Gold Club defendants say case against them will fall apart in court

Jimmy Carillo sits in a furry purple lounge chair 25 feet from the Gold Club's center stage, where a knockout blonde with nothing on but a black mini-skirt pulled up to her waist dances under a row of spotlights.

She poses no distraction to Carillo, though. As executive vice president of the company that runs the strip joint, he has other things on his mind.

Carillo and his associates, including his boss, Gold Club owner Steven Kaplan, face a 97-page indictment that includes charges of money laundering, extortion, pimping, loan sharking, drug dealing and racketeering. Prosecutors claim the club has ties to the Gambino crime family in New York City.

The case is shaping up to be the most enthralling courtroom battle Atlanta has seen since the Ray Lewis murder trial. Prosecutors have subpoenaed famous sports figures — including Denver Broncos running back Terrell Davis, former Atlanta Hawk Dikembe Mutombo and retired Chicago Bull Dennis Rodman. The feds contend Kaplan arranged for his strippers to have sex with famous athletes.

The case is so enormous that it will take two trials; while Kaplan and seven associates will go on trial as soon as next week, Carillo may not see the inside of a courtroom until December.

Still, that doesn't mean the defendants are keeping a low profile. Kaplan was interviewed live on CNN's Burden of Proof. And Carillo recently sat down at the Gold Club for an interview with CL.

"They have no documented proof, no paperwork of any kind against us," Carillo says. "The only evidence they have is witness testimony."

Refuting the government's witnesses will be the cornerstone of the Gold Club group's defense. Carillo claims that all of the witnesses for the prosecution have been coerced and threatened by FBI agents.

Debunking witnesses for the prosecution is a tactic going back practically to Hammurabi, but the Gold Club defense team is taking it to a new level.

Lead attorney Steve Sadow says he has more than 200 tape recordings of conversations with government witnesses that he hopes will prove to the jury that the FBI, at the least, pressured witnesses to testify against his clients.

"Most of the our points will be made on cross examinations of their witnesses, made with the witnesses' own words. We have one witness, who I will not disclose, who is on tape admitting that he/she bluffed the government," Sadow says. "We truly believe that when the government case is finished, we won't have to call any witnesses because no 12 citizens are going to believe what they put up."

Sadow would not talk about specifics, saying he doesn't want to tip off the other side.

But if Sadow's defense strategy is successful, it will be a blow to the FBI, which has seen its reputation tarnished in recent years. In April, 60 Minutes aired an interview with Robert Fitzpatrick, a former agent in charge of the FBI's Boston office during the 1980s. Fitzpatrick said the FBI knew about murders being committed by one of its informants, James "Whitey" Bulger, of Boston. Bulger, a fugitive and alleged mob boss, is now on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List.

In fact, one of the expert witnesses Sadow may call for the defense is a former FBI agent who worked in the bureau's Cincinnati and Detroit offices for 10 years. Powers says that bullying witnesses and manufacturing organized crime cases are common practices in the FBI.

"It actually gets to the point where the agency, in its zeal to get convictions, no longer respects the legal process," Powers says.

This includes intimidation of witnesses, he claims. The FBI "convinces [witnesses] that if they do not testify in a manner the FBI wants, then they'll come after them," he says. "For instance, if one of the witnesses is a female with a child, FBI agents will threaten to contact social services or the IRS, that sort of thing."

Carillo claims the FBI pulled the social services trick on a former Gold Club dancer and threatened to have her kid taken away if she didn't testify against the defendants.

"I believe in this particular case, from what I've seen so far, a lot of people who are going to be witnesses have been placed under some type of duress," Powers says. "Most of these people have been threatened in some form or another."

The defense team's approach has already passed its first test. Prosecutors tried to revoke Kaplan's bond but failed when the presiding judge ruled that the government's main witness, Alicia Mitchell, lied under oath. Mitchell had accused Gold Club security guard Dominick Scoppetta of trying to keep her from testifying by threatening her and then punching out two of her teeth.

A spokesman for the U.S. Justice Department would not comment on any aspect of the pending trial.

Powers will also tell the jury that the FBI gets off on playing gangbusters. He says organized crime cases are good examples to show Congressional budget committees how hard the agency is working.

"Part of the incentives for the agency to go after [racketeering and organized] crime cases is that they are glamorous and bring the FBI attention," he says.

Certainly, few cases have all the made-for-TV ingredients that the Gold Club case does. There's a glitzy strip club, which, with annual revenues of $25 million, makes it one of the most profitable adult clubs in the nation. There are the links with alleged wise guys such as Michael DiLeonardo (aka "Mikey Scars") and Scoppetta, allegedly a Gambino hit man.

If FBI agents went looking for a character from "The Sopranos" to prosecute, they found a good candidate in Jimmy Carillo. He's a sharp dresser with a nice shiny watch. He talks like Joe Pesci and has Jack Nicholson's slicked-back hair and receding hairline. Sometimes his eyebrows arch like Robert De Niro's when he speaks.

Carillo is specifically charged with skimming tens of thousands of dollars from the credit card accounts of unsuspecting Gold Club patrons and shuttling that money to New York mobsters.

He's as blunt as any New Yorker, but more cordial than most — chalk that up to the past five years of running a strip club in the chivalrous South.

And, if you believe Carillo, running a strip club in the South lies at the heart of the FBI's persecution of the Gold Club.

Even though his club enjoys an undeniable link to Atlanta's multi-million dollar convention business, his take is that the Gold Club is being persecuted because of the BellSouth MARTA Lindbergh mixed-use development next door.

"My first reaction was, who would put a billion dollar project like this next to a strip joint?" he says. "Maybe they knew there wasn't going to be a strip club here very much longer."

If Kaplan is found guilty, the federal government could seize the Gold Club, along with Kaplan's Atlanta and New York homes. Kaplan and Carillo could each serve more than 40 years.