In June 2004, James McGriff and James Carlies Jr. became two of adult nightclub Cleo's best customers. They stopped by the Orange Blossom Trail strip club nearly every evening, often dropping $400 or more in a couple of hours, a healthy chunk of which ended up with dancers and waitresses as tips. They would buy private dances from nearly all the entertainers working a shift. They bought drinks for themselves, anyone seated nearby and anyone who asked. They sat in the back corner of the club, night after night, sipping beer and mixed drinks, often surrounded by dancers and waitresses. According to some of the dancers, McGriff and Carlies would give them $25 just to sit and talk. They bought girls shots of Hennessey and drinks called "Where the Fuck Is My Car." They paid $20 for private dances, twice the going rate. In return, some of the strippers would pull their panties aside and give McGriff and Carlies an eyeful of what Orange County says is illegal to expose.
The two were there so often and had such loose purse strings that they became more than regulars; some of the club's employees considered them friends. They would listen to the dancers talk about their private lives and their feuds and spats with other employees.
"[They] befriended a lot of girls, got a lot of phone numbers, talked to a lot of the girls outside the club," says Cheryl Collins, who worked on and off at Cleo's for three years. "They were, like, regular [guys] that you would meet on the street. But, you know, they would come in here and next thing you know, you talk to them for so long … the girls got used to being with them, talking to them, them offering to take you out to eat, offering to buy you clothing for, you know, your attire to wear here."
The duo also bought drugs from patrons at the bar or friends of the dancers. At first, they scored small amounts of Ecstasy or pot; later, they bought crack cocaine and heroin. If the dancers hooked up the drug deals, the pair would reward them with tips or free drugs.
But Carlies and McGriff weren't the high-wheeling drug dealers the club's employees assumed they were. They were undercover agents with the Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation, a multiagency task force that acts as Central Florida's vice squad. And this was a sting.
The MBI labeled its five-month investigation "Operation Overexposed." In early November, MBI agents arrested 52 Cleo's employees and patrons on charges ranging from drug dealing to public nudity to soliciting an alcoholic beverage (under Orange County code, it's illegal for an adult-entertainment employee to ask a customer to buy her a drink). To date, more than 20 of those people have been convicted, according to MBI director Bill Lutz, though most of the convictions resulted in probation and small fines in exchange for pleas of guilty or no contest.
"The violations at this establishment were widespread in comparison to other clubs," Lutz writes in an e-mail to Orlando Weekly.
It is the MBI's second attempt in four years to shut Cleo's down. Following a smaller sting in 2001, the agency asked Orange County to suspend the club's adult entertainment license for 30 days. That time the MBI couldn't prove that the club's management encouraged or permitted the illegal behavior, so the county was forced to settle for a $35,000 fine a slap on the wrist compared to the suspension and six-figure fine the MBI sought.
This time around, the MBI wanted to take Cleo's liquor license, which would essentially put the club out of business. On March 16, they sent a letter to the Florida Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco, the state agency that regulates liquor licenses, detailing Cleo's alleged misdeeds. According to Steve Mason, Cleo's attorney, the division has prepared an administrative lawsuit to revoke the club's license, but hasn't yet filed it.
But there are lingering questions about how agents conducted the investigation and how they handled evidence. Given the MBI's recent string of investigations that have fallen apart, the questions are not academic. Cleo's lawyers responded to the investigation with a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Orange County's adult business ordinances, a case which was initially put on hold by a judge but will likely be filed again soon. Cleo's could very well become another high-profile strikeout for an agency that has had two other embarrassing failures in recent years.
"Does flagrant [mis]conduct on the part of the police taint the investigation to the point where it's meaningless?" Mason asks. "I think it does."
TWO SWINGS, TWO MISSES
"The MBI investigates all open adult entertainment clubs," says Lutz, the director.
Indeed it does, although with marginal success.
The agency's highest-profile flop came in 2003, when the MBI spent $193,000 trying to build a racketeering case against Rachel's Gentlemen's Club. The case was a cacophony of blunders, including one agent caught on audiotape telling another, "I'm going to end up fucking this [dancer]. If not here, somewhere else."
