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Group says sheriff fails in sex shops sting

Despite an ordinance, shops thrive on U.S. 19 because officials can't build cases.

By JAMES THORNER

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 7, 2001


HUDSON -- Just because Pasco County sheriff's deputies work undercover on prostitution detail doesn't mean they'll work without underwear.

"We're not going to expose ourselves," said Det. Art Fremer of the Sheriff's Office. "That's the problem we run into."

And it's now a problem for county commissioners eager to shut down a cluster of lingerie studios and massage parlors along U.S. 19 in Hudson.

Nearly two months after the county's adult business ordinance took effect, the establishments, which neighbors insist are little more than brothels, thrive unmolested on Pasco's busiest thoroughfare.

As county Commissioner Peter Altman explained, referring to the British movie about men who become strippers: "The Sheriff's Office won't do the full monty."

Hudson residents whose neighborhood entrance at U.S. 19 and Sea Ranch Drive is graced by Suncoast Lingerie Modeling Studio aren't buying any excuses. They're sick of men sneaking behind blackened windows to enjoy young women in frilly underthings.

"I'm ready to scream, ready to scream," said Delores Reger, spokeswoman for the Hudson anti-porn group. "I've been two years battling this thing. When you call the county building, nothing happens. The Sheriff is backpedaling."

The adult business ordinance passed in April bans customer-employee contact and establishes a three-strikes-you're-out policy for violations.

A companion ordinance approved in 1999, which also took effect this April, banishes strip clubs, lingerie studios and adult bookstores to industrial areas.

Not a single business has moved. Three go-go bars and an adult bookstore joined forces to sue the county. As for the lingerie and massage parlors, which the county considers the worst offenders, proving they are breaking the law has been hard.

The problem, says assistant county attorney Sid Kilgore, is that lingerie parlors workers are skilled at weeding out undercover detectives.

Models won't expose themselves -- and thus place themselves under the restrictions of the adult business ordinance -- until customers show their penises. Deputies can't strip on duty.

"Over time I think we will gather the necessary evidence. But that may take a bit of time," Kilgore said. "People want to see immediate action but it's not that simple."

Reger scoffs at the notion that Pasco can't catch Suncoast Lingerie women in the act. The business flaunts its activities on signs outside the building and on an X-rated Web site.

If deputies refuse to doff their trousers, at least they can enlist an informant who will do the dirty work, Reger said.

But the Sheriff's Office hasn't approved the use of confidential informants in anti-prostitution cases, Fremer said. Other attempts to work around deputies's nudity ban have failed in court.

They include a 1994 case in which a deputy withdrew a plastic penis from his pants to entice a model to offer sex at Satin Dolls Lingerie Shop in Hudson. A jury acquitted the model of prostitution charges.

Kilgore encouraged deputies to gather all details they can about the businesses. The evidence might not reach the threshold for a criminal case, but it could be enough to close the business under the ordinance.

"There's more than one way to skin a cat. We may just use one of those other ways," Kilgore said.

But Reger's impatience was fired by the recent appearance of yet another lingerie parlor, called Risque, south of her home on U.S. 19.

"I want them to go into the industrial parks and get the hell out of our neighborhood," she said.

- Staff writer Tamara Lush contributed to this report.

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