Strip club owner gets 40 months for hiring illegal immigrants and laundering money

August 29, 2002|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

A Fells Point strip club owner convicted of laundering purported drug money and hiring illegal immigrants as dancers was sentenced yesterday to 40 months in prison and urged by a federal judge to consider another line of work after his release.

Francis Lee, 46, also was ordered to forfeit his troubled nightclub, the Ritz Cabaret at 504 S. Broadway. But Lee still could see some proceeds from the bar's expected sale.

Chief U.S. District Judge Frederic N. Smalkin ruled that the government was entitled to $200,000 from the sale of the club but said any additional profit could go to Lee.

That amount could be considerable. Prosecutors said an area arms and ammunition dealer has offered to buy the Ritz for $1.6 million, and a defense attorney described the prospective buyer as a longtime customer at the club.

Lee said yesterday that he had been looking to leave the adult-entertainment business well before the government effectively took him out of it.

"I'm sorry. What I've done has been a big mistake for me," Lee said during a long, tearful apology in court. "I confess my sin and I ask you to forgive me ... to give me a second chance, and I swear it will never happen again in my life."

"I'm not in the sin forgiveness business; that's in another court," Smalkin replied. But the judge noted that Lee would not lose everything in the club's forfeiture and added:

"Whatever money you have left when you get out, you might want to go into another kind of business. Construction or something."

Lee pleaded guilty this year to laundering about $190,000, money he thought had come from illegal drug sales but was part of an FBI sting operation.

He also pleaded guilty to an immigration violation for illegally hiring Hungarian nationals to work at the Ritz as nude dancers.

In addition to Lee, two other men also were caught in the FBI investigation. Kerry C. Canavan, 45, and Henry D. Caldarazzo, 41, both of Baltimore pleaded guilty earlier to conspiracy charges, and Canavan agreed to forfeit his interests in Memories, an adult-entertainment club in Baltimore County.

Beyond its central role in the federal criminal case, the Ritz in recent months also has become something of a popular-culture landmark in Baltimore. The narrow, dilapidated storefront serves as the backdrop for the fictional strip club "Orlando's" on HBO's Baltimore-based series The Wire.

Producers of the television show signed a contract to film inside the club before learning of Lee's legal troubles. By chance, the fictional bar serves as a front in the gritty police drama for drug-dealing and money-laundering.

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