A downtown Baltimore strip club was ordered yesterday to shut down for more than five months or pay $7,100 in fines for allowing teen-age girls to dance and drink alcohol.
The penalties against the 408 Club are the harshest doled out by the Board of Liquor License Commissioners since a law forced a wholesale turnover of its members 15 months ago, board members said. The governor appoints members to the board, which has jurisdiction over the city. Board members debated 45 minutes before issuing guilty rulings on 13 of 18 administrative charges, including prostitution. The club's lawyer, Mitchel M. Gordon, said he may appeal to Circuit Court.
The two-hour hearing offered graphic testimony that included arguments over precise legal definitions of body parts, whether lap dances could be considered performances and if a bar owner could be held responsible when a dancer solicits sex.
But perhaps the most troubling testimony came from police officers who said they discovered two 16-year-old Baltimore County high school students dancing at the club using stage names of Desiree and Seduction, drinking vodka and orange juice and using cocaine.
Police said both girls skipped classes at Overlea High School and danced at the 408 Club for about two months, but did not engage in prostitution. "I told men I was a virgin and didn't want to," one girl told police.
Police Sgt. Craig Gentile said one of the girls persuaded two high school friends to come to the club, at 408 E. Baltimore St., dress up in revealing clothing and stand on the stage while a bouncer and a bartender took suggestive photos.
"Sixteen-year-olds belong in high school," Gentile said. "Sixteen-year-olds do not belong on a stage in a bar."
The co-owner of the club, Charles Tuil, said he bought the business in April 1997 and was naive about laws and regulations. He told board members that he didn't review the liquor rules when he took over.
Tuil did not testify about the underage girls, but admitted to making a mistake when he gave a condom to a woman, who it turned out had propositioned an undercover police officer and ,, was arrested.
"I didn't know the business well," said Tuil, portrayed by his lawyer as an Israeli war hero. He said he did not know about three upstairs rooms used for prostitution. "There was a lot of sneaking going on between the dancers and the bartenders," he said.
Tuil said he closed the rooms after a police raid in September 1997, but officers testified they found a nude man and woman sitting on a couch a month later. Tuil said he wasn't at work at the time because of the Jewish holiday, Yom Kippur.
Gordon said there was "a lot of naivete" on his client's part. "The 408 Club has a notorious past," Gordon said. "The 408 used to be a whorehouse. It used to be nonstop. When Mr. Tuil got there, it was still going on."
Gordon did not dispute that the underage girls were in the club or that his client failed to keep accurate employee records as required by law, but he said the girls used false identification cards to get the jobs.
The lawyer also said he may appeal the fines, arguing that the girls were not present for yesterday's hearing and that any statements they made in police reports should not have been allowed as testimony.
"These officers can say anything and I have to stand here and take it," Gordon complained.
But Gentile said the youngsters had received threats and were too scared to testify. "I tried to get her to come, but she would not come," the mother of one of the girls told the board. "They're all underage. Can you blame them?"
Gentile, reading from a transcript of a police interview with one of the girls, described in detail how she skipped classes to dance at strip clubs starting in December. She tried three in Baltimore County but was turned away because of her age. But she was quickly accepted on The Block, she said, often without being asked for identification.
A few weeks later, the girl said two of her friends accompanied her to the 408 Club. "I went down to dance and to show my friends what it was like," said Gentile, reading from the transcript.
The girl said she and her friends posed on the stage bar -- but with no customers present. She was dressed in her usual costume, a black bra and panties, and she said the bartender persuaded one of her friends to take off her white sweater.
Police said they got involved when the mother of one of the girls saw the pictures and notified authorities.
Pub Date: 7/31/98