The booby trap 


There isn't much to take away from the 20 hours of surveillance footage that the Winter Park Police Department recorded outside Club Harem on Lee Road between January and August 2008. Mostly it's just stationary dashboard views through the windshield looking at the club's iconic twin-domed architecture – it was once called the Booby Trap, after all – with occasional camera shifts and clumsy zooms to capture the late-night comings and goings from Winter Park's notorious (and only) strip club.

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Meanwhile, from a "bug" planted on undercover officer Carlos Calderon's person, the usual sounds of adult entertainment – squealing guitar solos and the deep bass of hip-hop – conceal barely audible mutterings about private dances and cruises to Aruba. Even according to the sworn testimony of those involved in the investigation, the spotty presence of any words at all makes the evidence questionable at best.

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"The loud music in the bar, it just screens it out," says Will McCurdy, a sergeant with the Winter Park police's special investigations unit, in a deposition.

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But that evidence may be the only leg that the state attorney's office has to stand on when and if the case against Shawn "Disco" Dawson, 33, goes to trial in December. Dawson was charged with 16 felonies for dealing pot – four in the first degree – following the city's eight-month drug investigation, although he wasn't arrested until two months after the August sting. He could face up to 300 years in prison.

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According to Calderon's reporting, Dawson provided him with small quantities of marijuana on numerous occasions throughout the police investigation; Calderon's word on this would be crucial to the state's case.

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Calderon's words, though – especially those used in now-missing text messages on a prepaid cell phone to and from one of the club's dancers, along with what might have been an improper relationship with that dancer – are calling his credibility as a witness into question. In him, Winter Park's ongoing war on sin may have found itself an unexpected sinner.

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Michelle Merry didn't want anything to do with this case; as a 13-year veteran "entertainer" at Club Harem in 2008, she accidentally backed into it. A new patron going by the name of Luis Lopez caught her eye. He was very attractive, according to Merry's sworn deposition, so attractive that she felt too uncomfortable to strip for him.

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"I don't like to dance for people I think are good-looking," she says. "It makes me nervous."

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Lopez became a regular at Club Harem, and according to Merry, was well-liked by "all the girls." He bought her drinks a couple of times. They held hands and pretended to be "on a date." They exchanged phone numbers and e-mail addresses and developed a relationship as "friends." Their friendship, according to Merry, became a cell phone flirtation, with back-and-forth texts detailing explicit activities.

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"I was, like, school teacher and stuff because he said he was in class one day and I told him I would spank him with a ruler and – yeah," she says.

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The night Merry celebrated her birthday, she recalls in her statement, her friend Michael Wright took her phone from her purse while she was in the bathroom at a Winter Park bar and called Lopez. Soon after, Wright dropped Merry off with Lopez, who was off-duty and waiting for her at a corner in downtown Orlando. The two grabbed something to eat at Planet Pizza. He took her home to Winter Springs; they held hands and "kissed with [their] tongues."

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Merry denies ever having sex with Lopez, although in Wright's own sworn affidavit, he claims that Merry was "infatuated with him."

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Lopez was Calderon, the sole member of the Winter Park Police Department assigned to enter Club Harem in an undercover capacity (two others waited outside in a vehicle). He had been given a T-Mobile Boost prepaid phone, a fake driver's license, an American Express card and some cash to pursue reported drug activity at the club. To do so, he would have to appear inconspicuous. Cornrows and tattoos helped. So did drinking.

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This wasn't the first time Winter Park vice cops donned civilian garb to enter a strip club. Club Harem was targeted by Winter Park police through 2005 and 2006 (see "Run 'em out of town," Sept. 14, 2006), but it wasn't enough to shut the place down. Citing new reports from the Crimeline anonymous tip hotline, the police department once again set its sights on the suggestive domes in January 2008, finally (and temporarily) closing Club Harem over $850 in drug deals by Aug. 30, 2008, and arresting more than a half-dozen people. Winter Park worked in conjunction with state alcohol authorities throughout the sting, which resulted in the club shutting down for nearly a year. It reopened on June 9. That attempt to cleanse Winter Park of its lone den of ill repute had failed.

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But what seemed like an open-and-shut case is turning out to be just the opposite. As Dawson's case builds toward its December trial date, his attorney, Mark Blechman, is calling foul on the state's star witness.

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To wit: Calderon denies under oath ever meeting any dancers outside the club, while both Merry and Wright – who have "no ax to grind," according to Blechman – have given sworn statements to the contrary.

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It's an important issue in more ways than just those concerning Dawson's case. According to a sworn statement from Sergeant McCurdy, who supervised Calderon during the operation, it's against policy to fraternize with suspects.

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"That would be prohibited," he says. "We're not allowed, by our code of ethics, to consort with people selling drugs. Not that everyone in the club was selling drugs. But yes, we couldn't go socialize with anyone that we had under investigation."

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Merry was not under investigation – even if, in effect, Club Harem was – but McCurdy states that though officers are encouraged to "play along" when dealing with strippers in order to maintain their confidence, they still aren't allowed to meet with them alone. Their policy is to have two officers present, especially when meeting with women.

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In September, Blechman filed a motion to compel discovery and impose sanctions that included the statement: "Obviously, phone records from Mr. Calderon's police issued and/or used telephone during the time frame of the investigation would shed light, to say the least, on the veracity of Mr. Calderon." Blechman also requested MySpace records and text message records, along with a full financial report explaining how much was spent on investigating Club Harem.

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"It seems pretty outrageous that in this day and age you have to rely on the word of an undercover police officer when there is tangible evidence," says Blechman.

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The judge assigned to the case, Bob Wattles, concurred, issuing an order on Sept. 30 to the Winter Park Police Department demanding all of the evidence requested to be delivered within 15 days. But there might not be any records – at least not the text messages.

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"They don't keep any records of anything like that with T-Mobile," says Calderon in a deposition. "All of that is disposed of as soon as the phone is disconnected. And again, it's a prepaid phone, so once you stop putting money into it, it's pretty much canceled."

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That's what Blechman's banking on.

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"At one time, all of this evidence was within the custody of the Winter Park Police Department, and they chose not to arrest my client until a long time after," he says. "They created the situation where the evidence was lost or destroyed."

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If the records are lost, he argues, then all the state is left with is an undercover officer whose testimony has been "impugned" by the testimony of two other people. In that case, Blechman will ask the judge to exclude Calderon from the case. That would leave just the muffled thumps of the state's 20 hours of surveillance – along with, coincidentally, the arguments of Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation go-to prosecutor Bob Welch – to sway a jury.

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Steve Mason, the attorney for Club Harem who has been waging a war with the cops for years, thinks Calderon is just one of many undercover officers who abuse their perceived impunity, get caught up in their false identities and leave a mess in their wake. He also suspects that given the option, Winter Park will back down to save face.

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"I bet you this crap just disappears," he says. "You cannot have these people ending up in court."

;; bmanes@orlandoweekly.com

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