In that investigation, undercover agents paid Rachel's managers hundreds of dollars to look the other way as they took strippers to whom they paid thousands of dollars out to limousines for sex shows. But the MBI never came close to proving that Rachel's owner Jim Veigle permitted such behavior. In fact, the investigation demonstrated that club employees went out of their way to hide their activities from the boss. In July 2003 two of the corporations that owned Rachel's pled guilty to racketeering and paid a $692,000 fine, which amounted to about two months' profit. The attorney general's office had to return $700,000 in seized assets to Rachel's because the MBI failed to link the club to illegal profits.
But perhaps the MBI's most public black eye was the agency's investigation into Jerry's General Store, a homey bookstore in Union Park that also sold and rented pornographic magazines and videos. In November 2002, MBI agents bought some magazines magazines available at other bookstores around town decided they were "obscene" and arrested the three women who ran the store, one of whom was a 75-year-old grandmother. Watching the MBI try to convince a judge that the three were a menace to society and should be locked up over Thanksgiving weekend was surreal.
Eventually the porn charges were tossed. The MBI later switched hats, from vice squad to revenue cops, and came after Jerry's owner Roxie Hanna on tax-evasion charges. She pled guilty to not paying about $3,000 in sales tax. The scorched-earth policy did eventually score the MBI a win, if you can call it that, because Hanna's landlord declined to renew her lease and Jerry's closed in May.
THIRD TIME LUCKY?
The MBI made their second attempt at a case against Cleo's in a March 16 report to the state's alcohol regulators that includes a summary of the charges against the club and the MBI's expense report for the operation. It also includes a highly detailed narrative of what the agents claim they saw going on inside the club, excerpts of which paint a picture of a place where the drugs and sex flow as freely as the booze. The report begins June 4, 2004:
"Agent James Carlies Jr. saw a black female who used the name 'Diamond' (later identified as Cassondra Yvette Hawkins) dancing for Agent James A. McGriff. Cassondra Yvette Hawkins was wearing a bronze bottom that revealed most of her buttocks. Agent James Carlies Jr. saw Cassondra Yvette Hawkins pull her bottom to the side, exposing her vaginal lips. …
"A black female who used the name 'Skittles' (later identified as Johanne Jacob) approached Agent James Carlies Jr. and asked Agent James Carlies Jr. if he wanted a dance, to which Agent James Carlies Jr. replied, 'Yes.' Johanne Jacob was wearing a lavender and black bottom with matching top. Johanne Jacob took her top off and her breasts were revealed with her nipples covered only with what appeared to be tape. Johanne Jacob began to dance, while she displayed specific anatomical areas (breasts), and she turned around and faced away from Agent James Carlies Jr. and bent over and used her hands to pull her bottom to the side and exposed her labia majora (or outer vaginal lips) in a sexually suggestive manner, approximately two times. … After the dance, Johanne Jacob sat down next to Agent James Carlies Jr. and engaged in conversation. During the conversation, Johanne Jacob asked Agent James Carlies Jr. if he saw her 'coochie' to which Agent James Carlies Jr. replied, 'Yes.' ('Coochie' was known to be a slang term for vagina.) …"
The June 4 narrative continues. "Caramel" asked Carlies if he wanted a dance, then showed him her vagina. She also grabbed McGriff's crotch and asked him for a drink. "Storm" did the same. McGriff asked "Roamie" for a dance, during which she showed him her anus. Then she showed him her vagina twice. Then McGriff asked "Lepsy" to hook him up with Ecstasy. Lepsy didn't have any, but her friend could possibly find McGriff who the dancers knew as "J.J." marijuana. She gave him her phone number and told him to call later. The agents left the club at 9:20 p.m., meaning all this transpired in about three hours.
