Stripped Down

The Gold Club trial taking place right now in Atlanta features what Rocky Mountain News sports columnist Dave Krieger wittily describes as "the sacred troika of modern news: the mob, sex and celebrities." Furthermore, one of the luminaries linked to the yarn -- Denver Broncos running back Terrell Davis -- provides a terrific local angle. But at press time, Krieger was virtually the only area journalist to have done any independent work on a seemingly irresistible story that's all over national newscasts and morning shows, cable discussion programs, and newspapers from sea to shining sea.

Why so much coverage elsewhere? Because it's one helluva tale. Steve Kaplan, owner of the Gold Club, an exclusive Atlanta strip joint, and six associates stand accused of various racketeering-related activities, including giving some of the proceeds derived from such pastimes as credit-card fraud to the Gambino crime family, purportedly headed by John Gotti Jr., currently at liberty, and John Gotti Sr., presently in stir. This hoodlum connection has led to the presentation of some awfully colorful evidence. As Newsday scribe Johnette Howard noted in a May 20 piece, "Already we've been told about mob henchmen with street names such as Mikey Scars and Fat Pete." As an added bonus, Howard wrote, "prosecutors called a Brooklyn-born career criminal named Dino Basciano, who admittedly wasn't very good at being a hit man (only one of the three targets he shot actually died)."

Yes, Howard mentioned The Sopranos in her article, as has almost everyone who's written about the case -- and who can blame them? But what lifts the matter above the level of a typical gangster exposé is star power. Over the years, according to published reports, guests at the Gold Club may have included both figurative royalty (Madonna, oodles of Hollywood matinee idols) and the actual type (Carl XVI Gustaf, the King of Sweden, whose spokesman denies he was ever there).

But the recognizables who went for the Gold most frequently were famous athletes -- and the service many received may have gone well beyond free drink refills and a complimentary mint. In grand jury testimony acquired by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a club employee said that a player later identified by U.S. District Attorney Art Leach as New York Knicks star Larry Johnson begged management to provide an exotic dancer willing to play hide the kielbasa with him. Afterward, the employee quoted Kaplan as telling him, "That guy's a superstar. He was on his hands and knees to you. Do you understand the power of this club? [The next time], we've got to get him girls."

The government contends that Kaplan was as good as his word and has subpoenaed as witnesses a number of renowned jocks who supposedly benefited from entertainment of a particularly fleshy sort, including former New York Knick Patrick Ewing, Atlanta Falcons runner Jamal Anderson, Philadelphia 76ers center Dikembe Mutombo (another local hook: Mutombo was the most recognizable Denver Nugget for much of the '90s), and Davis. Indeed, CNN reported on March 28 that Gold Club dancer Jana Pelnis, who pled guilty to racketeering conspiracy and is cooperating with authorities, "admitted she was paid for having sex with Terrell Davis."

There's nothing in this contention that even suggests that Davis did anything illegal (thus far, boinking hasn't been banned in this country), and since he's unmarried, he can't even be accused of betraying his spouse. But the connection between a high-profile racketeering trial and a Denver hero can't help but stir local interest, especially when said icon has such a warm and cuddly image. Dave Fairbank, writing in the May 17 Hampton Roads, Virginia, Daily Press, underlined this incongruity when he noted that, based on what's been made public thus far, Davis "apparently didn't spend all of his down time making soup commercials with his mom."

Davis has made no public comments about the Gold Club to date, leaving that task to his attorney, Neil Schwartz, who told the Journal-Constitution in late March that although Davis had gone to the venue a few years earlier, he'd done nothing wrong. "Obviously, he's not happy he's been subpoenaed," Schwartz added.

Granted, that's not the most earth-shattering remark -- but it's more than the Denver media has obtained from a Davis spokesman. The News and the Denver Post have run numerous stories from other sources about the Gold Club since Davis's name surfaced, most of them courtesy of the Associated Press, with the News giving the accounts generally prominent play in the news section and the Post placing them in sports. However, no News or Post reporters have written articles of their own, much less pieces for which either Davis or Schwartz was contacted or quoted (Krieger's May 24 column, "Atlanta Subpoena Hits T.D.'s Image," was an opinion piece) -- a void that provides ammunition for those who believe the Denver media goes soft when it comes to the Broncos.

The News isn't discussing its reasons for taking this tack. Predictably, News editor John Temple ignored a request from Westword for comment on the topic, and this time around he was joined in boldness and public responsibility by News managing editor Deb Goeken, who didn't return a call. As for the Post, editor Glenn Guzzo says, "Terrell has not been implicated in the case, and that makes all the difference in terms of how interested we are. If he had been, I'm sure we would treat it big, but as a witness, it just doesn't carry the same intensity." Post sports editor Kevin Dale echoes that sentiment. "It's definitely a story that's grabbed headlines," he acknowledges, "and it's not like we've tried to hide the fact that he's a part of it. But I think Terrell's connection to it seems marginal." Dale adds that he's "pretty sure" someone from the Post tried to contact Davis's representatives after the subpoena was issued, "but either they were out of pocket or they had no comment," and nothing was published about it.

