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    The $257,000 dance

    A widow spends obscene amounts on dance lessons, parties and trips. The guy who sold them to her once did time in jail for scamming elderly people. But a legal slipup has put the man back in business.

    By ROBERT FARLEY, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published January 27, 2002


    photo
    Audrie Jones paid more than $257,000 to Dance Place, getting lessons from David Pearce, a trip and this dress.
    David B. "Vic" Andrews was convicted of preying on elderly dance club patrons at their most vulnerable moments. Former instructors testified that Andrews, their manager at a dance studio in Port Richey, taught them this technique:

    Unearth their students' most painful memories, then, while they are upset, sell them high-priced lesson packages.

    Andrews' case and others like it inspired the Legislature to create a new law in 1992 to regulate dance studios.

    And Andrews? Convicted of fraud and grand theft, he was sent to prison for five years. But the judge failed to close the door on his return to the dance business when he got out.

    Several months after his release from prison in 1998, he found a new job 25 miles to the south, in Safety Harbor.

    His new employer: Dance Place.

    Among his duties: managing telemarketers and going over contracts with clients.

    * * *

    Audrie Jones knows what it is to be lonely and bored.

    In the summer, the 74-year-old widow watches her neighbors in Rockford, Ill., leave for work, their garage doors closing behind them. She winters in a mobile home in Palm Harbor, passing her days flipping between the Weather Channel and stock reports.

    So when a telemarketer called last month offering three free dance lessons at the Dance Place, Mrs. Jones thought it might be just the thing to lift her funk. She always wanted to learn to dance.

    Her first lesson was Dec. 4 at the Dance Place's studio at 550 Main St. in Safety Harbor.

    In just 18 days, Mrs. Jones wrote checks to the Dance Place totalling $247,295. She put another $10,000 on her credit card. The money paid in advance for dancing lessons, dancing competitions and dance trips.

    Mrs. Jones went on just one trip, driving to South Beach in the company of her 20-something instructor. She paid. Over three days, they dined together, stayed in separate rooms, rented a scooter and danced just once, a tango at the Fontainebleau Hilton Resort.

    Back home on a Sunday, she had time to get ready for Dance Place's New Year's Eve party the next night. List price on her contract: $4,990. But she didn't go.

    "It hit me like a bolt of lightning, "What are you doing?' "

    She told her sister, "I think I'm in trouble."

    Over the next few days, she stopped payment on two checks totalling $150,000. The checks were advance payment for a $175,000 around-the-world trip. But Mrs. Jones still is out more than $100,000.

    Mrs. Jones signed five contracts between Dec. 4 and Dec. 21 for lessons, competitions and trips. She said she knew the man who drew up those contracts only as "Mr. Andrews."

    It was the same David B. Andrews convicted in 1995 of fraud and grand theft at Aragon World Dance Studio in Port Richey. Investigators then said Andrews and the studio's owner used charm, high pressure sales tactics and intimidation to sell expensive packages of dance lessons and trips. Most victims were elderly women.

    photo
    Andrews
    After his release from prison, Andrews, 71, joined Dance Place as a consultant. He knew his new boss from his days at Aragon. Dance Place owner Michael Pasquarelli was a manager at the Aragon studio and had testified at Andrews' trial.

    Unlike his co-defendant in that case, Andrews' 20-year probation did not ban him from the business.

    "If I didn't (impose the ban), I wish I would have," said Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Stanley Mills, who sentenced Andrews. "It is my mistake, not anyone else's."

    Regardless, Mills said, it is "a questionable decision" by Andrews to return to the business. "He is putting himself in harm's way."

    Andrews of Spring Hill did not respond to interview requests. His attorney, Lee Atkinson, would not comment about Mrs. Jones' complaints, but said that because of Andrews' criminal past, he "would be vulnerable to accusations from disgruntled customers" no matter how he tried to make a living.

    Andrews is studying to become a minister and eventually wants to get out of the dance business, Atkinson said. "In the meantime, he has to eat and this is what he knows how to do."

    photo
    Michael Pasquarelli, right, defends Andrews' actions.
    His boss, Pasquarelli, 46, said the Dance Place has not taken advantage of Mrs. Jones or anyone else. Mrs. Jones is mistaken if she said Andrews presented her contracts, Pasquarelli said. That's his job, he said.

    Still, he knows how it will look to outsiders. He gets complaints from children of clients about their parents spending tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of dollars at his studio.

    "I believe in what I do," said Pasquarelli, who also owns a Dance Place studio in Clearwater. ". . . As long as we are adding value to their lives, then I don't consider it financial abuse of the elderly. Will the public see it my way? My attorney says "No way.' "

    'Mr. Andrews wants to see you'

    At her first lesson at Dance Place, Mrs. Jones sat down at one of the cocktail tables surrounding the dance floor and spoke with Pasquarelli, she said. Within 15 minutes, Pasquarelli had Jones' life story: her career owning an electrolysis boutique; the death of her husband, a computer analyst, in 1993; her loneliness.

    Then she met her instructor, David Pearce, a tall and slim man in his 20s, with dark eyes and long sideburns.

    He told her she looked great. A fast learner. His star pupil.

    "I knew they were giving me bull, but it sounds so good," Mrs. Jones said.

    She had fun, doing a tango or waltz with Pearce, surrounded by mirrored walls. Too often, she said, their dancing ended abruptly when someone said, "Mr. Andrews wants to see you."

