Look Out, Sin City!
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.
City councilwoman Sheri Szymanski says the first reading of the ordinance was passed by the city council last month based upon Wamsley's presentation. Both Grimm and Payne claim that they were not informed of the reading until after it occurred. Wamsley counters that the city advertised the meeting in the local paper The Express. Whatever the case, both Grimm and Payne worried that if the ordinance was approved after its second reading, they would be out of business. But the city council postponed a final vote on the ordinance after opponents packed the council chambers at a May 19 meeting. Grimm testified angrily about how the proposed law would ruin him financially. In the back of the room, a collection of vocal Landing Strip and Femme Fatale employees cheered Grimm on, shouting out, "Right on, man!" when he suggested that if the council really wanted to crack down on sexual activity, it should focus on the city's truck stops and motels.
The council finally decided to put off a decision until its June 16 meeting, at which no public comment on the issue will be allowed.
"I've been so stressed out that I had to take off and get out of town," says Grimm. "My livelihood is going straight down the tubes if this ordinance passes. My customers are going to go somewhere else where they can sit at the bar and talk to the girls. I've been open for thirteen years and have never had a problem until these two women showed up. I just can't understand why they're doing this to me. It's like a vendetta."
Wamsley insists that the proposed law isn't personal. "This ordinance is not designed to go after any one business," she says. "We had a shotgun approach to regulating adult entertainment, and as a result it was difficult to enforce violations in the past."
What violations, ask Payne and Grimm? "The city is claiming that we're a center for prostitution and narcotics," says Payne, "but if that was true, we would have been closed down years ago. I've been here nine years, and I've never had a violation."
Grimm says that in the past he's always had a good relationship with the Commerce City Police Department, while other bars in the area have had chronic problems. Sergeant Larry Woog agrees that Grimm has always been very cooperative. "As far as I know, we've never had a problem with [Grimm]," says Woog. "It's been a good working relationship. I wouldn't call the Landing Strip a hot spot."
Captain Wamsley and Officer Aragon seem to feel differently. Payne says that while Wamsley and Aragon might not have anything against her personally, "they've definitely got something against the adult-entertainment business."
Before joining the Commerce City force, Wamsley was a sergeant with the Lakewood Police Department, where she helped craft a similar ordinance regulating sexually oriented businesses. The difference in Lakewood was that there weren't any such businesses in existence when the ordinance was passed. According to Lakewood vice-squad detective Ray Knott, there still aren't any strip joints. It's not hard to figure out why. Wamsley relates a story about a person who wanted to open a strip club while she was still working in Lakewood. "We sent him a copy of our ordinances," she says, "and after he looked at them, he called us back and said, 'You must be kidding,' because of how strict they were."
Wamsley and Officer Aragon, who has been with Commerce City for two years, have made sure that Commerce City's businesses know they're not joking around.
"I've had quite a few cops check our place out over the years," says Payne, "but I've never had problems like the ones I've had with Officer Aragon. Other officers ask first if they can search the place and are very polite. She [Aragon] comes in and is very intimidating and rude."
Grimm says Aragon came into the Landing Strip nightly during a two-month period earlier this year. "Every night, she'd go behind the bar and check my liquor license, as if that would've changed since the day before," says Grimm. "Then she'd go into the dressing room and just stand there for like thirty minutes checking out the girls. Finally, I put a combination lock on the door to the dressing room and she busted it. I made a formal complaint to the police department, but nothing happened."
The 34-year-old Aragon says that Grimm's accusations about her misconduct in his bar are "100 percent false" and that she was only in his bar "half a dozen times" during the course of routine patrols. "I don't have the time to be going into his bar every night," she says. "And the times that I went into the dressing rooms was when I had heard that there was drug activity going on in there. And in those three or four instances, I was only in there long enough to take a quick look so as to determine that there weren't any drugs present. I was never in there more than fifteen to thirty seconds."
Wamsley defends Aragon's actions. "There was nothing extraordinary about Officer Aragon's investigation," says Wamsley. "She had good reason to suspect alcohol violations, so in the course of her duty, she felt the need to go into the dressing rooms. And drug violations tend not to go on in public. The one time I went down to the Landing Strip personally, I saw two kids trying to get in there with the worst fake ID's I'd ever seen. The place attracts that kind of activity."
Phony identification cards might not seem like a very serious community threat, but Wamsley says that as Commerce City grows, so could the seriousness of the problems associated with places like Femme Fatale and the Landing Strip. "The worst time to close the barn door," she says, "is after the horse is already out."
Mike Grimm thinks it's unfair to tighten regulations without just cause. "If it ain't broke," he says, "why fix it?
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.
- NFL's Marijuana Ban the "Correct Policy," Says Commissioner Roger Goodell
- Reader: I Own a Subaru Outback and I Admit I Can Be an Ass on the Road
- Denver's Ten Best Restaurants for a Great Date Night