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Club Dead

Ilana Kohn

Esther Saenz didn't want to go to work the night she died.

According to the April 2009 Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission report that outlined the last few hours of the 18-year-old's life, Saenz did not want to strip at D.B. Cooper's Mansion the night of October 14, 2008. But she had a regular coming in. And that's where the real money was. Sitting and drinking with a customer with money beat shaking ass for dollar bills crumpled up and tossed by drunken frat boys any night.

So Saenz threw on her outfit and her name: Elektra. She drove to The Mansion, a 20,000-square-foot prefab palace tucked a few hundred yards off I-45 just south of The Woodlands. She took a right on the feeder road, just past the exotic bird store whose sign announced PARROTS, drove by the ersatz, unmanned guard shack and past the man-made lagoon, two chintzy ornaments created in a nouveau-riche attempt to lend an air of refinement to what was really just another titty bar.

At 11:30 p.m., the DJ called Saenz to the stage, but she instead tipped him $40 so she wouldn't have to dance. She disappeared to a corner table, where she joined her regular and a few other dancers. A waitress named Mimi delivered the drinks. Witnesses recalled Saenz — whose 104 lbs. filled out a frame that measured just a hair over five feet — drank a hurricane and two shots of Patrón. It was enough to sink her. The vitreous fluid the medical examiner would later siphon from Saenz's eye socket would reveal a .185 blood-alcohol content, 2.3 times the legal limit. The BAC from the bifurcated pelvic artery, the left branch of which ran by a tattoo of a partially eaten strawberry with droplets spraying toward her labia, was .2.

It's not clear from the TABC report if Saenz was being served directly, or if her regular was surreptitiously sliding the drinks her way. Either way, it was dumb: The Harris County Attorney's Office and the Sheriff's Office had been trying to close The Mansion for years. (It was a fight begun by former Sheriff Tommy Thomas and continued by Sheriff Adrian Garcia.) Only three months earlier, deputies had raided the club and made the sort of revolving-door prostitution-and-drugs arrests that are just a strip club's cost of doing business. Of course, The Mansion's owners were operating under the legal argument that they were not a strip club. Denied a sexually oriented business (SOB) permit a year earlier, the owners were now advertising themselves as "a gentleman's club redefined."

So the last thing the club needed was another underage-drinking bust. But if the night managers, housemom, or even Saenz's sister — also a stripper, and also working that night — knew Saenz was getting drunk, there's no record of them admonishing her. Even if they had, the fines The Mansion's managers levied on strippers for underage drinking were laughable: a $20 fine to the club for the first offense, $40 for the second time. Third time, you're out.

And none of these people made sure Saenz didn't get behind the wheel that night, either. But sometime between 2 and 2:30 a.m., she did. And 20 miles later, after weaving in and out of her lane, her 2001 Nissan Maxima struck the rear end of a pickup, spun out of control, rolled over, skidded a few hundred yards and came to a dead stop. She must have thrust her hands out in a sort of defensive motion, because the tips of her fingers were scraped, and in some cases shredded off. The worst wound, though, was a nearly foot-long gaping gash along her upper left arm. She was pronounced dead at the scene.

Six months later, Saenz's mother sued the club and its owner for wrongful death. Two months after that, Harris County filed another suit to close the club, and the owner was also hit with a fraud suit by a Dallas investor. They were just the latest to stack on the growing heap of lawsuits against The Mansion and Stephen Fischer, a man who has operated strip clubs in Houston and Harris County for decades. All Fischer, a grandfather of five, wants to do is make an honest living off tits and ass. Fischer described himself as the club's "consultant." But he was actually behind the corporate shells that controlled the land and the business.

But with an aggressive new mission by the Harris County Attorney's Office, it's getting more difficult. And under Texas's so-called Dram Shop law, Saenz's death could cost Fischer a pretty penny. But if he can get over that, things might still be okay.

