The night they busted the nudie club

County breaks out the ‘big guns’ to raid the First Amendment Club, but did it really need them?

Rachel Gonzalez, who performed under the stage name of Raven, served as the First Amendment Club’s general manager for a time last year. She was fired in December and arrested in April on charges of child endangerment, pimping and two counts of prostitution.

Rachel Gonzalez, who performed under the stage name of Raven, served as the First Amendment Club’s general manager for a time last year. She was fired in December and arrested in April on charges of child endangerment, pimping and two counts of prostitution.

Photo by Sara Sipes

For Portia, it started out as a typical Saturday night at the First Amendment Club. It was busy, even by the usually busy weekend standard, and the place was bustling. She was on stage, half-naked, gyrating in front of several groups of men to the flirty music pounding from the speakers above her.

Halfway through her set, she heard a noise that “sounded like the place was coming apart.”

Looking up, she saw dozens of police officers, many in SWAT gear, holding guns and telling everyone to get down. The dancers on the stages around her froze, she says, before trying to cover up their naked bodies. The customers looked “totally surprised, kind of scared.” No one ran, and no one complained, she says. They all just sat there, dumbstruck.

“I didn’t know what to do,” she says. “They were yelling, ‘This is a bust.’ … I just grabbed my top and ran into the back room.”

Portia and her dancer colleagues didn’t know it, but by the time the three-dozen police officers raided the First Amendment Club on March 10, it had been under investigation for months.

Officers had spent hours undercover, sitting in the club, watching naked women dance around and customers accompanying them into the dubious VIP room, located at the end of a dark hallway in the club, where customers paid for private dances. They’d even paid the $50-per-song charge to visit the room themselves, to scope it out. They’d flown over the club—located on a lonely stretch of Highway 99 about six miles north of Chico—in a Sheriff’s Department plane to find out where all the entrances were.

The details of the investigation are spelled out in a 65-page report written by Sheriff’s Department Detectives Jack Storne and Evan Attaway.

They’d spent several nights just sitting in unmarked cars outside the club, running license plate numbers through the DMV computer to ID employees and customers. They’d checked the tax records of many of the employees. They’d interviewed a group of teenagers outside the club one night, after one of them—a 16-year-old boy—offered to sell the officers (who were undercover at the time) 10 hits of Ecstasy and another of the boys told them that he’d received oral sex from a dancer in the club.

Along with outlining their investigation, the deputies included vivid descriptions of the sexy atmosphere of the club in their report. ("Ultimately,” part of the report reads, “the dancers removed their tops and continued having direct contact with the customer on stage.")

In all, the two officers reported that they spent upwards of 150 hours in the club, watching the dancers and trying to get a feel for the club’s inner workings.

On the night of the raid, all that work resulted in four arrests: Steven Dana Clark, 53, for possession of a firearm; Bridget Lynn McCabe, 37, for possession of a firearm; Crispin Sanchez, 29, for possession of explosives; and Caren Naiman, 21, for possession of cocaine.

The arrests were beamed all over Butte County via the print media (including the CN&R) and the bright-eyed television anchors, but there’s far more to the story than was originally told. It wasn’t reported for several days, for example, that the explosives were actually about four pounds of fireworks locked in a trunk in Sanchez’s bedroom, and that the firearms that Clark and McCabe (who are a couple) were arrested for possessing weren’t even theirs, and in fact were found hidden in Sanchez’s bedroom. (Clark, McCabe and Sanchez live together in the trailer behind the club.)

It’s those details—and so many more—that have Clark claiming that he’s the unsuspecting victim of the county’s overly vehement attempts to shut down the club for good.

Clark is really at the center of the drugs-and-prostitution investigation and subsequent bust at the First Amendment Club. That investigation started last fall, when a former employee—the old security director—of the club alleged that several of the dancers engaged in prostitution at the club, that drug use was rampant there, that co-owner George Mull and Clark were organizing an effort to distribute Ecstasy in Butte County, and that Clark was dealing drugs out of his trailer.

