In 2002, after being fired from the Riverfront Times, I took a closer look at one of its primary moneymakers — the sex trade. Mike Lacey, former owner of the paper, and a chain of other alternative weeklies, was charged this week with pimping in California. This is my original story.
Selling Sex is something Centreville, Ill. could live without.
by C.D. Stelzer, Tuesday May 14, 2002
It’s eleven o’clock on a Friday night at the Crystal Palace in Centreville, Ill. Inside the bar, a young female dancer pulls her g-string aside to expose herself and thrusts her pelvis rhythmically within inches of the face of a very fat man seated at the edge of the stage. A disc jockey spins 70s rock music and shouts vulgarities into a microphone. Blacklights illuminate murals of nymphs with bouffant hair. Glittering globes dangle from the ceiling, casting spangles of swirling light. Strippers, with stiletto heels, strut around translucent columns of bubbling fluid the color of urine.
It all seems surreally retro except for the flesh.
In any given set, one or more of the four women on stage may engage in a series of escapades: spreading their thighs, caressing their breasts, simulating copulation on their hands and knees, or draping their legs over the shoulders of an admiring onlooker.
Across the road at PT’s Show Club, the master of ceremonies, a balding man, in a sports coat and tie, oversees a game that requires audience members to crawl between the legs of a line of bare-breasted women. The ostensive objective is “not to touch their koochie,” the MC says. As participants are eliminated, the women giggle and squat closer to the floor. Outside of the carnival-like atmosphere of these bawdy shenanigans, in the darkened aisle leading to the men’s room, another customer is receiving more private attention from a woman who is straddling his lap. Back in the limelight, the MC barks that a mere $5 entitles patrons to a handful of personal visits from a bevy of beauties.
Whatever is going on here has more to do with capitalism than eroticism. Millions of dollars a year are generated at such clubs — much of it in cold cash. Often “spas,” referred to in court documents as “brothels,” crop up near the clubs. Those profiting most are not women having $5 bills shoved down their g-strings. Men reap the handsomest rewards. They are or have been lawyers, police chiefs, elected officials, bankers, real estate developers, executives and publishers. They hale from Belleville, St. Louis or more distant locales: Miami Beach, Malibu, Denver and Phoenix.
Centreville’s commercial sex industry, at the junction of Illinois Routes 157 and 13, is not unlike clusters of skin trade in nearby Sauget, Brooklyn and Washington Park in St. Clair County. As is evident from the license plates of the pick up trucks, SUVs and muscle cars parked outside the Centreville clubs, the clientele come mainly from Missouri. In part, residents and visitors to St. Louis are drawn to these out-of-state establishments by provocative ads placed in the Riverfront Times, St. Louis’ weekly alternative newspaper. Indeed, quarter-page spreads, which cost as much as $475 a week, are the principal means of advertising the sexually-oriented enterprises.
Over the past decade, a series of federal indictments brought in the Southern District of Illinois have resulted in the conviction of topless club owners, businessmen and public officials on racketeering, prostitution, bank fraud, obstruction of justice and money laundering charges. In the most notorious case, federal prosecutors named a U.S. congressman as an unindicted co-conspirator. But a former federal official, with knowledge of the Eastside rackets, says there is nothing illegal about the Riverfront Times’ advertisements for Illinois strip clubs and massage parlors. If anything, he says, it’s just an ethical lapse on the part of the newspaper.
Given ample opportunity, RFT publisher Terry Coe declined to comment.
Bob Haida, the Illinois state’s attorney for St. Clair County, could not be reached for comment. A spokesman for St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce says the prosecutor has no plans to investigate sex ads in the back pages of the alternative weekly. Ray Gruender, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri, says enforcement of prostitution laws is the responsibility of local authorities unless it involves crossing state lines. “Prosecutors don’t operate on coulds or shoulds or woulds,” adds Gruender. “We have to have evidence.” Even if the feds were conducting an inquiry into such matters, Gruender could not publicly discuss the subject, because that would violate Justice Department policies. In closing, however, the U.S. attorney made one thing perfectly clear: “I’m not going to dedicate my life to it.”
The mayor of Centreville offers a distinctly different attitude. For onwards of two decades, Frankie Seaberry has opposed the increasing number of adult nightclubs and spas in her city. As an alderman, she consistently voted against their proliferation and she continues to object to their presence as mayor. “We want to be a respectable community, where people want to come and live — not be known as the sex capital of Metro-East,” Seaberry says. “I resent that they feel that they can force their way in — and they couldn’t have forced their way in, if the (past) mayors hadn’t have gone along with them. They aren’t going to walk over me. I don’t care who they are — they are going to respect the city.”