    Andrews presented her with contracts for trips, big packages of dance lessons, or both, she said. Pasquarelli was usually in the room too, she said. The pressure to sign was immense, Mrs. Jones said, and she often left confused.

    "It kind of snowballed on me," she said. "It just wasn't clicking that I was writing these big checks. I don't know why. I just wanted to dance."

    After talking to her sister and a friend on New Year's Eve, Mrs. Jones filed a complaint Jan. 2 with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, which is investigating.

    "It sounds like exploitation of the elderly may have taken place," Sheriff's Sgt. Greg Tita said.

    Pasquarelli said Mrs. Jones made an "adult decision" to buy a number of expensive services, including about 1 1/2 to 2 years of dance instruction and trips. She was not forced to sign, he said, and the studio intended to provide the services contracted.

    "Audrie picked and chose everything we did," Pasquarelli said. ". . . It's not like she was a little old lady losing her senses."

    Pasquarelli said an attorney has advised him to pay Mrs. Jones a refund, though he has not yet determined the amount. He noted that she spent several hours a day at the studio for nearly a month and took the three-day trip to South Beach with her instructor.

    In a message on Jones' answering machine two weeks ago, Pasquarelli said an attorney suggested that a refund be tied to an agreement that Mrs. Jones keep quiet.

    "Why pay you a refund if we're going to have bad articles appear about us in the newspaper?" his message says.

    Pasquarelli later told a reporter that stories like Mrs. Jones' are nothing new. Bad publicity will hurt his business for a few weeks, he said. "Then we will go on doing exactly what we do."

    Pearce, the instructor, did not respond to messages left for him at the studio.

    Audrie Jones is not the only Dance Place customer who feels taken advantage of.

    Over the last two years, five complaints have been filed against the studio with Pinellas County's consumer protection agency.

    One was from the son of a 91-year-old Tarpon Springs woman who said his mother was forced into bankruptcy after spending more than $40,000 at Dance Place. The case was closed because the woman was unwilling to cooperate in the investigation.

    In a written response to the complaint, Pasquarelli said, "Some children expect their parents to sit at home and cultivate the inheritance that they expect to receive someday. . . . This is not the first time that children have accused the notorious dance people of allowing their parents to have too much fun."

    'Woulda, coulda, shoulda'

    The abuses exposed at the Aragon World Dance Studio helped persuade the Legislature to enact the Dance Studio Act in 1992. It was meant to rein in some of the practices in the dance industry. It requires new studios to post a bond and to register annually with the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

    Dance Place has been registered with the state for more than three years, so no bond is required.

    The law also sets cancellation policies and bans certain manipulative sales techniques such as asking customers to sign blank contracts. Another is using "relay salesmanship," in which a customer talks to more than one sales person on a given day.

    But there is no provision that says people can't overpay for things, said Joe Alexionok, a state regulatory consultant on dance studio cases.

    Many potential cases go unreported because the victims are embarrassed, said Robert Clark, an investigator with the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office.

    "For a lot of these elderly people, it's a sad situation," he said, "and they play on that. They tell them they're going to be a big star. Before you know it, they are signing big contracts."

    A 67-year-old Clearwater woman showed a reporter credit card receipts and contracts showing she spent $88,000 at Dance Place for various lesson packages, trips and competitions over the last eight months. At first she agreed to have her name used, but then changed her mind because she didn't want co-workers and friends to think ill of her.

    Pasquarelli, familiar with the Clearwater woman, suspects there is other motivation for hers and other complaints, and crassly suggested: "Maybe some of these students went on these trips and didn't get laid."

    The law can do little to get people's money back, said Chuck Smith, a former state representative from Brooksville who sponsored the legislation in 1992.

    "The thing about laws is, they sound real good, but citizens put too much credence in them that they are going to protect them," Smith said.

    While the law withholds licenses from studio owners convicted of fraud, it does not address those who work for the studios, such as Andrews.

    After learning that Andrews was back in the business, probation officer Gordon Landon wrote Judge Mills, raising concern that "there's a strong possibility this offender is "teaching others.' "

    In a recent deposition regarding his restitution in the Aragon case, Andrews said he is a $2,000-per-month salaried consultant for Dance Place. He said he has been married 10 times, but could name just four former wives. He is not married now.

    "My whole life is a mess before I got saved," Andrews said. ". . . I am a minister. What I did before and what I have done before is all immaterial."

    Pasquarelli said he felt comfortable hiring Andrews because "I know for a fact he did nothing wrong there (at Aragon)." Rather, he said, Andrews was the victim of overzealous prosecutors.

    As for the kinds of issues raised by Mrs. Jones, Pasquarelli said it's a fine line determining when people can no longer spend their money as they wish. Dance Place customers are routinely asked, Pasquarelli said: "Are you sure you're comfortable with this?"

    When Mrs. Jones called the Sheriff's Office on Jan. 2, the deputy asked why she didn't simply walk out if she felt bullied.

    "That's what I should've done," she said. "Woulda, coulda, shoulda."

    Mrs. Jones said the experience has ruined what she hoped would be a pleasant diversion.

    "I never want to dance again," she said.

    -- Staff writer Cary Davis and researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Robert Farley can be reached at (727) 445-4185 or farley@sptimes.com.

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