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Memphis- It’s 1 a.m. Saturday, and Platinum Plus is packed.

Couples fill seats around small cocktail tables. Men file around the center stage, drinks and dollars in hand, as 50 Cent’s “Just a Lil Bit” blares through the speakers of the East Memphis strip club.

Icy, a light-skinned black woman with shoulder-length brown hair, steps on stage in two-inch heels. She unclips her pink top, arches her back forward and places her hands on the stage, crawling forward as if across a pillow-top mattress. She whips around, throws her smoothly shaved legs into the smoky air, crosses them over and back, and in a quick motion pulls her pink G-string bikini up over her knees and heels.

On Dec. 12, consultant Eric Damian Kelly of Duncan Associates will describe scenes likes this one to the Memphis City Council and Shelby County Commission as part of the findings of his $38,000 study.

Despite a city ordinance banning contact and the display of genitals at Memphis strip clubs, exotic dancers openly violate the law, elected officials will learn.

“We were shocked by how blatant sexual contact was at these clubs,” Kelly said. “We’ve reviewed clubs in Detroit and Kansas City, and neither of those cities had anything like what we saw in Memphis.”

It’s not the cops’ fault, Kelly insists. Police simply don’t have the manpower.

Sgt. Vince Higgins, a police spokesman, says the overworked department has to concentrate on prostitution and other major crimes, not lap dances, at the city’s 12 clubs.

“Would you prefer that we go after jaywalkers and ignore all the speeders on the road?” Higgins says.

To place the onus of regulations on club owners, Kelly will recommend that Memphis strengthen its licensing laws — enacting stricter guidelines that would place club owners at risk of losing their lucrative permits if they allow even one dancer to violate the law consistently.

But any legal change is likely to be stalled in court for years.

“The day the City of Memphis enacts a new law is the same day my phone rings with new clients,” says attorney Edward Bearman, who represents one strip club owner.

But elected officials certainly didn’t need a consultant to tell them Memphis strip clubs are naughty. Local police reports and public-nuisance claims would have sufficed.

In the last 10 months, Memphis police made 15 arrests for prostitution and 34 for assault. Shelby County District Attorney Bill Gibbons has shut down six clubs temporarily in three years for prostitution, lewdness and illegal alcohol sales.

Moreover, patrons openly discuss prostitution at local clubs on the online Ultimate Strip Club List at www.tuscl.com.

The consultant’s report is just the latest attempt of many to curb illegal activities at Bluff City strip clubs. Since Platinum Plus owner Ralph Lunati was sent to prison in 1982 on prostitution and obscenity charges, Memphis officials have periodically waged wars against the strip clubs.

Like previous offensives, this consultant’s report — which will form the basis of any new legislation — will likely be ineffective, according to one of Lunati’s attorneys.

“It’s a bad joke, isn’t it?” says attorney Dale Tuttle. “They’ve flown in some consultant from Indiana and paid him to go to strip clubs.”

In Memphis, laws already on the books aren’t being enforced — dancers at most of the city’s clubs give lap dances. And the money flowing through these establishments benefits more than dancers, making tighter regulation a prickly pursuit.

Take the estate of Connie Brent Perritt, who died of cancer in June 2005. Even while his estate languishes in Shelby County Probate Court, Perritt’s three strip clubs — Tunica Cabaret, Ebony & Lace and the former King of Clubs — have been sold off to Lunati and California strip club magnate Charles “Jerry” Westlund.

At the same time, the attorney representing Perritt’s estate, which the strip club owner in his will estimated at more than $4.2 million, is Mayor A C Wharton’s wife, Ruby.

The undisputed kingpin of the Mid-South’s adult-entertainment industry is the 61-year-old Lunati, a native Memphian and graduate of Kingsbury High School.

From the start, he was a controversial businessman. In the early ’80s, Lunati operated a swingers’ club called Free Wheeling Socials with his brother, Ernie. In 1982, following a high-profile raid of the club, Lunati was convicted of prostitution and obscenity charges. He served 60 days in jail and was released in time to get on the ground floor of a burgeoning nationwide industry: 900-number adult-chat lines.

In the ’80s, Memphis’ strip club mogul was Danny Owens, a tough-as-nails entrepreneur who operated a half-dozen clubs in the city. As local legend goes, not even a biker gang was able to run Owens out of town.

But the feds had better luck.

In 1992, federal prosecutors indicted Owens on a litany of charges, and he was convicted and sentenced to 27 years for racketeering.

Memphis’ strip club industry suddenly was without a king.

Lunati and another Memphis native, Steve Cooper, stepped up to fill the naked demand. Lunati had the money, Cooper the ideas and initiative.