And that was only the first night. On subsequent visits, according to the report, the two agents were besieged by dancers showing off their genitals and asking for drinks. One, "Addictive," appeared to be "hyper and energetic," according to the report. So McGriff told her he wanted whatever she was on. She called a friend, who later in the evening delivered four Ecstasy pills. Addictive kept one for herself for brokering the deal, and sold McGriff the other three for $60.
Subsequent return visits produced similar results, with McGriff buying larger and larger quantities of drugs. On June 30, he paid $650 for 25 Ecstasy pills. On July 21, he got a better deal, paying $450 for 50 pills. On Aug. 25, in the biggest drug deal the narrative notes, McGriff paid $1,700 for 57 grams of crack inside a parked vehicle in the Cleo's parking lot.
The MBI spent $27,562 investigating Cleo's. The investment produced 143 charges of lewd activity, 63 charges of employees soliciting alcoholic beverages, 27 drug-related charges and 341 alleged violations of Orange County code, according to the report. Perhaps most importantly, the report states that the people in charge of Cleo's knew what was going on.
"The management of the premises was aware that patrons were purchasing narcotics at the premises and the illegal activity was not stopped," the report alleges. "The premises was also a meeting place being utilized by persons selling narcotics to further their illegal activity. Management was aware of the lewd activity and the lewd acts continued throughout the five-month investigation." Reading the narrative, it's easy to get the impression that the MBI agents had simply tapped into a situation that was out of control. The implication is that anyone could wander into Cleo's and find exactly the same thing.
But Cleo's employees say it wasn't quite like that.
"The first time I met Carlies was through another dancer," Cheryl Collins said in a sworn statement she gave to Mason, her attorney, Sept. 2. "I was sitting in the back and it was a slow day, and I went up to him and I introduced myself."
There was a rumor going around the club that Carlies and McGriff who was seated next to him were undercover cops. Collins asked Carlies point-blank. "And he said to me, 'Oh no, no, who told you that? That's not true.'"
Carlies asked what he could do to prove that he wasn't a cop. "I was like, I don't know," Collins says. "And so, what he does is he leans back and he snatches his boxers and basketball shorts and he shows me his private area. And he goes, 'Now, would a police officer do something like that?'"
In her sworn statement, Collins describes Carlies' penis with remarkable specificity, describing various identifying characteristics. "I mean, that's a lot of detail, but I will never forget that day," she states.
In a Sept. 1 deposition he gave as part of the federal lawsuit, McGriff remembers the incident differently, saying that Collins approached the agents and asked if they were cops; they denied it and successfully played it off, he says. McGriff says neither he nor Carlies exposed themselves. Lutz, the MBI director, flat-out calls Collins a liar. "That sort of behavior is not acceptable and was not used during the investigation. It is natural that some of the topless dancers that were arrested will make ridiculous claims to deflect attention from their illegal conduct."
Collins, it should be noted, has little to gain from going public with her story. She was arrested in November on 18 charges of exposing herself, lewdness and violating Orange County ordinances, according to court records. A few days before she gave this sworn statement, her case was settled when she pled no contest to nine of those charges, and a judge acquitted her of the rest. She was sentenced to one year of probation during which she can't work in the adult entertainment industry and was required to pay court costs, and the judge withheld an adjudication of guilt.
On 63 occasions, according to the report, Cleo's employees asked the MBI agents to buy them drinks, which is illegal in Orange County. (It is legal to buy an employee a drink in a strip club, but the employee can't ask you to do it.) Collins says the agents would ask one girl if she wanted a drink, then motion to others to come and place an order. Only months later, when the charges came in, did the dancers realize they had committed a crime, she says.
In any case, the drinks were flowing. Collins says that whenever McGriff and Carlies bought a round for the dancers, they bought one for themselves. In his deposition, McGriff couldn't recall how much alcohol he drank, but he admitted to drinking several beers or mixed drinks per night.
Collins says the two became aggressive as they drank. She says the agents groped her breasts and grabbed her buttocks. They grabbed her hand and put it on their crotches or on another dancer's crotch. They would pull on the entertainers' panties. They would trip the dancers so they fell into the agents' laps.
