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.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts