It was early Thursday evening, and the dancers had begun to trickle in to the Art Deco theater in the heart of South Beach, a place with a neon-lit facade and a mixed-gender clientele, from local businessmen and high-rollers to tourists, celebrities and swingers.
For more than two decades, Club Madonna, billed as Miami Beach’s only all-nude strip joint, at 15th and Washington, has been known not for what it has, but mostly for what it doesn’t have — a shred of clothing on its dancers or an ounce of booze behind its bar.
A dry club on South Beach is a little like having a Miami Beach vacation without the beach, a detail that the club’s owner and the city’s political overseers have been at war over since the turn of the century. No matter, the club shimmied on.
But now, the South Beach nightspot — long vilified by some as a sleazy blight on the city’s otherwise glittery, iconic image — is getting attention for something entirely new and especially unwholesome, not to mention illegal. A 13-year-old girl says she danced there, nude, on multiple occasions.
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On Friday, the city pulled Club Madonna’s license. The party is over for now at Club Madonna.
The girl, a runaway, told police that she agreed to dance at the club, but was later forced to turn over her earnings to her pimps, two Miami men who on Monday were arrested, along with a female dancer at the club, on human trafficking and other charges.
When she told investigators how she was allegedly able to easily slip into the establishment and dance her way onto the stage naked — without anyone seeming to take notice of her age — it brought renewed attention to the controversial club, as well as to an adult entertainment industry that has spent decades trying to overcome its negative image.
The uproar over the 13-year-old dancer is not likely to boost that image makeover.
Joe Rodriguez, owner of Cheetah Gentlemen’s Clubs, who has been in the business for 45 years, said the art of concocting a phony ID has made tremendous advances in recent years.
“Some of these girls come in and they really look older than they are,” he said. “They bring in IDs, you have to almost be in the FBI sometimes to tell if they are fake.’’
Girl called ‘Peaches’
LeRoy Griffith, who has owned Madonna from the time, 40 years ago, when it was a regular movie house that showed spaghetti westerns, said he still doesn’t know for sure whether the teen, who used the stage name “Peaches,” actually danced at the club. He was on a New Year’s cruise at the time of the affair, and his head manager, on the job only two months, was also on holiday.
What he does know is that all his dancers sign contracts and provide identification, showing they are at least 18 years old — and he has neither for the 13-year-old, identified in police reports as “D.J.”
“If she danced, then the club made a mistake,’’ Griffith said. “And if we did, it’s the first time in 20 years. It won’t happen again, I can tell you that.’’
The girl, Griffith said, told one of his dancers, Marlene San Vicente, 22, that she had her baby taken away from her and was trying to figure out a way to get her back. The Herald could not confirm whether the girl in fact had had a baby.
“She was babysitting my dancer’s children and she was turning tricks,’’ Griffith said. “My dancer felt sorry for her and told her that she could earn some money by dancing instead, so she called one of my managers one night and told him that she was bringing in a friend.’’
Griffith said the 13-year-old showed the manager a false license showing that she was 18.
According to police, however, the girl claimed the club’s managers never asked her for anything to verify her age. San Vicente bought her sexy clothes, tutored her on how to dance and paid to have her nails and hair done, according to the police reports.
The girl told police she worked the club on Dec. 27 and 28 and Jan. 2, 3 and 4. Each night she was forced to turn over her earnings, ranging from $120 to $500 a night, to her pimps, identified by police as Dwayne Ward, 18, Vilbert Jean, 37, and a third man, only identified as “AP.”
At the time she was living at 335 NE 55 Ter. in Miami, a multi-unit house near Miami’s Morningside Park, after having run away from home with two 15-year-old girls in early December, police said.
They all wound up at the White House Inn, a two-story motel on the water in North Miami. There, they met AP, who allegedly offered to take the girls to the 55th Terrace house where he said they could stay while on the run.
Jean, who also lived on the premises, “immediately noticed” that the girls seemed to be under age, and asked them to leave, according to the police report. The 15-year-olds did. But the 13-year-old told them she was 18 and stayed, police said.
D.J. agreed to have sex in exchange for money, but when the men kept the money and began demanding she pay rent, she became frustrated with the arrangement. Ward suggested she prostitute herself on a website used by escort services, but she refused. That’s when San Vicente, who also lived in the house, offered to help her out by introducing her to exotic dancing.
Griffith said San Vicente, whose stage name is “Ayaya,’’ has danced for him off and on for years. When she bonded out of jail on Tuesday, San Vicente came into the club to work, Griffith said. She told him she was sorry for all the trouble she caused.
“She said she just was trying to help out the girl and didn’t know she was 13,’’ Griffith said.
She was returned to jail Thursday after authorities realized she was released in error. The offense she is charged with is not bondable.
Early last week, police executed search warrants and collected the club’s video records and other evidence to determine whether and how often the girl actually did take the stage and whether she performed lap dances. What they found has not been announced, although Friday’s yanking of Madonna’s permit might be an indication of trouble on the video.
