Rubbing out Massage Parlors U.S. Hopes to Hurt Metro East Clubs with Indictments

Article excerpt

For years, busy massage parlors in Brooklyn barely veiled the lure of prostitution in their advertising, operating with no hint of objection from officials in the tiny village at the edge of East St. Louis.

Occasional raids by state police on obscenity or prostitution charges more often than not led to acquittals or minor convictions, while the sex industry blossomed virtually without challenge in four communities of St. Clair County.

But now federal officials have come in with a vengeance. They are accusing a former Brooklyn mayor of taking bribes, a former police chief of paying bribes, and several strip club operators of racketeering and money laundering in a case that could send all of them to prison for scores of years.

Officials are saying privately that they are eager to see what difference the prosecution - and the death of Harold W. "Hal" Lowrie, one of the principal defendants - will have on how the industry evolves and who will run it.

The indictment, returned last Oct. 22, highlights the concentration of sex-oriented businesses in one relatively small part of the metropolitan area, primarily the poor communities of Brooklyn, Washington Park and Centreville, and the industrial town of Sauget, all on the periphery of East St. Louis.

There is nothing similar on the Missouri side of metropolitan St. Louis, nor in the other counties of the Metro East area, nor even in East St. Louis itself.

John Baricevic, former St. Clair County state's attorney and now chairman of the County Board, said each town is entitled to make its own decisions about obscenity standards and liquor licensing.

The number of sex-oriented clubs in St. Clair County has grown to at least 14 under several owners, and there are at least five massage parlors. Baricevic said the entertainment is less explicit outside Brooklyn, and that the tamest are the two in unincorporated areas where he is liquor commissioner.

Through tight liquor-license rules and strong drunken-driving enforcement, strong-willed municipal leaders could drive out such places, said Baricevic and Sheriff Mearl Justus.

In adjacent Madison County, elected leaders said they have kept out sex-oriented businesses by setting a clear policy against them. Local obscenity ordinances will be enforced and liquor licenses will be endangered, the officials have warned.

***** "Terrible Image"

County Board Chairman Nelson Hagnauer has been credited with setting that tone, backed by Sheriff Bob Churchich and State's Attorney William R. Haine.

"I've let it be known I'm not in favor of these types of things," Hagnauer said. "I don't think the general public is in favor of it. I don't think it benefits the county. I don't think it's needed in our county, but I'm not against it in other counties."

Haine said local officials and citizens are united behind Hagnauer.

"There's no question it is a terrible image for a community," he said. "Open vice draws disorderly people and provides an atmosphere of crime. It drives out good people."

Churchich said police in some cities have arrested women employees if they disrobed in bars. The charges and a warning that the liquor license is in jeopardy usually avoid repeat performances, he said.

Mayor John Bellcoff of Madison, whose city straddles the boundary between Madison and St. Clair counties, fought successfully to keep out a topless club in 1992. It would have been on the St. Clair County side of town, but Bellcoff said his citizens were against it and the financial rewards the owners offered the city were not worth the taint of such entertainment. …