Girls like Esther Saenz can make a lot of money for people like Fischer and his investors. And if a dancer gets arrested too many times, if she disappears, or if she dies, there are countless other expendable ones right there willing to take her place.
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On September 14, County Judge Randy Wilson granted a temporary injunction shutting down D.B. Cooper's Mansion.

Despite what defense attorney Brad Frye argued, Wilson ruled that "the evidence presented at the temporary injunction hearing leaves no doubt that D.B. Cooper's is an SOB." That evidence included dancers performing pole and lap dances, as well as less benign evidence offered via testimony of undercover deputies who said they witnessed acts of prostitution.

"D.B. Cooper's argues that its primary business is selling food and alcohol and not providing sexual stimulation," Wilson continued. "In essence, D.B. Cooper's argues it is no different from a sports bar, which uses sports on multiple televisions as a vehicle to attract customers into the business in order to buy food and drinks...Sexual stimulation is not an incidental part of the business of D.B. Cooper's. Sexual stimulation is the essence of the business; it is its raison d'être."

The ruling was the latest in a strip club saga stretching back to 2001, when Fischer found what he thought was the perfect location for a new venture. County law prohibits a sexually oriented business from operating within 1,500 feet of a residence, but as far as Fischer could tell, the woodsy spot off I-45 was miles away from the nearest residence.

The closest structure was an exotic bird store owned by Joe and Kay Melvin. In the Melvins' 1996 building permit, the couple indicated that they intended to convert the second floor into an apartment, so they could comfortably stay overnight at the shop on occasion. To make sure the shop didn't also function as a residence, Fischer did some reconnaissance: he leaned a ladder against the side of the shop one day and peered into a second-story window, where he saw evidence that the Melvins never completed their living space. As far as Fischer could tell, the shop didn't qualify as a residence, so he should've had no trouble getting an SOB permit.

But the sheriff's office believed the parrot shop was also a residence. The permit was denied. So Fischer sued Sheriff Thomas's office in July 2001 for arbitrarily and unlawfully denying the permit. It went to trial in 2003, and a Harris County jury ruled in Fischer's favor. But Thomas's office really didn't want The Mansion operating in the county, so its lawyer asked the judge to toss out the verdict and rule in the sheriff's favor. Which he did.

During three subsequent hearings, appellate judges reversed the trial judge's verdict. The fourth time, in late 2007, the appeals court sided with the sheriff.

By that time, the club had been open for two years — but, Fischer says, not operating as an SOB. His new plan was to sort of beat the county at its own game, based on the somewhat stilted writing of the SOB ordinance. For example, the ordinance defines "semi-nude" as "any state of dress which opaquely covers no more than a human buttock, anus, male genitalia, female genitalia or areola of a female breast."

All the dancers had to do, Fischer figured, was slap some pasties on their nipples — big enough to cover more than the areolas — and wear short-shorts instead of G-strings, then, presto, the club was a bikini bar. Strangely, the nature of Fischer's argument was that, since The Mansion was not an SOB, its dancers had more freedom than a sanctioned strip club. They didn't even have to follow the SOB rule stating that dancers could not perform within six feet of customers. He likened The Mansion to Hooters. It was a sports bar that just happened to have girls twirling around stripper poles. As far as Fischer was concerned, his club was following the letter of the law.

But county prosecutor Linda Geffen thought differently. And in her June 2009 petition for temporary injunction, she included a list of convictions and open warrants for prostitution, drugs, public lewdness, and disorderly conduct related to the club.

Fischer's argument, Geffen told the Houston Press shortly before the club was closed, is "just disingenuous at best and flat-out wrong." She added later: "It boggles the imagination to try to understand how they can say they're not an adult cabaret."

Fischer just sees hypocrisy.

"Apparently, what happens is, if you're in the county, you can write a law," he said, "but you don't have to abide by your law."
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The 36-page investment offering memorandum that Fischer issued in 2005 to drum up financing for The Mansion seems to be 35 pages too long. There are county demographics and figures for alcohol sales and a discussion of dividends, but really all it needed was one page that read in big, bold print: 18-year-old tits and ass.