Mull, a Sacramento attorney who fought the county tooth and nail to open the club in 1998, called the charges “total fantasy.” He pointed out that the informant who tipped off the Sheriff’s Department had just been fired for extorting money from the club’s till.

Steve Clark started work at the club two and a half years ago as a cook and dishwasher. He was arrested in the March 10 raid for being a felon in possession of a firearm. He’s a former CDF firefighter.

Photo by Tom Angel

“They’re so far out there, I don’t even know what to say,” Mull said. “It’s just sour grapes. It’s to the point now that I don’t even want to talk about it. … I never, ever would meet with anyone to distribute anything like that.”

Clark denies it, too. He called the informant “a lying little shit” and said that he’d been trouble at the club since he’d started working there.

“He’d come in here, acting like a little cop,” Clark said. “He’d smell people’s drinks, make sure they didn’t have any booze in there, shake people down when they came in. Finally, I just said, ‘Hey, we don’t run things like that here. … You’re not treating our people with respect.’ And he got all pissed off and went to the police, telling lies.”

Clark was the club’s ubiquitous doorman and manager. He was in charge of doing everything, from ensuring that the place had enough dollar bills available to tip the dancers generously to making sure it was clean and checking IDs at the door. He’s an imposing man covered with intricate, colorful tattoos, his dark hair slicked neatly back. He’s got quick eyes, looks and acts younger than he is, and has a habit of talking loud and fast. So when he gets going telling the story—the way he sees it—he’s hard to slow down.

And he doesn’t mince words. His vocabulary is full of matter-of-fact references to sexual acts and friendly expletives. When I asked him why there was a condom machine in a club that was supposed to limit dancer-customer contact to lap dances, for example, he responded by explaining that customers would put them on under their clothes before a “lay down” lap dance in the VIP room.

“That way,” he said, “if they pop during the dance, the dancer doesn’t get anything on her.”

What the investigators saw at the club was, well, pretty shocking. Much of their investigation report reads like a Penthouse Forum letter. Customers regularly “grabbed and fondled” the dancers’ naked bodies as they danced and walked around the club, the report states. For an extra charge, the women would “grind their naked, exposed vaginas” in the customers’ faces and mouths from the stage and rub their breasts in the customers’ faces. The deputies witnessed all of it—and quite a bit more—in the dozens of hours they spent undercover at the club.

Also outlined in the report are allegations that Clark had “special parties” at his trailer and charges that dancers took clients home for the evening. There’s an account of the deputies monitoring customers coming and going from the VIP room—once, the deputies wrote, a customer entered the VIP room with two dancers, spent almost an hour there with them, and emerged only to visit the bathroom for “five seconds” (where, the report notes, a condom machine was installed), and then go right back into the room, where he stayed for another half hour.

It’s largely what’s charged to have gone on in that VIP room that had the county so worried. According to Clark, what the customer got in the dark VIP room is pretty much what he got outside of the VIP room—a lap dance, with some added conversation.

But you wouldn’t get that idea by looking at the room. It’s a long, narrow room at the end of a long, dark hallway, furnished with three folded-down futon beds. The beds are portioned off by rice paper curtains. There’s a single couch facing the beds, and there’s another condom machine (which sells flavored and scented condoms) mounted on the wall just outside the door.

Clark admits the club got “an idea” that one of its dancers was “a little sketchy” but said that she was fired in December. That dancer, Rachel Gonzalez, also served as the club’s general manager for a time last year, he said. It was Gonzalez, Clark said, who “blurred some of the rules” of contact between dancer and customer.

“Look,” Clark said. “I don’t have anything against Rachel, and I wish her well, but we did get the feeling that something wasn’t quite right with the way she was doing things.”

When Clark confronted her about the alleged misdeeds, he claims that she denied it, then demanded that he ignore it.

