It alleges police misconduct
A strip club is suing Winter Park for harassment after sustaining what its attorney called years of constitutional violations from the city's police force.
According to the lawsuit filed Monday, Club Harem is seeking monetary damages from the city for hurting business and closing it down while investigating charges that were never proven.
"I'm sure it's going to be in the neighborhood of half a million dollars," Club Harem attorney Steve Mason said of unspecified compensatory damages his firm is seeking.
And the city has fired back, calling accusations inflammatory and inaccurate.
"The city fails to see any causal connection between its conduct and financial damages allegedly suffered by your client," city attorney Larry Brown wrote in a June 14 letter to Club Harem's attorney.
Winter Park received a copy of the lawsuit late Tuesday. City officials were unable to comment on the details of the document before press time because they hadn’t had sufficient time to review it, city spokeswoman Clarissa Howard said.
In the lawsuit, Mason cites accounts of a detective who dated a stripper, a drug dealer pressured into moving a cocaine deal onto club property, thousands of dollars spent on cocktails to lull dancers into participating in $100 marijuana deals, and a club manager who said she feared police retribution if she spoke out against being stalked by a sergeant, and who was later singled out and strip searched in front of male officers.
In a recent meeting with Club Harem owners, Mason claims city officials joined Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation agents to talk about reopening the club. The MBI agents, Mason said, sat across the negotiation table wearing hoods.
Mason described a "pattern of intimidation" from police designed to shut down the club by any means necessary.
But the city attorney says the city was only enforcing the law and protecting residents from illegal activity.
"The city has a duty to its residents to enforce the law in a responsible manner especially when criminal activity is involved, and it carried out that duty despite the threats made by the club to sue the city," Brown wrote in a released statement.
History of issues
The problems started in 2004. That year Club Harem, which has done business along Lee Road for 30 years, became part of Winter Park when the city annexed land in the area from unincorporated Orange County.
Once the land was annexed, Mason said the city targeted the business continuously in an attempt to shut it down before police had found the business guilty of any crimes.
Though he declined to talk about the suit or the city's dealings with Club Harem, Mayor Ken Bradley said the club's owners have the right to pursue legal action if they want.
"We live in a great country where we are allowed to sue people," Bradley said.
In his suit, Mason alleges that as soon as the city annexed the property, it launched a concerted effort to cripple Club Harem, with officers ingratiating themselves to MBI agents for assistance by taking them out for drinks, paid for with public money.
Before the annexation, Mason said, the club had stayed largely out of trouble.
"I want to know why Club Harem had very few problems until 2004," Mason said. "What happened in 2004 and 2005 for this club to all of the sudden be on the radar to this extent?"
Police went undercover to try to catch drug dealers in the act of selling drugs. They charged one man, Shawn Dawson, with 16 felony counts for selling marijuana, carrying a potential 300 years of prison. But police had trouble pinning charges on club owners, which they'd have to do in order to force the club to close.
In the process of that investigation, undercover detective Carlos Calderon was accused of having a romantic relationship with an exotic dancer not involved in the investigation. Calderon was terminated from the police force after an internal investigation. He immediately appealed that decision.
"As far as I know, our civil service board upheld it," Bradley said.
In the letter firing Calderon, Winter Park Police Chief Brett Railey wrote that Calderon hadn't followed protocol.
"While the exact extent of the relationship is not known, there is clear evidence that you and she (topless dancer Michelle Merry) established a personal relationship of a romantic nature, which could have interfered with the performance of the important duties to which you were assigned," he wrote.
Calderon was a key witness in the investigation of multiple drug dealers, as well as the primary investigation into the club owners being aware of illegal activities. With Calderon gone, the case seemed to begin to crumble, though Mason said the harassment continued.
Claims of misconduct
Club manager Misty Bell said she was harassed and stalked by a sergeant and feared retribution for asking for an internal affairs investigation. According to the suit, although the sergeant was never charged, he was later demoted to patrolman. Bell said that later during a widely publicized police raid on Club Harem, she was strip searched in view of male officers in a club bathroom. She also accused police of mishandling bond paperwork to keep her in jail longer than necessary.
Mason said he wants to know whether there was any communication within the police department or with city officials leading to the opening of multiple investigations into illegal activities at Club Harem.
He said that the firm of the former Winter Park city attorney, Winderweedle, Haines, Ward and Woodman, has stalled in releasing paperwork from the investigation that may help him determine how and why it was started.
Despite repeat attempts at investigations, police have not successfully prosecuted Club Harem owners for crimes.
"Under Florida law you cannot close a business unless the owner was actively involved or was culpably responsible," Mason said. "In this case, there was no evidence that the ownership was involved. Ultimately, the nightclub's charges have been dismissed."
Now Mason is convinced that during the investigation, police violated more laws than the employees of Club Harem, while the police department's internal affairs department ignored allegations from Club employees.
"Why is it that we're having to do all this investigation of their conduct?" Mason asked. "Obviously it has some merit. One officer was fired, another was demoted, all while trying to police Club Harem. It's almost like the zeal to close the bar trumps being above board and being honorable."