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Sept. 11, 1999 | Court hears tales of sex at adult club

Hooded cops. A grainy video. Lurid tales of fondling and sex.

For three hours on Friday a packed courtroom listened to a hooded detective tell how she used a "death grip" on the towel around her nude body while watching naked patrons at Broward sex clubs engage in what she said was lewd and lascivious behavior.

"There was cuddling, " Broward Sheriff's Detective Lisa McElheney said. "There was fondling as far as the breast and genital areas were concerned. In some rooms there was fellatio and intercourse - just about everything you can imagine."

McElheney said she was wearing the cotton hood in court because she works undercover vice investigations.

She was wearing the towel and nothing else at the club, she said, because that - together with a condom - was the required dress to gain entry to back rooms at Trapeze II and Athena's Forum where most club patrons eventually gravitated.

A three-judge panel, a swarm of defense attorneys, and a packed courtroom listened as the detective explained the mission the sheriff's department assigned to her.

Friday's hearing was Round 2 of an attempt by defense attorneys to have the second-degree misdemeanor cases against 24 of the defendants dismissed.

The case has attracted national attention, with the raids becoming the subject of jokes by talk-show comedians. In South Florida, many residents have registered their unhappiness with the arrests on radio talk shows and in 50 e-mail and phone messages a day to The Herald.

And lawyers have complained that the raids violated the First Amendment rights of the accused.

But on Friday the talk was not of constitutional rights.

The sole witness to take the stand, McElheney said she helped arrest more than 50 patrons and staff members at the clubs in January and February.

At least five more police witnesses, including at least two other vice cops who undressed in front of each other and in one instance got naked in a hot tub with a male patron, will take the stand at the third and final hearing on dismissal on Oct. 8.

About 10 of the defendants have agreed to participate in a diversion program and paid a fine.

Cases against a male Broward schoolteacher and a woman employee of Trapeze who handed out towels - required garb for back rooms to the club where sex took place - have been dropped. The remaining cases are assigned to a variety of judges.

After prosecutor Catalina Avalos walked McElheney through the investigation, eliciting long explanations in stilted law enforcement terminology of the most intimate forms of sexual behavior, it was the turn of the defense lawyers.

Daniel Aaronson, who represents Trapeze owners Alan Mostow and Dennis Freeland, and Fort Lauderdale Police Officer Ray Hall, who was arrested at the club after being observed making love to his wife, Lynette, asked McElheney if she had read signs in the club's foyer and at the entrance to the back rooms advising patrons to leave if they might be offended by nudity or sexual behavior.

McElheney said she had not seen the signs. She said she also did not read documents advising that sex could occur at the club handed to Ed Domako, the detective posing as her "date."

After Domako paid the club membership fee, she said, they sat next to the dance floor and "observed provocative dancing on the dance floor. Women pulled their skirts up, and their tops down. A couple was engaged in genital fondling at one table. There was also fondling on a pool table."

Aaronson asked, "Are you offended by sex or nudity?"

McElheney said she was not.

"Then why were you there?" he asked.

"It was my job, " she replied.

"So you could be offended, " the lawyer shot back, intimating that if she had chosen to stay out of the club no one would have been arrested.

Lawyer Jamie Benjamin wondered why no one had been arrested on a charge of indecent exposure.

Was it because, he asked, the naked detectives themselves could be subject to arrest for getting naked in front of their colleagues?

McElheney, who said she wrapped the towel around herself first before undressing, said she had tried not to look at her colleagues, "and hoped they were doing the same."

With only 25 minutes remaining, Judge Lisa Trachman, who leads the three-judge panel, told Avalos to roll a grainy videotape shot by a vice detective who had concealed the camera in a fanny-pack. The footage was taken before the raids and while the detectives were exploring the club's interior.

The judges had trouble deciding what they were looking at. The music - disco classics by KC and the Sunshine Band and the Bee Gees - came through loud and clear, together with male and female laughter and whoops typical of people at a party.

"This is just showing a series of blinking lights, " complained County Judge Fred Berman. "We can't see anything at all."

Some fast-forwarding by Avalos advanced the tape to the back-room activity, however, causing the judges to smile occasionally, and shift uneasily in their seats.