Cops in Cocoa stamp out sin

On the morning of May 30, about 40 hooded, plainclothes police descended on two modest, pink-and-beige buildings directly across State Road 520 from the Cocoa Police Department. Their mission: To close The Boardroom, a red-carpet-and-mirrors parlor where men bathed with women, had their backs rubbed with oil and powder, and, if 69 witnesses can be believed, got themselves jerked off for $150 a half-hour session.

Once inside, the cops systematically took the place apart. They seized filing cabinets, television monitors, surveillance equipment, employment applications, a microwave oven, a washing machine, tables, lamps, alarm clocks and a "to-our-guest" statement framed on the wall. They even grabbed a plaque from the Florida Sheriff's Association hanging in The Boardroom's reception room.

Four hostesses fled before the raid, but police nabbed them several blocks away. In all 11 female employees were arrested on racketeering and prostitution charges. In addition, Marjorie Ruzzo, a short, squat, 57-year-old, frizzy-haired, self-proclaimed minister who has owned The Boardroom since 1986, was charged with nine felony counts, ranging from engaging in illegal financial transactions to aiding prostitution.

Raiding The Boardroom May 30 might have raised the moral code of Cocoa, however slightly, but there remains the question whether the police overstepped their authority in their zeal to shutter the club.

A search warrant signed by Brevard County Circuit Court Judge Tanya Rainwater authorized law enforcement to take items from seven categories: credit card receipts, records of gift certificates and bank deposits, cash, daily log books, computer hardware and software, and items that might contain semen.

Boardroom attorneys, however, say police took more than 100 items beyond what was spelled out in the warrant.

"Even if all of the allegations are true [against The Boardroom], there's a significant liberty issue when government can kick in the door of a business and make it forfeit its assets in violation of a search warrant," says Larry Walters, a First Amendment attorney representing The Boardroom. "Law enforcement is committing a greater crime than the business could ever have alleged to commit."

Police justify the seizure by saying that The Boardroom was a brothel pulling in more than $1 million annually. Therefore, anything purchased with the club's money became contraband.

"They used illegal money to buy these items, which became forfeited property," says Bill Lutz, director of the Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation, an Orange-Osceola crime-fighting cooperative made up of nine local and federal police agencies. The MBI has been part of several high-profile busts in the past few years: prostitution at the Rachel's Men's Club, which led to the arrest of owner Jim Veigle on racketeering charges; an on-line escort service; an $8.6 million heroin ring; and, last week, the raid of the H2O late-night dance club on allegations stemming from designer-drug sales.

Lutz is relying on a provision in state law that says property acquired "by the use of proceeds" of illegal businesses can be seized under the state's forfeiture act.

In late June, Boardroom attorneys filed a motion to suppress all seized evidence, claiming that the search warrant became for law enforcement "an invalid general warrant." In order to legally take what they did, police needed either an additional asset search warrant or a paragraph in the existing warrant permitting the forfeiture, says Boardroom attorney Gregory Eisenmenger. There was no such language in the warrant. "They exceeded the scope of their warrant," he says. (The forfeiture part of the case has not been scheduled for a hearing.)

Boardroom attorneys say the overzealous police work didn't stop with the terms of the warrant. They claim Ruzzo was kept from her attorneys for nearly four hours as Brevard County deputies drove her from precinct to precinct in an attempt to intimidate her, that police taunted people calling The Boardroom on the day of the bust, and that they drank a case of Ruzzo's bottled water. They even pried open employee lockers, Boardroom attorneys claim, a search that should have required a separate warrant. That property was technically not The Boardroom's, Walters says.

"[Police] were either being deliberate or incredibly negligent," Eisenmenger says. "They either did it on purpose or they were very sloppy. There's no excuse for either one."

One of the hostesses who fled before the raid says police publicly humiliated her.

Shana Wry, 30, was detained and put in cuffs several blocks from the club. The detective who arrested her discovered that Wry, a tall, slim blonde, was not one of the hostesses wanted by police because she was never identified by male customers as providing sexual services. She says she fled because she didn't want to be inside The Boardroom when it was raided.

But instead of letting her go, police brought her back to the club where television crews, tipped by the cops, were waiting. "They needed someone in front of the cameras," she says. "I was the little scapegoat."

The Boardroom has seen its share of trouble before. A 1996 court case, filed by two former female employees, alleges that female employees were routinely required to provide sexual services, including masturbation, fellatio, and vaginal and anal intercourse to the patrons.

In depositions for the case, two male employees corroborate claims that Boardroom "relaxation therapists" were trained to jerk off male clients.

Walters, the Boardroom attorney, paints the case as a group of disgruntled former employees trying to get back at Ruzzo. Nonetheless, Walters says, police had no right to empty the place. "Police cannot act like Nazis just because people said bad things about The Boardroom."

Richard Johnson, the attorney for the two male ex-employees who filed the 1996 suit, can't believe police didn't bust the business years ago.

"I'm amazed [the Boardroom owners] were never arrested before," he says. "They were so open about what they were doing. There was irrefutable evidence that the owners were running a hand-job place but police were so ho-hum about it."

Investigators have even questioned whether local cops were regular Boardroom patrons none too anxious to see the place closed. Kathryn Hermanson, who worked at The Boardroom from 1989 to 1993, told an MBI agent under oath that she remembers hostesses talking about Cocoa police coming to the club. But other hostesses questioned by the MBI remember no such things.

Lt. Mike Wong, who heads up the Brevard County Sheriff's Office's special investigations unit, says his detectives looked into the matter and were unable to determine whether cops received free sex at the club. Wong says The Boardroom would have been investigated sooner but Brevard County's priorities lay elsewhere.

"We have a limited number of resources to devote to prostitution full-time," he says. "Narcotics are our priority. There's so much around. We receive all types of complaints that we are mandated to investigate."

Don't look for the back-and-forth to end soon. "We're at the beginning of a long battle," Boardroom attorney Walters says. "We're going to look very closely at MBI's activities."

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