A voice-mail spews forth with the gruff voice of a man identifying himself as "The Mitchell Residence":
I don't want to be bothered with this anymore, about the belly dancer. She ruined our birthday party. And I ain't gonna give you no comments. She was very rude with the kids and we told her to be on her way.
And she claims that she lost some kind of money, when it was a dollar or something, and she dropped it. She really ain't even a real belly dancer I don't want to be bothered anymore.
Ryan Boudreaux wasn't bothered by much when she pulled up across from the fashionable white house in Southside Place last month.
In more than 100 contract belly-dancing appearances in about five years, Ryan maintains a stage name of Raya and a PG rating. She doesn't do "11 p.m. drunken frat boy" fests, or even bachelor parties. "I like happy family events," she explains about her gigs of choice. "I've even taken my own ten-year-old daughter to some of them."
This was a short-notice assignment, but it was a woman client, and the location in the tony southwest Houston enclave further assured her it was legit. Her only lingering concern was that she'd been told to undulate on over at 9 p.m. on a Thursday night, to dance for an 11-year-old boy's birthday party. "It sounded strange for a party that late on a school night. I thought maybe the kids were going to bed and it would be for the grown-ups."
Her first unsettled feeling came in trying to track down the hostess among the crowd of about 25 people, which included perhaps ten preteen kids. They all acted oblivious to her; when she took her search inside, guests quickly backed away as if they wanted to avoid contact.
There were repeated distractions. At one point, she had to provide bedside comfort for a crying girl. Meanwhile, she'd handed over her musical backup CD and people began blaring it over the speakers. She had to ask each time for it to be turned off until any performer's cardinal rule could be complied with: Get the $200 fee up front.
Ryan says she finally found the hostess. "I told her the agency wanted me to collect the payment. She just stood there and looked at me, completely blank for a little while. I thought maybe their English wasn't too good."
Finally, as the intro song started again, the woman flicked what Ryan thought were four tightly folded $50 bills her way. Normally, Ryan's depository is her bra, a deluxe costume version, "with all the beads and everything it is like armor, nothing gets past it." But her long veil was in place and blocked easy access, so she tucked the money into her belt and began the show.
She tried to warm the crowd up with dances and had them help tease the blindfolded birthday boy about an imaginary snake. Ryan settled into her shimmied standards and then -- as she flowed into a quick spin -- felt the money slipping to the ground, she says.
"I thought, okay, I don't want to be tacky and stop dancing." She used a sliding dance step to ease the cash to the corner with her foot. As she started a graceful swoop to collect it mid-dance, an older man moved over "and was just a second ahead of me" in taking the wad, Ryan says. She thanked him briefly for pocketing the cash, thinking he was saving it for her.
When the music ended, she took her bow and walked over to him: "I dropped something and I think you're holding it for me," she says she told him. He reached in his pocket and pulled money out -- a torn dollar bill and a nickel. Ryan asked again; the same tattered dollar and nickel were displayed. "He was doing it to mock me, to insult me, every time I asked." She appealed to his friend, the man next to him. That guest displayed his own cash -- two dollar bills.
Ryan told the hostess she needed her money from the man. "I already paid you," she says the woman told her. "What you do with the money is your own business."
Perhaps the kids took your money, other women suggested. They began asking each other, while the men smiled and toasted in her direction, Ryan remembers. Some in the crowd clamored for more dancing. She told them she wouldn't perform until her money was returned. So Ryan -- street clothes in her hand -- was thrown out of the party.
Friends convinced her to call Southside police, who sent an officer by to collect denials. She says the police predicted that would happen, because they were aware of the address. Ryan recalls being told, "Oh, yeah, we know that house. We get a lot of calls there -- those are the Gypsies."
The two-story house at 3784 Bellaire Boulevard is valued on the tax rolls at more than $1 million. It carries an over-65 homestead exemption for its listed owners, Sonny and Christine Nicholas.
News articles in 1994 identified Sonny Nicholas as a prominent figure in the Mitchell Gypsy clan; Christine is a fortune-teller. Both of them were caught up in a running feud with the rival Evans family after a Romani Kris -- or Gypsy court -- convened in Dallas but failed to resolve a monetary dispute involving other Gypsies.
Investigators said that, as part of the Gypsy war, opposing factions began filing bogus criminal allegations to harass the other side. Sonny and Christine reported that four strangers robbed them at gunpoint in southeast Texas. Then they identified their assailants as members of the rival family. Sergeant John Vickery of the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department in Beaumont arrested the couple on charges of filing a false police report. "We just got lucky on that one," he says now about the case.
Authorities emphasize that the overall Gypsy culture includes many branches of law-abiding citizens.
Lieutenant Mark Glentzer of the Houston police major offenders unit says his officers receive periodic complaints on some Gypsy clans, stemming from fortune-teller types of ads typically placed in supermarket tabloids, offering to help people regain lost loves, communicate with the dead or remove spells. Customers will sometimes be told that they need to send their money in so it can be cleansed of curses. "They bless their money and that kind of thing -- and bless the money right out of their pockets," Glentzer says.
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Talking generally about psychic-related scams often attributed to Gypsies, Glentzer says, "They like to believe they are kind of untouchable, and so far, they've proven to be so."
As for the Nicholas house, Southside Place Police Chief Lonnie Bernhardt says there have been occasional dispatches to the residence, but those have been fairly routine -- an alarm going off or perhaps a loud party, but not monetary disputes. He endorses the earlier conclusion of police, that the argument over Ryan Boudreaux's fee was a civil matter.
"My biggest concern," says Ryan, "is that because the police can't do anything about it, people need to at least be warned about that place."
Apparently, the Mitchell family is issuing warnings of its own. While police told Ryan the family liked her dancing, the voice-mail response to Houston Press questions turned into a complaint: "I want to have my attorney contact that party place, because they just, like, messed up the whole birthday."