Look Out, Sin City!

Captain Mary Wamsley is her name. Commerce City vice is her game.

Like an Old West marshal fixated on vice, police captain Mary Wamsley set Lakewood straight and is now determined to clean up Commerce City--whether it wants to be clean or not.

Over the past two years Wamsley and sister officer Dea Aragon have zeroed in on the only four sex businesses in Commerce City: two adult book stores, the Landing Strip topless bar and the Femme Fatale massage and strip club. They're not acting as a result of any public outcry, but they've devised a new law that would cripple some of the businesses.

"I feel very strongly that our current ordinances don't meet the way our city is growing," asserts the diminutive, tough-talking 46-year-old cop who's become the bane of the local sex industry. "Commerce City is not a small town anymore, and what worked in a small town might not work as it gets larger. If we don't do this now, more and more [sexually oriented businesses] could open."

Wamsley says that it's her duty as a police officer to protect the industrial city's residents from vice. As she talks about the residents of Commerce City, she gets as worked up as a protective mother.

"I've found the residents here to be the most hardworking and dedicated people I've ever come across," she says, pounding her desk for emphasis. "People here go to church, they go to the carnival--we have the largest Memorial Day parade in the state. But because we're Commerce City, people think we should tolerate any kind of vice activity. People think that Commerce City doesn't deserve any better. People who say that can blow it out their ear."

But Rhonda Payne, owner of Femme Fatale, says her customers --and some of her dancers--are part of the good people of Commerce City. And she adds that Femme Fatale's location was chosen so as to not intrude on those who wouldn't approve. Located discreetly just off I-270, the club is camouflaged by the warehouses and shipping companies that surround it. "Most people don't even know we're here," says Payne as an eighteen-wheeler rumbles by outside.

Apparently, though, a number of upright local citizens do. While relaxing in the club's living room watching daytime TV, some of Femme Fatale's dancers explain that the majority of their customers are from Commerce City, not undesirable elements lured in from out of town.

"We get doctors and lawyers from Commerce City who come in all the time," says Nicole, a single mother who adds that she works at the club in order to help pay for her son's tuition at a school for the gifted. "The local people who come in here are very nice, very respectful. They're not outsiders. But the city still wants to close us down. What are we supposed to do then? Go on welfare? This job is one of the few where I can earn enough money to support my child as a single mother."

Wamsley says that this new ordinance is not designed to put anyone out of a job. "We're not trying to get rid of them, but this isn't the wild Old West, either," Wamsley explains from behind her desk, wearing her pistol at her side along with a couple of clips of spare ammunition. "We have an obligation to regulate these businesses in order to ensure the quality of life in this city. Some people have called this ordinance an atrocity or an example of Big Brother taking over. That's a load of crap. This isn't intrusive on anyone. This doesn't stop anyone from going to watch someone take their clothes off or rent a video or buy a magazine. But it sets a standard for how those kinds of activities will intrude on our community life." Aragon contends that Commerce City's proposed ordinance would be no more restrictive than those in Aspen or Colorado Springs.

And Wamsley feels strongly that the new ordinance has the community's best interests in mind. "Am I absolutely against sin and vice?" asks the five-foot-tall vice-squad captain. "I'm not. Am I a crusader? No. This is simply an overall review of a growing city and our ordinances. I am not on a rampage to clean up this city. We pay the same amount of attention to junked vehicles and weeds."

Both Payne and Landing Strip owner Mike Grimm intend to fight for what they say is their constitutional right to stay in business.

Attorney Arthur Schwartz, who has been defending adult-entertainment businesses since 1955, says Commerce City officials are going to have their work cut out for them. "This small community is embarking on a program that's going to be costly because of litigation relative to the gains that could come from it," he says. "If Commerce City is willing to engage in a war of attrition against a couple of small mom-and-pop businesses, shame on them. But if the taxpayers put up with it, that's their choice.

It's going to be an expensive fight for both sides."
Wamsley personally made her pitch to the city council after a two-year investigation, which both Grimm and Payne characterize as "harassment." The proposed ordinance would require that topless dancers at current and future clubs be separated from their audience by at least six feet and that all tips be placed in a common tip jar (instead of being handed to the entertainers directly). Femme Fatale would be required, among other things, to erect Plexiglas partitions in its private rooms to restrict physical contact between patrons and the dancers.

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