"Me personally, when I would try to get up [McGriff] would hold me back down and [thrust] his hips, as in what would you call it? dry sex, I guess," Collins says.
She says that when Carlies paid $20 for a dance, he expected to see something extra. "Normally in Cleo's if you ask someone as a dancer for a $20 dance … it was known that if you give $20 for a dance, a girl's going to show you her private area. So he knew what he was asking for." At first, she says she resisted, but Carlies threatened not to pay her unless she showed off her privates.
Interestingly, in a Jan. 27 deposition he gave in a criminal case, Carlies says he never paid more than $10 for a dance. But he's contradicted by McGriff's Sept. 1 deposition; McGriff said he often paid $18 or $20 for "feature dances."
Collins adds the two would beg and plead for the dancers to set up drug deals. "No one ever went to them and offered them any kind of drug," Collins says. "I knew that because I sat with them most of the time."
Olivia Foster, a dancer who went by the stage name "Strawberry," says in an interview with Orlando Weekly that McGriff offered to take her and two other dancers with him to Cocoa Beach on a shopping spree.
McGriff would ask the dancers to sit next to him, says Foster, then lay his hand across the seat to touch their bottoms. "He would grab your butt or rub you across your titties or something like that."
Like Collins, Foster says McGriff would pull dancers close to him and pull their panties to the side so he could see their genitals.
Foster has 10 charges against her, including lewdness, soliciting drinks, public nudity, exposure of sexual organs, straddle dancing and possession of cocaine with intent to sell. Her trial is scheduled for Oct. 10.
"Skittles," or Johanne Jacob, was 19 in the summer of 2004. It was no secret that she was underage; in fact, the club is required to send the MBI a list of its employees, their stage names and birthdays (it's legal to work in a strip club if you are over 18). Assuming Carlies and McGriff had access to that information, they would have known Jacob was underage. Still, McGriff admits in his own deposition that he bought her a drink. He also says it's likely he bought other underage employees alcohol as well.
Jacob faces 39 charges, ranging from exposing herself to asking for a drink to touching the agents' crotches. She pled no contest to 23 of the charges, and the state opted not to prosecute the rest. The judge withheld adjudication of guilt and placed her on 363 days of nonreporting probation, as well as assessing $472 in fees.
The agents didn't take notes while they were inside the club that would have blown their cover. Instead, whenever a dancer asked them for drinks or bared more than the law allows, the agents used their cell phones to leave themselves voice mail notes. Those notes later became the basis for the narrative.
But Cleo's is known for its thumping bass and rattling walls. The place is loud. It's hard to imagine the agents talking loudly enough into their cell phones to be heard over the din. Indeed, an unscientific test performed by this reporter showed it's difficult to hear anything spoken into a cell phone at a conversational tone over the music, even when the music is turned down during the club's daytime hours. McGriff admitted in another deposition he gave on Jan. 27 that the MBI didn't use audio tapes during this investigation because it was impossible to make out what was being said over the noise.
What the agents could and couldn't hear of their notes or whether or not their voices were slurred from alcohol will forever remain a mystery, however, because they erased their voice mails. The work product that led to the narrative that is supposed to take down Cleo's is gone forever.
McGriff said in his deposition that he didn't keep the notes because he didn't think he needed to. Lutz concurs: "It is not legally required, practical or reasonable to keep individual computerized voice mails that are used only to draft a final report."
But Florida statutes suggest that as the product of a public agency the MBI those voice mails were a public record, and should have been preserved. "It sounds like it was an integral part of the investigation," says Adria Gonzalez, director of the First Amendment Foundation, a Florida public-records watchdog group. "So therefore somebody might consider it pretty important. If they relied on it in their investigation, I would think it would be important … to have some sort of record of."