 

Because that's what was going to bring in the money — not Houstonians eager to drive nearly to The Woodlands to pay a cover charge for the privilege of drinking overpriced beer while watching the Astros — especially not the club's baby-boomer target market. No, the draw for these folks, the ones old enough to actually know the story of D.B. Cooper, was to sit in an overstuffed chair and bore young pretty girls to death and to get drunk enough to almost believe these girls were actually interested. Girls like Esther Alana Saenz, who drove more than 20 miles to The Mansion from a trailer park in Willis, population barely over 6,000. (In 1971, a man who purchased a ticket under the name Dan Cooper hijacked a Northwest Orient flight for a $200,000 ransom. The hijacker then forced the pilot to take the plane up, and he parachuted into oblivion with the money, never to be seen again. A few days later, a reporter broke a story that the FBI was questioning a Portland man named D.B. Cooper. That Cooper was never considered a serious suspect, but the name "D.B. Cooper" became forever assigned to the mysterious hijacker.)

A track and cross-country star at Willis High, Saenz started dancing at the club two weeks after her 18th birthday. Her sister Cristina, two years her senior, was already dancing there.

And The Mansion should have been a moneymaker. It was huge, with a second-story music venue and plenty of "champagne" rooms for private dances, or other favors open to negotiation.

Operating outside city limits was, per the offering memorandum, a "BIG POSITIVE," because the dancers — who worked as independent contractors — didn't have to be licensed. So any dancers who lost their licenses in the city due to "public lewdness" (e.g., blowing a customer in the champagne room) would flock to the county clubs.

Three of The Mansion's four competitors were clubs "designed, built and operated" by Fischer, who, according to the memorandum, "has been involved in the food and beverage industry since the age of fifteen, when he took his first job as a busboy at the Bayou Belle, a riverboat steak house in St. Louis, Missouri."

Fischer, according to the memorandum, later joined the U.S. Air Force, served two tours in Vietnam, earned a business administration degree from the University of North Dakota and then "became involved in the adult entertainment industry in 1987, while working as a registered securities representative (stockbroker) in north Houston."

In that year, he opened Puzzles (now called the Trophy Club), followed by the St. James, Broadstreets and the Century Club. While operating the latter two clubs, he purchased a controlling interest in the Colorado-based Taurus Petroleum Company. He used the profits from the strip clubs to wipe out Taurus's debts and promptly rolled the assets of the Century Club into the renamed Taurus Entertainment Company, which he later sold to the hugely popular Rick's Cabaret chain.

For a $50,000 investment in Webworld Marketing LLC (doing business as D.B. Cooper's Mansion), Fischer projected an $18,281 annual return. The investment was offered by Fischer through a vehicle called Fischer, Woodbridge & Company, LLC. By the time word reached Norman Eastwood, a Dallas developer of multifamily housing units, Fischer claimed that only 7 percent of the company was available for qualified investors. Based on the memorandum, it appeared that Fischer was a guy who really knew how to make money off half-naked young women. And Eastwood wanted a piece of that. He created a company called Twin Peaks Entertainment and invested $400,000 in both Webworld and Fischer, Woodbridge & Company.

If Eastwood had bothered to do his homework, he would have realized that, despite what the memorandum stated, The Mansion was too close to a residence for an SOB permit, even if the residence was actually just a bare room above a store that sold parrots. Also, he could have searched filings in the Central Registration Depository, the main database for the U.S. securities industry and its regulators. There, he would have found that, in 1987, the National Association of Securities Dealers banned Fischer from any contact with NASD members and slapped him with a $20,000 fine that was ultimately deemed "uncollectible." Turns out Fischer had bounced a check to his employer, "for payment on a promissory note," according to CRD records. (Fischer ran into similar trouble later on as well. In 1993, he was charged with theft by check and placed on three years' deferred adjudication. Similar charges from 2008 and 2009 are still pending. Fischer was subpoenaed in Harris County Jail when he was called to testify in the county's lawsuit against The Mansion.)