Likewise, all five Denver television stations have refrained from assigning a reporter to the story, and as of last week, Channel 2 hadn't broadcast anything about the Gold Club at all. Carl Bilek, acting news director for WB2 News (he's been filling in since the recent resignation of veteran news director Steve Grund), doesn't think the story's earned airtime at this juncture, but he says he's been "following" it -- although not closely enough to know that Davis has actually been subpoenaed instead of simply linked to the case by rumor.

The other Denver TV outlets have gone beyond merely monitoring the situation. Channel 9 ran a package put together by WXIA, an NBC affiliate in Atlanta. "That was our lead story the night it broke," says news director Patti Dennis. Meanwhile, Channel 4, Channel 7 and Channel 31 have kept up with periodic "readers" -- updates delivered by anchors, sometimes with accompanying video footage. But this material was cobbled together from press reports generated elsewhere rather than investigated separately.

The assorted news directors justify this approach using variations on the argument voiced by Guzzo and Dale. "As details have surfaced, we reported them, along with the information that Terrell was merely a witness being called to testify and that prosecutors don't believe he did anything wrong," says Channel 4's Angie Kucharski. In the view of Byron Grandy, who's been in command at Channel 7 since January, "It's an interesting story, but with the exception of a Bronco's potential connection to it, there hasn't been anything that's made us think we need to spend much time on it in our local newscast." Channel 31's Bill Dallman concurs: "To me, this is a story about a strip club in Atlanta, and the only local connection to it is a witness who hasn't been charged with any wrongdoing. So localizing it isn't anything we're interested in doing" unless and until Davis testifies.

Cynics might well wonder if this lack of interest could be motivated by the fear of pissing off a key Bronco and perhaps losing access to him during football season. The decision-makers interviewed for this column have heard dark hints like this one over the years but summarily reject them. "I've never understood the basis for that kind of thing," says Channel 9's Dennis. "It's easy to throw out a theory, but we've reported a lot of unflattering stories about the Broncos. We covered what happened to Brian Griese and all the off-the-playing-field news about Bill Romanowski, too. So what story haven't we covered? Name one."

A persuasive point -- yet it's still surprising to hear from Broncos senior director of media relations Jim Saccomano that not a single local reporter has asked him about the Davis-Gold Club tie nor, to his knowledge, did any bring up the subject to Davis during his many public appearances at a mini-camp earlier this month. "When his name came out, I remember a couple of writers saying, 'Wow,'" Saccomano says, after passing along a no-comment from Davis to Westword, "and, well, the press usually has humorous comments to make about that kind of thing. But nobody told me, 'I need to talk to Terrell.' There haven't been any calls at all."

That leaves the News's Krieger as the only Denver journalist to truly sink his teeth into this juicy meal. Krieger admits that he didn't come up with the idea on his own; one of his e-mail pals, Howie Greene, morning host on the Peak, asked him why there'd been so little about the story in the local media, spurring him to take on the affair. The opening lines of his column contrast sharply with the suggestion that Denverites wouldn't give a damn about a little ol' trial in Atlanta. "I'm not big on rules," Krieger wrote, "but I think even my stodgiest editor would have agreed with this one: If you can put the King of Sweden and Madonna in the same sentence, tell that story. If you can stuff Terrell Davis, Patrick Ewing and the Gambino crime family in there, rent yourself a rack in the supermarket checkout line. And if you're fortunate enough to have reason to mention Michael Jordan, Donald Trump, George Clooney, Bruce Willis, Mick Jagger, Joe Montana and Sammy Sosa, go directly to National Enquirer heaven, and take your binoculars."

Krieger can only speculate as to why no one else in the Denver media came to the same conclusions. He figures that most writers on the football beat see the Gold Club as peripheral to more immediate concerns, like whether one of the Broncos' backs could be traded, and guesses that news departments at the dailies might have dispatched a reporter to Atlanta to assemble an in-depth weekend takeout "if the staffs were a little bigger -- but the newspaper war left everybody broke and down to skeleton staffs." He also cites a couple of more personal factors. "Terrell is a very popular guy, one of the nicest pro athletes I've ever covered," Krieger says. "There's a lot of affection for him at this point, especially with all the controversy about his injury last year. There were whispers in the organization and outside of it when he was saying he was hurt last year, and when they finally diagnosed a stress fracture, everybody ran for cover -- and that made him nothing but more sympathetic in the end. So I think people who know him and cover him are reluctant to take any further shots over this, since no one knows what's going to come out of it."

But at the same time, Krieger concedes, "It's a very appealing story." And that's what the media is in the business of delivering -- right?


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