Both the mayor and Centreville city attorney say the town’s three adult nightclubs and two spas have never been approved by the board of aldermen in accordance with a city ordinance passed in the mid-1980s. Besides PT’s and Crystal Palace, the businesses include Boxers `n’ Briefs (which features male dancers), the VIP Oriental Spa and Highway 157 Spa. “They all came in illegally,” says Seaberry. “By hook or crook, we looked up and there they were.”
In large degree, Centreville’s inability to determine its own destiny is tied to its paltry tax base. The population of the predominantly black community has dropped by more than a thousand over the last ten years, to about 6,000, according to the latest census. At the same time, household income remains locked at poverty levels. There are only 13 businesses in the city — five are sex-related ventures. Seaberry says Centreville has a hard time manning its police force because it can only afford to pay officers a little over $9 an hour. Last year, as a means to add to the city’s strapped coffers, Seaberry approved a measure that upped the local liquor license fee to $30,000, an increase of ten fold.
She didn’t stop there, however. The mayor also started scouring the city’s books. It didn’t take long for her to find a curious discrepancy. Seaberry discovered that state sales taxes due to the city from PT’s had not been paid for an indeterminate amount of time. Instead, the Illinois Department of Revenue sent the tax money to Piatt County in northern Illinois, where a small unincorporated village of Centerville is located. The upstate Centerville, with the different spelling, is so small it doesn’t even appear on road maps.
Illinois levies a 6.25 percent sales tax and is supposed to return one percent of the total to the municipality in which a business is located. Seaberry, who was elected mayor in 1999, says the snafu likely predates her administration and could have been going on for years. Without knowing how long the error continued, it is impossible to estimate the losses incurred by Centreville. At the very least, the misappropriation appears to have cost the city tens of thousands of dollars. If the diversion dates back more than a few years, the short fall would be exponentially greater. Under state law, sales tax data is kept confidential. Moreover, a state statute allows a municipality to recoup only six months worth of back taxes once a discrepancy is confirmed.
“Why shouldn’t people know how much sales tax businesses in their communities are paying?” asks Seaberry. When we found the mistake, they (the state) wouldn’t tell me how much was owed. In other words, it’s a kept secret.”
A spokesman for the Illinois Department of Revenue would say little more than Mayor Seaberry should be commended for catching the mistake, which he termed significant relative to the size of the city.
Last September, the mayor won another battle, when Crystal Palace backed off plans to sell. The prospective buyer, Deja Vu, owns a chain of clubs and competes with Denver-based PT’s, which operates at four Metro-East locations. Seaberry foiled the sale by opposing the transfer of the local liquor license held by Katrina Sanders. The license holder is the girlfriend of Robert Romanik, owner of the club. In 1997, Romanik pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice by lying to a grand jury investigating racketeer Thomas Venezia and his lawyer Amiel Cueto. Both men are currently serving lengthy federal prison sentences. Romanik, a former police chief of Washington Park, acted as a private investigator for Cueto. The three were involved in an earlier topless club in Centreville called Exposed.
At Cueto’s 1997 trial, Venezia’s former wife, Sandra Nations, claimed Romanik received a $50,000 pay off from her ex-husband as a part of the deal to open the club. Nations also testified Venezia gave then-Mayor John Robinson of Centreville a $1,000 bribe to approve the requisite licensing.
Romanik had his probation revoked in 1999, after federal prosecutors alleged he had illegally used straw parties to secure $1.5 million in loans from Magna and West Pointe banks to build the Crystal Palace and another topless bar, the Jewel Box, in Washington Park. He was sentenced to 20 months in federal prison and has since been released. As a part of his sentencing, the court ordered Romanik to sell his interest in the Crystal Palace, but that has been delayed because of Seaberry’s opposition to transferring the liquor license.
During his eight years as U.S. Attorney for Southern District of Illinois, W. Charles Grace oversaw the prosecution and conviction of organized crime figures in the Metro-East. The cases tried by his staff resulted in the closing of three topless bars and a massage parlor. But when he left office last May, he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that topless bar owners continued to evade taxes and protect their interests through payoffs and intimidation. “The region — and I mean the entire St. Louis region — will never become what it wants to become until we get a handle on corruption,” Grace said. “Wherever these clubs exist, they are taking advantage of a city government that is barely existing.”
The mayor of Centreville knows exactly what Grace is talking about. She lives with it every day. Asked whether she ever fears for her life, Seaberry says: “I thought about it, of course, knowing that I’m dealing with gangsters. The way I feel is that, if you’re going to run for office, you just have to take a stand — come what may. You can’t just let people grind you down.
“You know what I’m saying? The Lord will just have to take care of me or something.”
Some information in this story is based on St. Louis Post-Dispatch accounts written by Daniel Browning, Robert Goodrich, Charles Bosworth Jr. and Michael Shaw.
C.D. Stelzer is a former Riverfront Times reporter. Last year, after he announced plans to investigate some of the”adult entertainment businesses” that advertise in the RFT, he was fired.