Eastwood could also have checked out Harris County court records to get a better understanding of Fischer's business history, which was fraught with lawsuits from partners and investors in his strip clubs. He also neglected to pay property taxes, and eventually the mortgage payments on his Spring home, which was foreclosed on in 2004. (Several months after Eastwood invested in The Mansion, but three years before he sued Fischer, several contractors who worked on the club's interior successfully sued Fischer for nonpayment.)

 

Eastwood, who was not available for comment, ultimately sued Fischer for fraud. The court compelled Fischer to open The Mansion's books to Eastwood, an order which Fischer has so far refused to follow.

But maybe Eastwood can be forgiven for his naïveté. Perhaps he's just an average guy, blinded by two undeniable forces: bare breasts and money. You take those, and all reason goes out the window.

And, for adult cabarets, that's the point: As long as the girls shake their asses onstage, the customers will plant their asses in their chairs and drink. But the passage of Texas's so-called Dram Shop law in 1987 presented a problem for club owners, because it held them liable for serving alcohol to a person who was "obviously intoxicated to the extent that he presented a clear danger to himself and others" and that the intoxication was a "proximate cause of the damages suffered."

State courts have interpreted the law differently since 1987, most notably in a 2007 Texas Supreme Court decision that required juries to parcel out percentages of fault among both the drunk individual and the alcohol provider, meaning the provider was not automatically and wholly liable for the individual's actions.

Although some plaintiffs' lawyers believe this ruling unfairly protects club owners, the Dram Shop law still provides a course of action, and Saenz's mother, Rebecca Moya, sued Fischer under this act in April 2009. As the complaint states, "at the time the provision of alcohol occurred, it was apparent to the defendant owners, officers, directors, operators, employees, agents and/or servants that Ms. Saenz was obviously intoxicated to the extent that she presented a clear danger to herself and others, and that she would leave the premises in a motor vehicle."

Without conceding the fact that Saenz was drunk when she flipped her car, Fischer's attorney Brad Frye filed a response that placed the blame squarely on Saenz's shoulders: "Plaintiff has alleged...that Ms. Saenz may have been intoxicated at the time of the accident that caused her death. If Ms. Saenz was intoxicated...there is a reasonable probability to believe that her intoxication was voluntary [and] if Ms. Saenz was intoxicated at the time of the accident that caused her death, then she was driving while intoxicated, which is a violation of the criminal laws of the state of Texas."

At one time, Fischer was intimately familiar with Dram Shop law.

In 1989, after an evening of drinking and ogling breasts at one of Fischer's gentlemen's clubs, Puzzles, a gentleman named Kenneth Wilson hopped in his car and proceeded to plow into another car that carried a woman named Patricia Durdin and her two children. Durdin was thrown out the window, suffered severe head trauma and wound up in a nearly six-month coma. Durdin's mother subsequently sued Fischer and other owners of the club in Harris County District Court, and Fischer ultimately settled. According to her son, who now has a child of his own, her miraculous awakening came when she was able to follow a doctor's fingers with her eyes two or three times in a row. Today, she's a paraplegic living in an assisted-living facility. Mentally, she has her good days and her bad days.
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Despite the fact that Fischer's lawyer seemed to suggest that a dead person should be charged with DWI, there is evidence indicating that it wasn't exactly unusual for strippers under 21 to be served alcohol at The Mansion.

In her statement to Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission investigator Deborah Fortune in April, dancer Katherine Land explained that "When I was underage, I was served alcohol pretty easily. Even managers would write drink tickets for me...Also, when I did come back to work after Esther's death, a manager had said that Esther must [have] gone somewhere like a party and got drunk — basically trying to cover the club for not being involved."

But, before The Mansion closed, Fischer explained that his managers were adamant about running a clean house. He said they even went as far as to pay strippers who were under 21 not to drink.

