EL PASO — from www.lcsun-news.com – Prosecutors said Monday that businesswoman Jeannie Coutta allowed and encouraged dancers to prostitute themselves at the strip club she co-owned.
Coutta’s retrial got off to a contentious start, as her lawyer said prosecutors targeted her unfairly because the district attorney wanted to seize her property. Defense lawyer Gary Hill said the city wants to build a police station on the site if prosecutors can wrest away Coutta’s land.
Coutta, 67, is charged with four counts of engaging in organized criminal activity and one count of aggravated promotion of prostitution. Her first trial six months ago ended in a hung jury.
Assistant District Attorney Kyle Lasley said in his opening statement that Coutta knew about and profited from prostitution at her Naked Harem club. She co-owned the club at 6345 Alameda with her business partner, Phyllis Woodall.
Customers often spent thousands of dollars in the club’s private rooms, where the sex acts took place, one witness for the state testified.
Richard Dwayne Hamm, one of the club’s former managers, said each two-song private dance cost $130 in cash or $140 if the customer was paying with a credit card.
Hamm said Coutta knew how much time dancers were spending in the private rooms with customers because she was there “85 percent of the time.”
When police raided the club in April 2004, a number of unwrapped condoms were found on the floors of the private rooms. Condoms also were hidden in the rooms’ paneled walls and planters, testified Officer Michael Velez, an El Paso police crime scene technician.
Tom Maguire, the city’s chief building inspector, testified that he and police also found a “condom trap” that had been installed at the bottom of sewer lines leading from the club’s dressing room toilets and shower. Baskets within the trap caught condoms that dancers apparently flushed down the toilets in their dressing rooms.
Defense attorney Hill countered that the condoms proved nothing. He said police had no information on how they were used, if they were used at all.
Hamm was arrested in the prostitution sting, but prosecutors gave him immunity in exchange for his testimony against Coutta and Woodall.
Hill has said that these women were singled out by prosecutors because they owned an attractive piece of property. Several other strip clubs were also targeted during the April 2004 sting, but charges against the operators of those clubs were either dismissed or reduced to misdemeanors, Hill said. Only the Naked Harem owners were subjected to a full prosecution, he said.
A jury convicted Woodall in 2006 and sentenced her to 16 years in prison. The state paroled her on April 2.
However, the 8th Court of Appeals overturned Woodall’s sentence in September after determining that grand jury testimony was erroneously admitted at her trial. On Nov. 3, Woodall and her lawyers filed a petition for discretionary review in the state’s Criminal Court of Appeals. That court will decide whether to grant her a new trial or simply give her a new punishment hearing.
Police said the 2004 sting took place after a 14-month investigation into complaints that the Naked Harem and the other clubs were hiring underage dancers. Hamm testified that as manager he fired at least one girl after he discovered her identification was false, but Coutta and Woodall allowed her to return. Dancers had to be at least 18 years old.
Hamm also said dancers complained about another girl, Lucy Peinado, who was 15 years old when she was hired to dance at the Naked Harem. Hamm said the other dancers did not like Peinado because she looked so young. When he told Coutta and Woodall about their concerns, Hamm said, the two women ignored him.
Coutta’s trial continues today in 243rd District Court before Judge David Guaderrama.