The eyes deceive
“She did not look 13,’’ said Mike Kalbach, the club’s top manager. Kalbach, the manager who was on holiday, said his employees told him her physical attributes made her appear much older.
Kalbach worked the Las Vegas strip club circuit for 25 years before coming to South Beach. Underage dancers are very rare in Las Vegas, he said, because dancers are required to have identification provided by the county’s sheriff’s department in order to work in the clubs. The sheriff’s department conducts background checks and verifies their ages before issuing the cards, he said.
Angelina Spencer, executive director of the Florida Chapter of the Association of Club Executives (ACE) and the Florida Sunshine Entertainment Association, said the industry has recognized that fake identification and human trafficking are serious issues. To that end they have instituted training programs and guidelines to help club owners navigate the laws and new technology.
She said clubs should require two forms of identification from dancers, and proof of those IDs should be kept on file.
“They should have been checking IDs. There can’t be a ‘whoops!’ ” Spencer said.
Rodriguez said Palm Beach County has a program similar to Las Vegas, where clubs can only hire dancers who have licenses issued by the county.
“They do a background check, and if they don’t have an entertainer’s license, that means they can’t dance,’’ he said.
The adult entertainment business has changed a lot over the past four decades, or so the industry likes to say.
Rodriguez remembers a time when the dancers would be foulmouthed, high on drugs and alcohol, and fight and throw bottles. Today, he insists, they are college students, housewives and other professionals who work eight-hour shifts.
“They are hard-working girls,’’ he said. “Just people trying to make a living. I got to tell you, the business has evolved in such a good way.’’
Data are not plentiful, but a University of Leeds survey of exotic dancers in the United Kingdom found that 25 percent of respondents said they had an undergraduate degree, and 29 percent were "engaged in in some form of education while dancing."
The university, in West Yorkshire, reported that dancers made up to $79,000 a year. According to information released by the Florida Bar, the median starting salary for a lawyer with experience is $55 ,000.
Luke Lirot, a lawyer who has represented the adult entertainment industry since the late 1980s and is counsel for the Florida chapter of the Association of Club Executives, said many clubs classify exotic dancers as contractors.
Rather than being on the payroll, dancers today pay the club for the privilege of performing on stage, coughing up money — normally called a house fee — to the owners, ranging from $10 to $100, depending on the club.
Dancers at Club Madonna pay the club $45 to $100 depending on the shift they work, with women working the busier shifts paying the most money. For lap dances, which cost $25, the house keeps $10, and the dancer keeps $15, Griffith said.
As in most clubs, the women get to keep their tips, but they have to give a cut to the deejay and the “bartender.” Club Madonna doesn’t serve alcohol, so there is no bartender in the classic sense. The booze ban is something Griffith has been agitated over for years. He has sued the city multiple times to try to overturn its prohibition on alcohol sales at fully nude clubs such as his. The latest scandal is the last thing he wanted to happen.
Miami criminal defense attorney David Weinstein, a former state and federal prosecutor, said it is a second-degree felony to allow a person under 18 to engage in a sexual performance, which is defined by law as exhibiting genitals or performing a dance, such as a lap dance, where the dancer is touching someone to create sexual arousal.
Human trafficking, or commercial sexual exploitation, is a life felony, punishable by a life sentence.
“He [Griffith] owns and operates a nightclub. Therefore he is responsible for what happens there,’’ Weinstein said. “If he has an employee who hasn’t conducted proper background checks, he is as guilty as they are of what takes place.”
Griffith’s feud with the city dates back to 2004, when, after winning a preliminary vote for a liquor license, he lost a final vote after two elected officials — including then-Commissioner Jose Smith (now the city attorney) reversed their support. Jane Gross, wife of then-Commissioner Saul Gross, then waged an opposition campaign, and students and parents at a nearby elementary school showed up at City Hall to protest Griffith’s effort to get a liquor license.
Griffith filed a slander and libel suit against Gross, saying she had wrongly called him a tax-evader — when he had merely disputed an IRS debt — and alleged she smeared him by comparing his website to a pornographic website that wasn’t his.
Then, he accused city officials of trying to extort him into paying $30,000 of Gross’ legal fees in order to settle and reconsider his bid to sell alcohol. City officials denied it, but the Miami-Dade ethics commission concluded that they pushed “their collegial bonds over the ethical line.’’
In recent weeks, he seemed better positioned to get his liquor license, since most of his adversaries had failed to get reelected.
However, one of his most ardent adversaries remains well entrenched in city politics — Jose Smith.
“This is, without a doubt, a vendetta by Jose Smith,’’ said Griffith’s attorney, Richard Wolfe, who added that the city overstepped its authority in pulling the club’s license without evidence.
Smith’s response? “I would say that this case is not about me. It’s about the exploitation of a 13-year-old child,” he said, adding that any further comments “would be made in court.”
The decision to pull Madonna’s permit was made by City Manager Jimmy Morales, not Smith.
“It’s obvious he is not a loved person in Miami Beach,’’ Weinstein said of Griffith. “They would like nothing more than to close him down and send him on his way.’’