“My deal with Steve Cooper was, he ran and took care of everything,” Lunati recalled in a deposition. “I didn’t have to do nothing if I didn’t want to.”

Lunati and Cooper established a small empire that reached from the Mississippi River to clubs in Cleveland, San Antonio, Jackson, Miss., and San Francisco.

But the partnership didn’t last. Lunati and Cooper eventually parted ways, dividing their assets.

Lunati took Platinum Plus, the city’s largest club, and built his wealth in the Bluff City. According to a 1997 personal income tax return, Lunati earned $1.67 million that year. His main breadwinner is Platinum Plus, which, in 2002, generated $5.9 million in revenue and paid out $3.65 million to one of Lunati’s other companies through “management fees,” according to a tax filing.

Cooper continued to operate several smaller clubs in Memphis, such as Gold Club on White Station and Christie’s Cabaret on Mendenhall, while also expanding to Phoenix, where he owns a $3 million house.

At the same time, a third operator came on the scene: Perritt, a bullheaded businessman who ran the Beale Street nightclub, Legends. In 1992, Perritt opened King of Clubs on Brooks.

Just about anything went at the club, according to citations. From 1994 to 2002, the King of Clubs was fined $23,000 for indecent or illegal acts. Perritt was was hauled into court 14 times on charges of prostitution and public indecency.

Despite the troubles, the money was good. In April 2003, according to a financial statement, Perritt’s company, Bold Run, was worth $1.1 million. Perritt opened a second strip club, Ebony & Lace, and paid $650,000 for a tract of land at 5599 S. U.S. 61, near the state line.

The area, once known as the the Sixty-One Industrial Park, is a former toxic waste dump that had seven sewage lagoons surrounding a Vietnam-era ordnance plant.

But it was good enough for what Perritt wanted to build: another Memphis strip club, this one the closest to the bustling casinos in Tunica. He erected a large square building on an empty stretch of highway and, in winter 2004, opened Tunica Cabaret & Resort.

Large letters above the entrance read: “Caberet.” Perritt didn’t mind the misspelling. The girls were the attraction, after all.

Yet Perritt didn’t survive to see his new club flourish. Suffering from cancer, Perritt declared himself penniless, collected federal aid and died in Tupelo on June 22, 2005.

He left a five-page, handwritten will. He listed the minimum prices his three children — J.C. Youngblood and Joshua and Angelica Perritt — should accept for the strip clubs and requested that his 17-year-old, Angelica, operate Tunica Cabaret. Perritt also instructed his kids to use sales proceeds to pay off all of his outstanding debts. “I don’t want anyone to say I (expletive) them,” he wrote in his will.

His estate eventually landed in probate court, where his debtors filed claims. But his kids sold off the clubs outside of the court’s purview.

California businessman Charles “Jerry” Westlund bought King of Clubs for $1.2 million and took over Ebony & Lace by buying the property from its landlord.

Tunica Cabaret went to a partnership of Lunati, Perritt’s friend, Ron Kent, and son J.C. Youngblood.

The probate court has not approved any of the sales, records show. None of Perritt’s financial information has been filed. And some of his debts still haven’t been paid.

What’s more, the lawyer overseeing Perritt’s estate isn’t a likely representative of a man who spent the last decade battling prostitution charges.

Ruby Wharton, the wife of Shelby County’s mayor, is managing the settlement of Perritt’s property and assets. She says nothing improper has occurred and debtors will be paid.

“The estate has never run a strip club,” Wharton says. “I don’t understand the newsworthiness of this.”

Her husband’s counterpart at Memphis City Hall, Mayor Willie Herenton, has also benefited from strip-club money. He accepted $1,000 cash from Lunati during his previous re-election bid, and Lunati sponsored his benefit boxing match against Joe Frazier on Thursday.

Stewart Fresh and his buddies from Ole Miss were looking for a good time.

It was nearing midnight on Jan. 20, 2002, as Fresh, then 23, and seven of his friends drove from Oxford to Platinum Plus in Memphis.

They all sat in chairs around the circular main stage. Fresh downed his beer and headed to the bar for a second, squeezing in between two empty barstools. He then felt a tap on his shoulder and turned.

“You’re in my spot,” a man told him.

“I’m just getting a drink,” Fresh answered.

He felt another tap.

“You didn’t hear me,” the man told him. “You’re in my spot.”

“I’ll move as soon as I get my drink,” he replied.

The man signaled to a bouncer, and Fresh was quickly escorted out through the backdoor.

“You need to go,” the bouncer told him.

“Can you tell me why you removed me from the club?” Fresh asked indignantly.

“I don’t need to tell you anything,” the bouncer replied.