The state also has something to say about how long records obtained during a criminal investigation should be kept. Even for investigations into second-degree misdemeanors and "noncriminal offenses," voice mails should be preserved for four years after the alleged crime is committed, according to Jim Berberich of the Florida state department. The only exemption is for "transitory messages." Berberich gives this example of a transitory message: "Detective Smith, this is Detective Jones. Call me back and let me know when we can meet to review our witness statements." Voice mails used to put together a narrative that is central to a criminal investigation would seem to rise above that standard.
Mason, Cleo's lawyer, points out that under the "due process" clause of the United States constitution, criminal defendants have a right to challenge the evidence being used against them. (The Florida attorney general's office declined to comment on the situation, citing the ongoing litigation.)
The MBI's narrative does mention videotapes it recorded on at least some of the agents' visits. These tapes, however, have since become the focus of a public records lawsuit, since the MBI only agreed to turn them over to Cleo's attorneys after editing them to redact information about the undercover agents. Cleo's would have to pay $175 an hour for the MBI to edit the tapes, according to a letter the agency sent to attorney Mason.
And then there's the issue of the drug sales. McGriff and Carlies' report suggests that it was easy to score drugs inside Cleo's. Although the agents met the alleged dealers at Cleo's and sometimes met them through an employee or patron of the club, transcripts of recorded phone calls between McGriff and his alleged dealers, which were saved, show that he often arranged for drug transactions to take place on Cleo's property in parts of the club where management couldn't see what was going on, such as the women's bathroom. Once a dealer had to smuggle drugs inside a box of tampons to avoid the patdown that the club's doorman performs on all entrants, suggesting that management was trying to prevent illicit activity.
Cleo's owner Gerald Uranick is one of the forefathers of the adult entertainment industry. After a career as a show producer for Las Vegas hotels, Uranick opened Central Florida's first strip club, Circus Circus, in Seminole County in 1971.
In person, he's not what you'd expect: a proud grandfather in tight jeans and large-framed sunglasses who says he never drinks.
"It's a lucrative business," Uranick says of his profession. "It's [also] a hard row to hoe."
Especially in Central Florida, which he describes as being one of the most restrictive areas in the country. He bought Cleo's in 1997, but it took two years and the threat of a federal lawsuit before the county allowed him to transfer the adult entertainment license into his name.
Uranick thinks the MBI has made him an obsession. "It pisses me off," he says. "Does Orange County know that I try to run a straight ship? How could they not? Why the hell are they making me a full-time job?"
"They arrested all these people," adds club manager Morris Wade. "They stacked all these charges. It occurred to me that if the MBI had all of this and the club was not doing its job, why didn't they arrest any of the managers or any of the key staff?"
Lutz himself answers that question: "At the time of the arrests proof of the managers' conduct had not risen to the level required for a successful prosecution of a criminal offense."
In other words, Lutz admits the MBI did not have enough evidence to make a case against Cleo's management, even though the MBI told the Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco in its report that managers knew what was going on and the club should lose its liquor license because of it.
Cleo's is fighting back. In December 2004, Mason filed a federal lawsuit, challenging the constitutionality of Orange County's adult entertainment codes, which allow a club's license to be suspended or revoked based on an allegation. It was a pre-emptive strike, designed to head off any attempt by Orange County to revoke or suspend the club's adult entertainment license.
The county responded in January with a motion to dismiss, arguing that Mason's complaint wasn't "ripe for judicial review" because the county hadn't yet moved to shut Cleo's down. On Sept. 12, Judge John Antoon II agreed; he dismissed the lawsuit without prejudice, meaning Cleo's can refile it before Sept. 30, which Mason says the club will do. To make it to trial, Cleo's will have to show that it's been targeted by the MBI and the county.
Many of the employees caught up in the five-month investigation have pleaded guilty or no contest in exchange for minimal sentences, but the MBI's campaign against Cleo's continues, based largely on the word of two undercover agents who if the club's workers are to be believed are hardly paragons of virtue themselves.
"You don't know what these guys did to entice [the illegal behaviors]," Wade says. "That's the problem."
He does have a theory as to why they went after Cleo's, however. "This club has been targeted. It's terrible. In my opinion, this was retribution."
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.