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Strippers testify about their work at Flesh Club; is it a de facto brothel?

SAN BERNARDINO, California – The attorney for a local strip club wrapped up his case Wednesday as a bevy of exotic dancers – whisked to court in a black limousine – took the stand one by one and delivered vivid accounts of their trade.

The day marked the conclusion of testimony in the case against owners of the Flesh Club on Hospitality Lane, which City Attorney James F. Penman alleges is a de facto brothel.

The city has spent at least $130,000 in its lengthy legal battle against the club. If Superior Court Judge Donald Alvarez finds that the club is a house of prostitution, he could order it shut down for up to a year and levy steep fines.

Both sides came away Wednesday afternoon proclaiming the strength of their case.

“I think it looks very good,” said Roger Jon Diamond,[pictured] the attorney representing the club. “The dancers were very credible, and the issue is whether dancing is legal or illegal.”

Joseph Arias, the attorney retained by the city, disagreed, saying that many of the witnesses may have perjured themselves.

“A lot (of testimony) was just false on its face,” Arias said.

Wednesday’s court hearing at times burst into giggly mirth as the women, some sporting blouses with plunging necklines and boosting atop four-inch heels, answered racy questions from attorneys on both sides.

As managers and club owner Ryan Welty looked on, some of the seven exotic dancers who testified admitted fondling male customers or pressing their naked bosoms into their faces.

Answering to stage names, the witnesses gave mostly similar testimony, admitting to have seen condoms in various parts of the club, but consistently maintaining that they had no knowledge of any prostitution occurring.

One dancer who disputed police testimony managed to throw the staid courtroom into near hysterics.

Arias informed her that another police investigator had testified that she had offered him an “anything goes” dance last year.

“I probably said I would take care of him,” she said, giggling, twirling her brown hair with her finger, rolling her shoulders and then leaning her right arm on Judge Alvarez’s bench.

Pressed for specificity, she told the court that the offer entailed “dancing naked on him.”

A seesaw battle between attorneys began in the morning with a clash over summoning Penman, who originally brought the case to court, to the stand.

Diamond alleges that Penman has a vendetta against the club out of a hatred for nude entertainment and for political gain, both of which could jeopardize the city’s current complaint, Diamond said. As evidence, Diamond pointed to Penman bringing legal action against the club in January 1995, before any allegations of wrongdoing.

Arias’ partner, Christopher Lockwood, filed a motion to quash Diamond’s Tuesday subpoena of Penman, arguing that as a prosecutor of the case, Penman should not be forced to take the stand.

Alvarez agreed.

Penman said he was prepared to take the stand.

“I was ready if called,” Penman said. “But the whole motion was a diversion from the issue, which is prostitution at the club.”

Although testimony Wednesday and at prior hearings has alleged fondling and outright prostitution occurring at the club, the case is by no means decided, both sides say.

As in two prior days of hearings this month, a dark and decadent picture of life within the club’s walls emerged, with witnesses describing a workplace in which no one has last names, lonely men visit for “company” and women charge $140 to gyrate – fully nude – on customers’ laps for a few minutes in a curtained room.

Diamond, a veteran of decades of First Amendment cases, vigorously pursued a strategy Wednesday of shifting focus from prostitution to the normal transpirations of the club, which he said is First Amendment-protected nude dancing.

All witnesses testified to never accepting money for sex at the club, and Diamond was also careful to emphasize that each works as an independent contractor, plying their trade but not receiving paychecks.

Most of the women testified to earning at rates in excess of $100,000 annually, and under cross-examination said they regularly give money to managers on duty, a tip system Arias tried to link to prostitution on the premise that if women are paid for sex, and tip the managers, the club may profit from prostitution.

Clear discrepancies emerged between the dancers’ tales and testimony given in previous hearings by undercover police and private investigators. Earlier this month, a private investigator testified that during a December investigation women at the club fondled him, propositioned him and that in one instance he had sex with a dancer in a private “VIP room” at the club for $500.

Under cross-examination, Arias informed one dancer that an undercover San Bernardino police officer had visited the Flesh Club last year and testified that she offered him sexual services at various prices.

The dancer denied the officer’s testimony.

“This officer is lying?” Arias said.

“Yes,” she said.

The hearing adjourned when Diamond had exhausted his stable of witnesses, completing his case. Judge Alvarez directed both sides to prepare closing statements and reconvene Feb. 26.

The case, attorneys say, will likely be adjudicated this spring.

Welter, who took the stand and jousted with Arias on Tuesday, telling the attorney that repeated condom sightings in his club may be explained by falling out of customers’ wallets, was optimistic Wednesday despite the possibility that his club could be closed.

“I feel great, I feel like Muhammad Ali right now,” he said, and then escorted his dancers out to the limousine.

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