Last November, after buying a big ol' sack of porn movies (thanks taxpayers!) at Jerry's General Store on East Colonial Drive, agents from the Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation pulled on their Halloween masks, strapped on their guns, laced up their bullet-proof vests, stormed the hapless mom-and-pop operation and took the bad guys down. They arrested three hardened criminals in the righteous cleansing: store owner Roxie Hanna, 33; Hanna's mother, Diana Cooper, 55; and Hanna's grandmother, Eileen Hart, 75. All three were charged under the RICO Act, a federal statute commonly used to put away mobsters for racketeering. The Jerry's Gang each faced 30 years in the cooler.
For their high-profile efforts to clean up Orlando, the MBI got saturation coverage, and director Bill Lutz got an op-ed piece in the Sentinel in which he explained that the stuff Jerry's sold is not your father's porn. This was "graphic materials so extreme that they cannot be described in a family newspaper." Kinda makes you curious, doesn't it? Hint: A common theme among the videos purchased by MBI agents (thanks again taxpayers!) is "bukkake." Type it into Google if you're not familiar with the term. Educational and research use only, please.
And here we are, eight months later. Jerry's is still open, still selling triple-X videos (says so right on the sign out front), and these three menacing women are still on the loose. In fact, one could make a case that the MBI's raid of Jerry's has actually benefited adult businesses in Orange County.
One of the charges brought against Roxie Hanna was operating an adult business without a license. But her defense lawyer, Richard Wilson, argued that the county's adult-business law is unconstitutional because it doesn't provide for a prompt review for businesses turned down for a license. In May, circuit court Judge Stan Strickland agreed and dropped the charge.
One could also argue that the MBI screwed up big time when they cuffed and stuffed a 75-year-old woman for selling porn available elsewhere in town, not to mention on the Internet. But they tacitly admitted as much by dropping all charges against Hart on June 4, so why rub salt in the wound?
(The official word from MBI director Lutz is that Hart "cooperated and assisted the police investigation," so they let her go. One crusader to another here, Bill: I think at this point she's beyond reform and will just end up peddling smut again.)
And one could certainly argue that the whole thing has been yet another embarrassing failure for the agency that has appointed itself Central Florida's Church Lady with a badge. The MBI couldn't convince a jury that Vicky Gallas was running a prostitution ring thinly disguised as an escort business, and they couldn't shut down Rachel's men's club in Casselberry despite three years of undercover agents buying lap dances and illicit drugs (taxpayers, you're too kind!).
Ah, but don't count these defenders of O-Town's chastity out just yet. With the RICO case against Jerry's bogged down in tedious legal proceedings, aka due process, the MBI has taken a new and decidedly imaginative approach to ridding Orlando of sin: They've gone into the business of enforcing sales-tax laws.
On May 29, masked MBI agents paid yet another visit to Jerry's, this time to serve a search warrant. They hauled off boxes of receipts, cash-register tapes, time cards, inventory-tracking stickers, the lot, looking for evidence of tax evasion. The vice squad, it seems, is suddenly very interested in whether or not Jerry's paid its sales taxes.
Can you say "vendetta"?
For those of you ready to dismiss me as a porn apologist, cool your typing fingers for a moment while I make a point.
Obscenity is not protected by the First Amendment, true. But to date no jury anywhere has deemed the videos MBI agents bought at Jerry's obscene. And only a jury can do that. No matter how offensive Bill Lutz finds a particular video, the MBI has no legal right to prevent its sale.
The First Amendment applies to all protected speech, whether you agree with it or not. I don't want the MBI, or anyone else, dictating what I can and can't watch. I don't give a toss how offended Lutz is by this stuff and neither should you. He's paid to uphold community standards, not set them.
I've got a feeling this is really about the MBI wanting to save face. When Roxie Hanna didn't slink out of town at their suggestion, and when the wheels of justice didn't turn fast enough, the MBI decided to wage a war of attrition. They may never file sales-tax charges against Jerry's, but the damage is done. Roxie Hanna has to hire another lawyer and fight another legal battle. That's tough to do when you run a mom-and-pop store that just gets by, even when times are good.
But the MBI is well known for always getting their women, one way or another.