ATLANTA – The owner of an Atlanta strip club patronized by professional athletes was a key associate of the Gambino crime family and funneled large amounts of money to the New York City gang, a prosecutor said Monday.
The government's witnesses will include Terrell Davis of the Denver Broncos, Jamal Anderson of the Atlanta Falcons and Patrick Ewing of the Seattle SuperSonics, Assistant U.S. Attorney Art Leach told jurors.
Celebrities, athletes and convention-goers were regulars at the Gold Club, where they sipped $500 bottles of bubbly and ran up thousand-dollar tabs. The prosecution says the club also sold sex in its gilded private rooms.
In his opening statements at the racketeering trial of club owner Steve Kaplan and six associates, Leach said Kaplan used fear and power to build a "superconspiracy" with the Gambino mob.
"This is an organized crime case. It's a case about greed, about the desire for power and the fear of a national crime family," Leach said.
Kaplan loved having celebrities at his club and used them to attract other customers, Leach said.
But he said the athletes are not guilty of any crimes. "They are simply human, tricked and used through one of our strongest human appetites, our sexuality."
Kaplan's attorney, Steve Sadow, said the athletes' testimony won't hurt his client. "The athletes are not going to come in here and say there was any criminal activity going on with them, because there wasn't," Sadow said in opening statements.
"Dennis Rodman doesn't really need Steve Kaplan's help in the women department," Sadow said. "I don't think Patrick Ewing needs his help. I don't think Terrell Davis needs his help. I don't think Jamal Anderson needed his help."
NBA stars Ewing, Rodman and Charles Oakley were among the athletes and celebrities who received free food and drinks worth thousands of dollars when they visited the club, according to receipts seized by the FBI.
Leach said Kaplan's "formula for success" included prostituting his dancers and racking up exorbitant credit card charges for private rooms, champagne and private dances. He said Kaplan took advantage of customers when they were most vulnerable.
The customer "is confused. He has women all around him. It's dark, he's drunk, he's asked to sign things. They were relying on the customer's unwillingness to refute outrageous credit card charges to avoid embarrassment," Leach said.
In 1997, Leach said, Kaplan sent women to a hotel in Charleston, S.C., to participate in sexual acts with members of the Knicks, who were in a playoff training camp.
U.S. District Judge Willis Hunt has sealed the names of celebrities and athletes who allegedly had sex with club dancers.
Leach said the government would call many witnesses with criminal records to prove that Kaplan reported directly to John A. "Junior" Gotti, who was acting boss of the Gambino family after his father was put in prison. The younger Gotti, now also a federal prisoner, has been brought to Atlanta to appear at the trial.
Sadow said the government's case will be built on testimony from criminals and liars.
"They have put together an assortment of criminals the likes of which this court has never seen — murderers, armed robbers, violent to the point where torture takes place," he said.
Charges against the defendants include obstruction, credit card fraud and loansharking. Kaplan also is accused of ordering the beatings of about 20 people who did not repay high-interest loans, and could face more than 40 years in prison if convicted on all counts. Others could face 20 years.
Leach assured the jurors that they have nothing to fear from the mob if they find Kaplan guilty.
"There is no reason for fear in this courtroom," he said. "We intend to shine light where there often is none. We intend to expose the Gambino crime family for who they are and what they have done."