that her life has been upended. She lost her job. Having the sexual harassment complaint — along with tapes of her internal affairs interview — and her arrest splashed on TV, and enduring the quickly aborted DCF investigation just added salt to the wound.
"I really tried to run a clean club," she firstname.lastname@example.org