“She just said, ‘You shut up about it,'” Clark said. “At that point, I just wanted her out. … I’m trying to run aboveboard here. I didn’t want anything like that here.”

She was fired almost immediately after that exchange, Mull said.

“We did get concerned about some of her activities,” Mull said. “There was nothing in particular, just a feeling. We fired her. What were we supposed to do?” The CN&R’s efforts to reach her for comment have been unsuccessful.

Gonzalez, who is 28 and performed under the stage name of Raven, was arrested on charges of felony child endangerment to her three children on April 11 in an arrest sweep that stemmed from information seized from the club at the earlier bust, after police found heroin and cocaine in her home.According to court documents, Gonzalez was also charged with pimping and two charges of prostitution for offenses that allegedly occurred between mid-March and mid-April. The Sheriff’s Department contends that while she worked for the First Amendment Club, she was also working as an escort for a service called Vanessa Andrews Studios.

Clark lives with his girlfriend, Bridgett Nielson, and friend Crispin Sanchez in a trailer behind the club.

Photo by Tom Angel

It’s that tie between Vanessa Andrews Studios and the First Amendment Club that seems to have just about everyone linked to either running scared.

A woman named Sonja who answered the phone at Vanessa Andrews Studios last week fumed that “We have nothing to do with [the First Amendment]. … It’s all bullshit, what everyone is saying.”

She added that since the bust, though, Vanessa Andrews escorts are no longer performing the “private shows, couples’ shows, or toy shows” that the company advertises on its Web site and now provides only “sensual nude massages” to clients.

“That’s just so they can’t call us on any bullshit,” she said, declining to give her last name.

For Clark, the bust has been a personal catastrophe.

He started working at the club two and a half years ago, for free as a cook. He worked his way to the bouncer-manager’s position (at a pay of $1,500 a month) from there.

Back then, it was a dream job. He’d been working as a firefighter for CDF for several years when he hurt his hand, rendering him unable to perform his duties full-time.

“I always tell people, ‘I got Al Bundy’s dream job,'” he says, with a laugh. “I get to be around naked women all day.”

Clark admits he hasn’t “been a Boy Scout” all his life. Indeed, he served time in prison in the early 1970s for armed robbery and in 1987 for felony assault. He struggled with drug addiction for much of his life, but says he’s clean now (except for his admitted marijuana use) and has been for five years.

“I’ve cleaned up my life and here’s what happens to me,” he says, shaking his head. “It just sucks, man.”

For Clark, the worst part is this: Because the weapons charge brought against him is a felony, and he’s already been convicted twice for felonies, a conviction on the latest charge would be counted as his third strike. That means that he could be sent to prison for 25 years to life—essentially for being in the same house as Sanchez’s two locked-up guns.

“That’s the part I just can’t believe, man,” Clark says. “That was all 30 years ago. I’m a different person now. Those weren’t even my guns, and I could go to jail for the rest of my life because they were here.”

And it’s not just the legal trouble that has Clark so upset, it’s the personal trouble, too.

“Everyone thinks we’re these crazy criminal terrorists living out here,” Clark said. “Even my friends, they’re afraid of me, too. Like I’m some weird pimp daddy or something. I’m just this messy guy trying to get by, you know?”

On the night of the raid, the sheriff’s deputies who had been investigating the club for months posed as members of a bachelor party. District Attorney Mike Ramsey said they’d asked Clark several days before the party to provide them with “a full bar, some marijuana, and women who would do more than dance.”

When they arrived for the “party” that Saturday night, Clark had ready for them two cases of beer and two bottles of liquor, which he’d bought especially for them at Costco. When one of the deputies asked Clark if he had any of the marijuana they’d requested, Clark replied that he didn’t have any, although Clark says that he found a film canister outside the back door that had marijuana in it, and gave it to the deputies.

“I just figured it was theirs,” he says.

District Attorney Mike Ramsey said he expects that there will be more arrests in connection with the First Amendment Club bust.

