On most nights, Club Paradise pulsates near the garish glare of the Hard Rock Hotel on Harmon Drive and Paradise Road.
For the bosom obsessed, it’s a mind-boggling buffet of topless entertainment. Taxis buzz it like a neon flower, and the throngs of tourists and locals that jam its tables make it a highly lucrative business for owners Sam and Geralyn Cecola of Chicago.
So imagine the surprise of some of those cabbies and customers when the doors of Club Paradise were temporarily closed after the service of a law enforcement search warrant on June 6. They would be forced, sigh, to seek their dancing dream girls elsewhere.
The search warrant affidavit remains under seal, but near the shadows reliable sources are beginning to talk. I’ve learned that Metro detectives, with an assist from IRS Criminal Investigation, are building a case of substantial credit card fraud against at least two dancers after customers complained of being overcharged by thousands of dollars after spending late nights at the club. There’s at least one witness who claims a customer was drugged.
Police are developing leads from a half-dozen customer complaints. That might not sound like many, but it’s important to realize that most adult entertainment customers don’t file complaints when they’ve been ripped off at a club.
Adding to the intrigue is the fact three Club Paradise managers recently resigned suddenly, prior to the service of the search warrant. One source close to the investigation said the managers were asked to take polygraph examinations in connection with an internal theft at the club unrelated to the current fraud investigation. They instead chose to resign.
Here’s something the cops might want to ask themselves: How is it that those managers decided to resign just prior to the raid? Had they been on hand, they might have been asked difficult questions about their possible business relationships with the suspected credit card hustlers on the premises.
Was there a leak about the status of the investigation?
Meanwhile, these days Club Paradise officials are commenting only to say they are fully cooperating with the investigation.
The search warrant sought work-related records of the dancers, according to multiple sources, but not records related to the club’s owners. The Cecolas have been running the place from long distance, something they might be compelled to change in the coming months.
Sam Cecola is no stranger to controversy. He somehow successfully navigated Chicago’s mobbed-up adult entertainment scene and beat a 2000 nomination for Nevada’s Casino Black Book after his attorney, Dominic Gentile, made the case for him as a victim of the Outfit and not its partner in porn and the topless racket.
In a sometimes notorious career, Cecola survived a tax conviction and has maintained a relatively low profile while Club Paradise has prospered.
(I say “relatively” because the Cecolas, who still own adult businesses in the Chicago area, in June 2013 put their 20,000-square-foot mansion in Barrington up for sale for a headline-grabbing $15.9 million. They reduced the price of the palace in May to a mere $13.9 million.)
News of the Las Vegas case comes almost simultaneously with stories from New York about police and Drug Enforcement Administration investigations involving several topless clubs, where a crew of dancers is suspected of drugging and blackmailing customers.
Once they were hustled into the clubs, their credit cards were stripped of their limits. More than $200,000 was drained from customer accounts, according to published reports.
One source speaking with knowledge of the club side of the Las Vegas investigation said the two cases are not related.
Police in the Las Vegas case appear to be focused on the actions of two dancers who began creating trouble in Club Paradise approximately 15 months ago.
Not long after they took the stage, high-rolling customers began to complain their credit cards were getting rubbed the wrong way.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 702-383-0295.