Fresh had no way of knowing that the man was more than a bouncer. His name was Mike Thomas. He was an officer from the Galloway Police Department hired to work a security detail at Platinum Plus. Since Memphis police officers and Shelby County Sheriff’s deputies are prohibited from working security at strip clubs, Platinum Plus hires cops from surrounding cities.

“I’m not going to leave unless you tell me what I did,” Fresh demanded.

Thomas grabbed his radio. “I need backup around the side,” he said.

Five other security guards, one an off-duty police officer from Marion, Ark., quickly surrounded Fresh. He backed up.

And that’s when it hit him.

Pepper spray burned like hot embers in his eyes.

“Almost simultaneously as the spray hit my eyes, I just got hit in the nose, hit in the side of the head and then covered up my face,” Fresh would later recount in a deposition.

Punches came “from every direction,” he said, and his feet finally gave way when he was hit in the leg with a club.

The next morning, he awoke to a swollen face and blurry vision. He had a broken nose and jaw, two black eyes, and a chipped tooth.

Fresh sued, and a jury awarded $2.3 million in damages. A judge later reduced the judgment to $890,000, which Lunati’s insurance company paid.

It wasn’t the only incident for the club.

Eric Utterback of Memphis settled out of court in December 2003 for an undisclosed amount after filing a lawsuit against Platinum Plus that alleged he was beaten by bouncers at the club.

Violence is a part of doing business at Memphis strip joints. During a 10-month period from Jan. 1 to Oct. 31, Memphis police wrote 34 reports for assault at the city’s clubs.

Some involved staff: On May 19, two dancers at Black Tail Shake Joint, formerly King of Clubs, alleged that the club’s “house mom” — the woman who takes care of the dancers backstage — stabbed them with a pair of scissors.

Others involved customers and dancers: On Aug. 4, a customer at Tunica Cabaret alleged that a dancer struck him twice in the head with a stiletto heel following an argument.

In all, Memphis police issued 157 reports at the city’s clubs from Jan. 1 to Oct. 31.

Some of those reports describe the clubs as dens of thieves, where customers are at the mercy of their hosts.

On Aug. 5, for example, a man alleged he was in the VIP room at Black Tail Shake Joint when a dancer offered him sex for $100. He declined. Upset, the dancer left and returned with five security guards.

They told him he owed $100, escorted him to the ATM and watched as he withdrew $100 and handed the money to the dancer.

Charles “Jerry” Westlund stands 6-foot-1 and weighs 275 pounds. He dresses handsomely, slicks his hair and keeps a Marlboro Light between his fingers.

When Perritt passed away last year, 41-year-old Westlund replaced him as the third man of Memphis’ strip club triumvirate.

A former lobbyist and politician in Long Beach, Calif., Westlund was convicted in 1998 of six felony counts of state income tax evasion and two felony forgery counts before using California’s first-time offender law to dismiss the charges.

From politics, he turned to girls, becoming the owner of such Los Angeles-area strip clubs as Fantasy Ranch Gentlemen’s Club and Fantasy Castle.

As a board member for the Association of Club Executives, a trade group for adult nightclubs, Westlund views himself as part of a new breed of strip club owners — a straight-up businessman, not a slimy sex purveyor.

“I’m not in this business to run brothels,” Westlund contends. “I say, ‘Bring the sexy in; take the sex out.’ “

Westlund purchased The Pony, formerly known as Tiffany’s, from Cooper in July 2005 and later acquired Black Tail Shake Joint and Ebony & Lace.

Additionally, in October 2005, Westlund bought the former Club 616 on Marshall from Lunati for $640,000 and has been locked in a legal battle with the city over his efforts to turn Downtown Dolls into downtown’s only strip club.

Westlund says he welcomes the consultant’s recommendations and any regulations that may result.

“Memphis strip clubs are legendary for being bad,” he says. “I would like to have clean, well-operated clubs in a city with clearly defined laws that are enforced evenly at all of the clubs.”

He’s being singled out as an outsider, Westlund claims. This year, police raided both Black Tail Shake Joint and Downtown Dolls, citing the clubs for prostitution and ordinance violations.

Last month, the Memphis Alcohol Commission fined Westlund $26,500 for 37 violations at Black Tail Shake Joint, including 35 alleged incidents of prostitution and pornographic acts in six months.

Meanwhile, Platinum Plus, located two blocks from a police substation on Mt. Moriah, regularly operates with bottomless dancers and full contact with customers.

Among Platinum Plus owner Lunati’s indirect connections to local police is Ted Hansom, an attorney who not only represents the strip club owner but also individual police officers as the counsel for the Memphis Police Association.

“What we need in Memphis,” Westlund says, “are checks and balances to make sure that enforcement is even and fair.”

For now, he’ll have to settle for a consultant’s $38,000 study.
 

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