Club Dead

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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Contributor Craig Malisow covers crooks, quacks, animal abusers, elected officials, and other assorted people for the Houston Press.
Contact: Craig Malisow