EL PASO – from www.lcsun.com – — Jeannie Coutta will be tried again this week on charges that she ran a prostitution business in her strip club and hired underage dancers.
Coutta, 67, co-owner of the former Naked Harem club at 6345 Alameda, is being retried on four counts of engaging in organized criminal activity and one count of aggravated promotion of prostitution. Jury selection is scheduled to begin today.
Her first trial in June ended in a hung jury, as 11 of the 12 voted to convict her. The holdout, a man, said she was prosecuted unfairly.
The case against Coutta is more than five years old. Police arrested Coutta, her business partner, Phyllis Woodall, and four managers of the club in April 2004.
Police said the arrests were the culmination of a 14-month investigation that showed Coutta and Woodall hired underage dancers, and that employees prostituted themselves to customers.
Coutta’s attorney, Gary Hill, said Monday that the prosecution’s case against Coutta boils down to money. Hill said District Attorney Jaime Esparza was eager to convict Coutta so that the Naked Harem property could be seized and turned over to the city. Hill said city officials long ago planned to build a police station there.
A spokeswoman for Esparza said he does not comment on pending cases. But two of his prosecutors, Kyle Lasley and Cheri Shapleigh, said during a hearing last month that Hill’s allegations were false. They said Coutta was being prosecuted because she broke the law.
Hill, though, said Coutta has been treated differently from others in similar cases. He said owners and employees of several other strip clubs have been arrested, but prosecutors either dropped or reduced the charges against them.
“There was no interest in anything but the Naked Harem,” Hill said. “There was a concerted effort to target these ladies.”
Hill said any underage dancers were not hired by Woodall and Coutta, but by managers Jake Crum and Richard Dwayne Hamm. Prosecutors offered Crum and Hamm immunity in exchange for their testimony against the two women.
Hill said one underage dancer, Lucy Peinado, worked at the club for only one night before Woodall discovered she was 15 and fired her. Dancers at the Naked Harem had to be at least 18. The club did not serve alcohol.
The defense said Peinado then began working at Exotica, another strip club. Woodall, in court documents, said she attempted to tell police about Peinado’s new employment, but was ignored.
The prostitution claims are also unfounded, Hill said.
Hill said customers masturbated in the club, but dancers did not sell themselves to patrons. Prosecutors, though, said sex was for sale in the club’s private rooms, and that Coutta took a cut of the money.
Hill filed a motion last month to dismiss the indictment against Coutta, but District Judge David Guaderrama rejected it. Hill blamed himself for failing to get the motion approved because he did not clearly state that Coutta and Woodall were targeted because of their gender.
He claimed that prosecutors had offered Coutta and Woodall probation in exchange for their property. Hill said that, as part of the deal, prosecutors would have admitted to making errors in admitting Peinado’s grand jury testimony.
The women said they declined the offer for plea bargains.
“This is basically extortion,” Hill said. “Their problem has always been that they underestimated these women. They held their ground.”
Coutta said she hopes this time jurors will acquit her. A jury convicted Woodall in 2006 and sentenced her to 16 years in a state prison. She was paroled April 2.
In September, the 8th Court of Appeals overturned her sentence after determining grand jury testimony was erroneously admitted at her trial. But the court affirmed her conviction.
Woodall and her lawyers have filed a petition for review in the state’s Court of Criminal Appeals, which will decide whether to allow for a new trial or give her a new punishment hearing.
The property where the Naked Harem sits is being leased out by Coutta and Woodall, who now make their living off several rental properties.
“Whether you like this business or you don’t, these ladies are fine people,” Hill said. “They’re the best people you’ll ever want to meet. Hopefully it’ll all come out in the wash.”