"Can I stop underage people from doing improper things? I don't know, can you?" Fischer said. "...Do we condone it? No. Do we do everything within our power to prevent it? Absolutely."

But Fischer really didn't want to talk about the Saenz case, or how, if the managers were doing everything within their power, Saenz obtained alcohol the night she died.

 

According to dancer Kelly Dupree's statement to Fortune, Saenz wasn't being served directly: "That night, Esther was in the corner with a regular who was buying her drinks. She was underage, so she snuck the drinks...when no one was looking. Her guy made it seem like the drinks were his." (The TABC investigator's notes state that a manager was unable to locate the file of the waitress who served Saenz's customer that night: "He believed it was...sent to their attorney's office, along with Saenz's employee file. I requested that they look there and send it to me when it was located. I have yet to receive this employee's file.")

According to one former employee, who began as a dancer but shifted to waitressing, some waitresses regularly served underage dancers. When asked if it was difficult to make sure customers didn't sneak drinks to strippers under 21, she said, "Not really. It's your ass. You're either going to go to jail for somebody dying, or you're not. Like, when I was waitressing...those girls knew, like, don't drink at my table or I'm going to take you out back and slap you around, 'cause I'm not going to go to jail for you. That's the bottom line."

The former waitress, who asked to remain anonymous, said the lax alcohol policy was in keeping with the allegedly commonplace violations of the pasties-and-shorts dress code.

"Girls would still take them off," the former waitress said. "If you're going to go in the champagne [room] and some guy...is about to give you a lot of money, and like, they're going to want you to take them off. And the girls are going to do it, because they are there to make money. Yeah, that's understandable, but that...could have been fixed if the managers would have put their foot down, you know what I mean? The turnover rate for dancers is unbelievable...Why not just fire them? If they don't want to follow your rules, get them out. What's the big deal, you know? It's not like somebody better-looking and younger isn't going to come along and fill her place, you know?"
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"She left the club around 2:20 a.m. when we all left," dancer Kelly Dupree told TABC investigator Fortune.

"Many of her friends asked if she was okay to drive, and she said 'Yes, of course,' looking very sure. Cassy Hearn (another dancer) said she would call her in ten minutes to check up on her, but Esther didn't answer."

According to Fortune's notes, Hearn said that "Saenz looked fine to her and that she couldn't tell that she was intoxicated or anything." But according to another dancer, one of the DJs believed she was drunk and tried to stop her from driving home.

But another DJ told Fortune that Saenz didn't even admit to drinking that night.

"When I looked at her," the DJ stated, "I was just like, 'Did you drink or anything tonight?' and she was like, 'No.' And I believed her, because she had been working here for about a month or two, and she wasn't known as one of those girls who deviated or drank, for that matter."

The former waitress, who asked not to be identified, told the Press that Saenz "hid it well...you couldn't tell when she was drunk." But even if Saenz hid it well, the former waitress and dancer said, there was always one subtle way to tell if a stripper had been drinking. Namely: "Nobody can dance sober."

Ultimately, Fortune believed that Saenz became intoxicated while at The Mansion, and TABC slapped the club with an administrative penalty. The commission moved to cancel the club's alcohol permit, which requires a court hearing — but the club has, of course, already been closed.

Fischer told the Press that he knows nothing about the circumstances of Saenz's death.

"I wasn't here that night," he said. "And the truth of the matter is, I know next to nothing about what happened, okay?...I wouldn't recognize this girl if I saw her today. I don't know who she is."

He says he didn't know Esther Saenz, he didn't know Elektra and he didn't know "Roxy," the name she originally chose to dance under. In fact, Fischer's office assistant claimed not to know anything about Saenz either. When the Press asked her which name Saenz danced under — Roxy or Elektra — the assistant reacted like it was possibly the dumbest question ever. The club has had 900 dancers come through its doors, she explained.

"A lot of them come and go — quickly,"she chuckled.

With that many girls coming and going, it's hard to remember one lone dancer. Even the one who died.

 

craig.malisow@houstonpress.com


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