Out of the frying pan
Acquitted of pimping, Steve Clark might sue Butte County for strip club bust
Visibly relieved, Steve Clark tilts his head back and smiles at the ceiling.
“He may not like what I’m doing very much,” he says, pointing toward the heavens, “but he’s not real pissed about it, either.”
Clark’s been talking about his Friday acquittal on nine counts of felony pimping, charges that (because of the state’s three-strikes law) could have put him in jail for the rest of his life. Clark can’t seem to say enough how glad he is the trial, which made headlines statewide, is finally over.
“I just want it all to go away,” he said, stammering a little in his search for the right words. “I think the county just wanted to shut down adult businesses in Butte County, and I was just the collateral damage in that. Isn’t that what you call it?”
Throughout the trial, county prosecutors maintained that Clark was guilty of pimping because he facilitated—and, prosecutors said, profited from—direct contact between nearly nude dancers at the First Amendment Club and patrons. They produced videotapes, made by undercover sheriff’s deputies posing as customers at the club, that they said proved their case. The tapes do indeed show skin-to-skin contact between dancers and patrons, but the jury wasn’t convinced that Clark profited from the “dirty dancing.”
During the trial, deputy District Attorney Leo Barone claimed that Clark was guilty of pimping because the dancers sometimes shared their tips with him at the end of the night. Even now, Clark said, it’s a stretch.
“That’s like saying anyone who even comes into the club is guilty of something, just because they watched,” he said. “It makes no sense.”
Butte County’s high-profile treatment of the case made national news. The investigation into the First Amendment Club (now called Centerfolds) started two years ago, when sheriff’s investigators got a tip that the place was a hotbed of drug dealing and prostitution. That tip led to a months-long investigation of the club, with deputies spending hundreds of hours—and thousands of taxpayer dollars—performing undercover surveillance there. They found no evidence of drug dealing but maintained that the skin-to-skin contact between dancer and customer they witnessed and videotaped amounted to the legal definition of prostitution.
The tapes resulted in the county charging 10 dancers with prostitution, although investigators failed to arrest any of the men who would have been their “johns"—a fact that has the dancers claiming that they’re the victims of selective prosecution.
The investigation ended last spring, when sheriff’s deputies—along with a slew of other county law enforcement officers—posed as taking part in a bachelor’s party and then busted the club on a busy Saturday night.
Clark, along with his girlfriend, Bridgett Nielson, was also charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm (although the gun in question was locked in a safe in his roommate’s bedroom) and supplying marijuana to the undercover officers on the night of the bust—a charge that he flatly denies.
Superior Court Judge Thomas Kelly refused to allow into evidence the testimony of one dancer who said she’d seen one of the undercover cops on the receiving end of a “lap dance” at a strip club in Sacramento.
It’s those last two charges that still have Clark worried. Because he’s a felon (he was convicted 30 years ago of robbery and a couple of drug charges), a conviction would be his third strike and send him to prison for 25 years to life.
The court will hear the case next month.
It seems unfair to Clark that he should be facing such a stiff sentence for such relatively minor alleged crimes. He points out that the undercover sheriff’s deputies asked him for some marijuana on the night of the bust and he declined to give them any, although he admits to later finding a small amount on the floor and giving it to them. He’s been clean and sober for more than 25 years now.
“I used to be a pretty bad person,” he says about his past. “But I’m not that person anymore. I haven’t been for a very long time.”
It’s all made him a little bitter about Butte County. He admits he “will probably” sue the county over the case and that he’s already been approached by several attorneys about it. The thought of going back to court “makes my stomach sick,” he said, but he’s determined to change his public image.
“I’m tired of people on the street looking at me and saying, ‘Oh, there’s the pimp,’ stuff like that,” Clark said. “That’s not me. … People always say, ‘You can’t put a price on what [the county] has done to you,’ but I can. I say, how’s $3.5 million? I just like the sound of that number.”
The District Attorney’s Office has balked at requests to release the cost of the undercover sting, including the salary of all the officers involved and the cost of prosecution.