Club Harem on Lee Road just east of Interstate 4 is the only strip club in Winter Park, a fact that apparently displeases someone at the Winter Park Police Department. Winter Park cops made it a priority — in writing — to close the place down, even before finishing an investigation into allegations of drug dealing and dancers exposing themselves. It's a play taken straight from the Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation's book, one that the multi-agency vice cops have botched repeatedly.
The directive to shutter Club Harem came down Dec. 22, 2005: "`Winter Park` Detective `Thomas` Cronin explained that Winter Park would like to have Club Harem's occupational license revoked at the end of this investigation thus preventing them from doing any further business in Winter Park," a state Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco agent wrote in a Jan. 5 e-mail to his superior. That e-mail was sent five months after Winter Park police, the MBI and the state's Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco started investigating Club Harem, and four months before a well-publicized sting at the breast-shaped building on Lee Road known in local lore as the Booby Trap.
By January, Winter Park wanted an emergency order from the state to close the business down temporarily without a hearing, claiming that it poses an imminent threat to public safety. As one officer (whose name is redacted in documents obtained by Orlando Weekly) wrote to Cronin on Jan. 25, "There is certain verbiage `state officials` like to see" before issuing an emergency order, so Winter Park should "write reports tailored to obtaining an EO." The author also noted that the club has "nit-picky lawyers." Winter Park never got its emergency order, but if it had, the lost revenue might have been Club Harem's death knell.
The MBI has taken similar swipes at Rachel's Gentlemen's Club in Casselberry and Cleo's on Orange Blossom Trail in Orlando — another club owned by Club Harem owner Gerald Uranick. The Rachel's debacle brought scorn on Central Florida's vice cops, who spent $193,000 but couldn't prove their allegations that owner Jim Veigle condoned illegal behavior. The Cleo's investigation prompted complaints about MBI agents exposing themselves and a federal lawsuit challenging Orange County's adult entertainment codes.
The March 17 raid at Club Harem netted at least seven arrests in front of TV cameras. Local news stations had been alerted via a press release that the bust was taking place.
But this staged sting also produced controversy. Misty Bell, a Club Harem manager arrested for allegedly coordinating a $25 cocaine sale, says Winter Park cops publicly strip-searched her and mishandled her bond paperwork to keep her in jail longer than she should have been. They did this, Bell says, in retaliation for a sexual harassment complaint she filed in January against a Winter Park sergeant that resulted in his demotion (see "Payback is hell," May 18). Winter Park has since ruled that two of her complaints were unfounded and another was "non-sustained," or unproven.
A narrative of the Club Harem investigation — dubbed "Operation Double D's" — paints the strip club as a den of iniquity where drugs were easily available and, for a $20 tip, dancers would slip their G-strings aside for your viewing please. If the tip got to $50, according to investigators, dancers would take you into the VIP lounge and masturbate for you. And while this went on, management looked the other way, cops say.
According to e-mails between state and local officials obtained by Club Harem's attorney, Steve Mason, the cops wanted to yank the club's license not just because of such allegations, but also on a "surcharge audit" that indicated the club hadn't paid $425 in booze taxes over a three-year period. Other agencies piled on. An April 12 e-mail from a state agent to Cronin reads: "I also asked our auditing unit to conduct an audit to search for other more obscure beverage law violations."
(Mason made records requests from both Winter Park and the state for e-mail relating to the case. The state produced a binder's worth. Winter Park cops only produced a handful, says Mason. Winter Park later told him they'd misplaced documents.)
To revoke Club Harem's occupation or liquor licenses, authorities must prove the club's patrons and employees broke the law inside the club and management knew about it and let it happen. That's probably why, in their case narrative, agents conducting Operation Double D's repeatedly refer to managers (including Bell) using drugs at the club. Here's what the report says about alleged cocaine dealer Timothy Thomas, 28: "It was believed that Timothy C. Thomas had established an illegal drug business, inside ‘Club Harem' (at the bar) which made Timothy C. Thomas feel less vulnerable and more insulated from law enforcement detection or other problems commonly experienced by drug dealers working ‘on the street.' This would explain why Timothy C. Thomas would prefer to conduct an illegal drug transaction inside ‘Club Harem' than ‘on the street.'"
But an affidavit for an arrest warrant from MBI agent Andre Armendariz describes a very different Thomas, one who was extremely reluctant to set up a $1,700 cocaine deal inside Club Harem Jan. 26. First he asked the agent to make the transaction in a Kmart parking lot. Then he asked that it be done in his car in the club's parking lot. Each time Armendariz said no and insisted the deal go down inside the club's bathroom. Eventually, Thomas entered the club to talk about the deal, but still didn't bring the drugs with him. The men went into the bathroom to talk about it, but dispersed when a club employee came in. Finally, Thomas went outside, got the drugs and sold them in the club's bathroom.
Operation Double D's also relies on a man police refer to as "Confidential Informant No. 2," a club employee who claimed to be Bell's boyfriend. According to police, he approached Winter Park detectives late in 2005 and told them that he was concerned that Club Harem could soon become home to a drug war. He told police Bell was doing cocaine at work, and later told them that he left the house they shared after he found coke in the bathroom.
What the narrative doesn't mention is that Confidential Informant No. 2 has an extensive criminal history, including at least six charges of grand theft, three counts of forgery, one count of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon and one count of escape from jail. He also has an ax to grind. According to Mason, Bell kicked him out of their house because he couldn't land a steady job. (Bell's attorney did not return phone calls for this story, and attempts to reach her were unsuccessful.)
Also not mentioned in the paperwork for Operation Double D's is that while he was telling police his story, Confidential Informant No. 2 had two active warrants for his arrest on charges that he violated probation dating to 2003. But those warrants weren't served until March 29, 12 days after the Club Harem raid and well after police were done with him. (It's not clear which police agency served the warrants, or under what circumstances.) He is currently a resident of the Hamilton Correctional Institution in Jasper.
If Confidential Informant No. 2 is who Mason says he is, that leaves two possibilities: Either Winter Park cops knew their confidential informant had warrants for his arrest and did nothing, or they had no idea who they were dealing with. Neither scenario speaks to thorough, comprehensive police work.
Winter Park Police Deputy Chief William McEachnie denies that the city targeted Club Harem. "I don't believe it was the `adult-entertainment license` that got them into trouble," he says. "As long as they follow the law, they're fine. When they operate outside the law, they get our attention."
To date, neither Winter Park nor the beverage department has taken administrative action against Club Harem.firstname.lastname@example.org