Strip club trial focuses on celebrities, mob ties


ATLANTA - One of the juiciest mob trials in recent years is unfolding in downtown Atlanta as federal prosecutors try to connect the Gold Club, an Atlanta strip joint where $350 bottles of champagne pop like flashbulbs and limos spill open with A-list celebrities, to the infamous Gambino crime family in New York.

Contract killings, La Cosa Nostra and characters with such names as Shorty, Dino, Mikey Scars - even Madonna - are all part of the sprawling case against the Gold Club's owner, Steven E. Kaplan, and six others.

They are charged in federal court with money-laundering, extortion, credit card fraud, paying off police and running a prostitution racket. The case is quickly becoming an example of life imitating art. Or at least HBO.

"How many of y'all watch 'The Sopranos'?" a lawyer asked during jury selection.

Another lawyer jumped up on a table during opening statements and began to slip out of his jacket and perform a striptease.

"Counsel, please keep your feet on the floor," warned U.S. District Judge Willis B. Hunt Jr.

A courtroom sketch artist was scolded for making his drawings too detailed.

Atlanta is known for its anything-goes strip clubs, which offer full nudity and booze.

And the Gold Club is known as the premier flesh house. According to defense lawyers, George Clooney, Mick Jagger, Madonna and scores of top athletes, including basketball star Patrick Ewing, have visited the windowless establishment, whose doors are guarded by fake-gold lions and beefy security guards.

The trial is expected to last at least three months.

There are seven defendants, dozens of witnesses, hundreds of criminal counts and thousands of pages of reports.

"This is an organized crime case," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Arthur W. Leach. "This is a case about greed and desire for power and the fear of a national crime family."

According to a grand jury indictment, Kaplan, 42, funneled money to the Gambinos, usually $700 a week, in return for protection. He was also a loan shark and ordered beatings of people who owed him money, prosecutors said. He is accused of allowing cocaine and ecstasy to be sold at his club and of paying off police officers and employees at Delta Air Lines for cheap tickets.

The most scandalous charge is that Kaplan turned his strip club into a brothel, supplying dancers to stars and athletes, including the New York Knicks basketball team. The idea was to develop a loyal celebrity clientele to lure other customers, prosecutors said.

Ewing and others are expected to be called as witnesses.

The Gold Club grossed $20 million in 1998, and Kaplan is thought to be worth twice that.

His club is no musty joint where men in T-shirts howl at women swinging from poles. This is a place of tuxedos, velvet ropes and an emphasis on being "classy."

On a recent night, the plush chairs were full.

"Grab a girl, gentlemen, get her naked!" roared an announcer. "Have yourself a good ol' time. This is the Gooooold Cluuuuub!"

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