Letter from Atlanta: The Seamy Gold Club Trial

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Antonio Davis, center, his wife Kendra, left, and Davis' agent Bill Duffy

A pouty blonde in a silky dress struts up to a customer arriving at the Gold Club, the premier topless, bottomless strip bar in Atlanta. Introducing herself as, "Sarah, my real name," she chatters sweetly of the advantages of a private room, only $200. For another $200, she says, she can dance by the hour just for him. But he opts for more affordable pleasure — the $20 table dance. Standing between his spread knees, Sarah sways rhythmically and slips off her dress. Brushing against him, she says naughtily, "I'm breaking the rules here."

A few miles away in a staid federal courtroom, the temperature rises as steamy claims of other broken rules are revealed in the racketeering trial that is riveting this city with tales of prostitution, fraud, the Mafia, and the off-the-court lives of several high-profile NBA stars. At the center of the trial is Gold Club owner Steven Kaplan, who has been indicted along with 16 others, including one former and one active Atlanta police officer and two dancers named "Diva" and "Frederique." Each is charged with enriching a criminal enterprise run by Kaplan. He, in turn, according to prosecutors, paid the Mafia's Gambino family for protection. Charges include credit card fraud, in which club employees are accused of padding the drink tab by selling $375 bottles of champagne, graciously pouring glasses for customers and entertainers, then surreptitiously dumping the rest into the carpet and pushing customers to buy more. The women sometimes would allow drunken customers to run up tabs exceeding $10,000. Prostitution is also alleged, with the club paying women up to $1,000 each to have sex with select customers, mostly professional athletes.

The South's sin city

Here in the Bible Belt, the trial's revelations enthrall those who absorb daily reports from local newspapers and television stations. Starting at 6 a.m., a TV reporter stands in the dark outside the federal courthouse for a "live" report on the preceding day's testimony and the promise of ongoing coverage. Each new day brings juicier details. But most revealing has been the harsh light shed on Atlanta's thriving adult entertainment industry.

More than 5.6 million conventiongoers come to Atlanta every year, some number of them drawn in part by the city's rare combination of full nudity and alcohol, a mix of pleasure not offered in many other towns around the country. No pasties, no g-strings or t-backs. Visitors leave their fancy hotels downtown and go to places with names like the Pink Pony, Tattletales and the Baby Doll Lounge. The Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau Website even links to The Cheetah, billed as the best strip club in the nation. At the Gold Club, customers come by stretch limousine and stay for hour after hour.

No wonder Atlanta Magazine recently found that city residents are more likely to live next door to a topless dancer than a corporate employee of the Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Company. "Welcome to Sex City — Hope You Brought Cash" was the title of the magazine article in which an economist estimates that nudie bars generate greater economic impact than the Braves, Falcons and Hawks professional sports teams combined. "Conventioneers swarm to the Atlanta strip clubs because no matter where they live they probably don't have this honored combination of nude dancing and alcohol," says attorney Alan Begner, who represents nearly half of Atlanta's 41 strip bars. He and others estimate that 50 percent of the clubs' clientele are tourists. Delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention are some of "our biggest visitors," says Begner.

A trial more about greed than sex

The federal racketeering trial is expected to last 12 weeks, just like a visiting summer show. Kaplan, a pale, balding, pug-nosed 41-year-old with increasingly dark circles around his eyes, sits attentively in court as a cast of witnesses describe the shadier side of what he and his defense lawyers insist is a legitimate business. John Givens, an admitted mobster turned government witness, recently told of how he once sliced off a man's ear and slit another's nostrils to insert lit cigars.

It is a case of "greed" and "power," says assistant U.S. Attorney Art Leach. Defense attorney Steve Sadow agrees. But it's the greed and power of the government which "wants to take $50 million away" from his successful client, whom he describes as an "aggressive," "hard-working businessman." Prosecutors, Sadow says, "recruited every scoundrel, every scumbag, every criminal that they could possibly get and have offered them their freedom and money for their testimony."

Of course, there's plenty of sex, too

When testimony turned to oral sex, orgies and lesbian sex shows, a flushed bailiff joked that the thermostat might need adjusting. Former Gold Club manager Thomas Cicignano — nicknamed Ziggy — charged that Kaplan over several years "orchestrated" a series of sexual events involving professional athletes and other favored customers. With jurors and spectators leaning forward and journalists scribbling madly, Ziggy recounted a 1997 visit to the club by New York Knick Patrick Ewing and a couple of unnamed teammates. Kaplan took the players into a private room with "six to ten" dancers. "The girls were having a good time jumping on the players," Ziggy testified. "They were yelling out, 'There are no rules.'" Ziggy saw Ewing, with legs spread and an entertainer giving him oral sex, as Kaplan looked on. "Steve is a very big Knicks fan," Ziggy offered for the jury's sake. (Ewing's agent David Falk did not return TIME's phone call seeking a response to Ziggy's allegations. Nor would a Knicks spokeswoman comment.)

The trysts did not end there. Relating more sexual episodes, Ziggy dropped names of other alleged participants, including former Chicago Bull Dennis Rodman; Atlanta Brave Andruw Jones; New York Knicks rookies John Wallace, Walter McCarty, and Dontae' Jones; former Knick John Starks, former World Champion Wrestling executive Eric Bischoff; Detroit Piston Jerry Stackhouse and Denver Bronco Terrell Davis. No athlete is accused of committing a crime.

Some of the players are crying foul

Two athletes challenge the veracity of Ziggy's testimony. Ziggy told the jury that in 1997, the Indiana Pacers stayed at the Swissotel in Atlanta. He says he and Kaplan took three entertainers — Yolanda, Kat, and Nikko — to the hotel. At Kaplan's direction, Ziggy knocked on doors and asked players if they wanted the women to come in. Mark Jackson said, "No, thank you. I'm married," Ziggy recalls. But he claims Reggie Miller took Nikko into his room and Antonio Davis requested two women. Both Miller and Davis deny this. A team spokesman says the team didn't even stay at Swissotel in 1997, but a Swissotel spokeswoman found no hotel records to support either claim. "No one really seems to know," the hotel spokeswoman says.

Antonio Davis, now a forward on the Toronto Raptors, does not deny that he once went to the Gold Club. But it was too loud, too dark and too packed. He says he left. "All these allegations are false. I love my wife dearly and it's very hurtful for her," Davis told TIME. "I've understood kids are looking up to me." When the father of six-year-old twins heard the allegations, he called his mother, mother-in-law and his lawyer, then, on Wednesday, filed a $50 million lawsuit against Cicignano. Still, he worries that his name will be tarnished.

He's not the only one. All attorneys in the trial face the scrutiny of Judge Willis Hunt, who appears increasingly testy and who threatened a mistrial unless they stop bickering and move the case along. Future witnesses could speed up the pace. While prosecutors won't say when, at least four professional athletes, including Ewing, Terrell Davis and Atlanta Falcon Jamal Anderson, are expected to be called to reveal more about the Gold Club — and the underside of Atlanta. — With reporting by Mike Billips/Atlanta.