Photo by Sara Sipes

Clark contends that the “bachelor party” was rowdy and obnoxious from the start, that the deputies persistently asked the dancers who performed for them to do illegal sex acts, and that the dancers repeatedly complained about them that night.

Clark says he was just about to throw them out when “all hell broke loose.”

It turns out that more than two dozen sheriff’s deputies, D.A. investigators, special surveillance agents, and SWAT team members were waiting for Detective Jack Storne to utter the code words “Let’s play” into his wire that night. When he did, they entered the club (while they didn’t have their guns pointing at anyone in the club, witnesses report that they had their guns out of the holsters) with a search warrant and “turned the place over and around” looking for proof of illegal activity.

While they did find some contraband, they didn’t find everything that they might have expected to. There were several bottles of wine, rum and vodka in the dancers’ dressing rooms, all of which were seized. They found five used condoms and wrappers in a trashcan in the VIP room. The police also raided Clark’s trailer that night and found several marijuana seeds, a small amount of marijuana and some ammunition in his bedroom. The police also took away employee records, business cards and almost $3,000 in cash from the till and safe that night.

Clark concedes that the marijuana was his but complains that the police were overly intrusive and vehement about searching his home. There is still a piece of his front door missing from where the officers busted it down, and his bedroom door has a boot-shaped hole in it. He’s especially incensed the police seized all of the club’s cash that night, since now the club has little capital to continue operating.

“It’s like, do they really need so many cops to do this?” he asks, rhetorically. “They just wanted to kill the place, and they’re succeeding. Was I really all that much of a threat?”

The answer to that question, says Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey, is “yes.”

“Just like any crime,” Ramsey said, “crime begets crime … from drugs to prostitution to whatever else. We had serious reports of drug use and prostitution out there, and it is law enforcement’s duty to investigate that.”

Ramsey also said that the bust yielded “tons and tons” of information that investigators are still sifting through. When all the facts are known, he said, there will be more arrests for drugs trafficking and prostitution.

“This is an ongoing investigation,” Ramsey said. “We’re still figuring certain things out.”

He wasn’t sure exactly how much money the county had spent on the investigation ("We don’t break things down like that. We have people working several cases at a time.") but did say that the choreography of all the different police agencies—the Sheriff’s Department, the Gridley Police Department, B.A.S.S. and his office—is a pretty regular occurrence.

“In the grand scheme of things, this isn’t a big deal,” Ramsey said. “We have different agencies working together all the time, and we will have them work together again, I’m sure.”

Sheriff’s Lt. Jerry Smith, who helped organized the investigation and raid, said that Clark’s allegation that the police were overly intrusive is hogwash.

“I cant’ believe they’re saying that,” Smith said. “What’s next, right? I told [the deputies] before they went in there, ‘There are law-abiding citizens in that place, and what they’re doing is legal … so I don’t want anybody going in with guns drawn.'”

But the question remains: In a county plagued with chronic money troubles, serious problems with child abuse and neglect, rampant methamphetamine manufacturing and domestic violence, was spending the hundreds of thousands of dollars that the First Amendment Club bust must have cost, worth it?

Since the bust, business at the First Amendment Club has been dismal. It’s up for sale, and there are reports that a Sacramento adult business chain is looking to take it over and re-open it as a strip bar called Centerfolds. Clark, who says he hasn’t collected a paycheck in weeks, is anxious about the new owners and fears that he will lose his job, as do several of the dancers who spoke with the News & Review on condition of anonymity.

Clark, for one, said that he regards his co-workers as a family and said he’s “just trying to keep everyone together, like it used to be.”

It’s getting harder by the day, though, since business has dropped so much and many of the dancers are leaving because they’re getting bad reputations from their associations with the club.

It’s something several of the dancers mentioned.

“This has done so much damage to my life," said one 20-year-old dancer, who has worked there almost since the day the club opened. "I wake up every day afraid of what’s going to happen next … and I just was there to make some money."