She was only 12 years old, but she had the body of a woman eight years older. And at Diamonds Cabaret, an all-nude strip club in Dallas's sprawling red light district, patrons could see every inch of it. How this preteen runaway landed in the dregs of the adult entertainment industry last fall is a parent's worst nightmare, a story that vice cops hear all too often, and an example of a glaring legal shortcoming in Dallas, where Diamonds remains open for business.
After running away from home in the suburbs for at least the fourth time in a year, the sixth-grader needed a place to stay. David Bell, 22, and Demonica Abron, 28, a Diamonds Cabaret dancer whose stage name is "Jewels," allegedly told the child she could stay with them in Dallas—as long as she earned her keep. First Bell tried to make the girl work as a prostitute, according to police reports, but she refused. Instead Bell drove her to Diamonds, a BYOB strip club he frequented in a dilapidated office park next to a business that rents hot tubs by the hour.
The girl told the authorities that she lied about her age to a club manager and wasn't able to show proper identification. Police say the club's staff hired her anyway, after asking her to undress to prove that she wasn't too shy to dance nude for strangers. Diamonds Cabaret, where women perform vigorous routines on a stripper pole, features some of the raunchiest exotic dancing in Dallas. According to the account she gave the police, the girl lasted about a week and a half in November, working the stage amid flashing multicolored strobe lights and a pounding hip-hop soundtrack laced with obscene lyrics. She made as little as $100 a night, she told the authorities, and gave all her profits after paying the club fee to Bell and Abron, her "caretakers."
"You did good," Bell allegedly told the girl after one particularly lucrative shift, but, she says, he wanted more. Despite her protests, Bell drove her around Dallas forcing her to perform oral sex on him, she told the police. Back at the house, the girl says, she tried to escape, but Bell grabbed her hard by the arm and said she wasn't going anywhere. When he fell asleep she fled. Later her father brought her home, and the Dallas Police Department's High Risk Victims Unit, which helps runaways in danger of falling into the sex trade, intervened. In late February, Bell and Abron were indicted on charges of felony sexual performance of a child. Abron, who has since been released from jail on bond, was also charged with prostitution. Bell remains in jail in lieu of posting a $450,000 bond. He was also charged with two counts of aggravated sexual assault of a child, kidnapping and engaging in organized criminal activity. Neither Bell nor Abron, nor their attorneys, could be reached for comment.
The case of the sixth-grade stripper, which broke in the Dallas media in March, outraged many, the girl's mother most of all, because it revealed a Texas-size loophole in the city code. Although Bell and Abron were charged under state and federal statutes, the city was unable to shutter Diamonds Cabaret or even suspend its business license, though they also found a 17-year-old stripper working at the club in January. City ordinances do not set a minimum age for dancers in adult cabarets, which are subject to fewer restrictions than escort services, which are also regulated by the city. That could soon change, but for now Diamonds is still open seven days a week. On a recent visit NEWSWEEK found baby-faced girls grinding against the stripper pole. No matter how youthful they may look, these women must be at least 18 years of age to legally work in a sexually oriented business under Texas law. When asked about news that they had employed a 12-year-old stripper, a manager at Diamonds shook his head and said, "This isn't the kind of publicity we want." Calls to club owners were not returned.
Dallas officials say it's almost unheard of for a strip club to employ a minor. But runaways are particularly vulnerable to the sex trade, says Lt. Christina Smith, commander of the Dallas police department's vice section. "Once a teenager gets out on the street they have no means of support," Smith says. "Then someone says, 'I'll help you. I'll take care of you'—men who offer them what they need." In the wake of the case, the city attorney is drafting new provisions that would make it easier for an adult cabaret to lose its business license if it employs minors. The revised statute should be presented to the city council for approval before the end of the month, says Dallas Mayor Pro Tem Elba Garcia. "We never expected to find a 12-year-old being abused in a club like this," she says. "Even if it was not common practice, I think that the city of Dallas has to have the power to shut down some of these clubs if this happens. We need to ensure that minors are safe in our city."
Strip-club advocates agree. "Any club owner who is running a legitimate business would never, ever condone that," says Angelina Spencer, executive director of ACE, a national trade association of adult club executives. "We're called 'adult entertainment' for a reason: we're not for kids. If a club owner would knowingly hire a 12-year-old girl to work in an adult club, then let the chips fall where they may and let him face the consequences." Ali Stout, publisher of Metro ANE, a weekly newspaper for Dallas's adult entertainment industry, adds, "Everybody's just sick about it. As hard as they're working to make these clubs legit and a nice place to go, something like that takes them back 10 years. It makes them all look bad, like there's horrible drugs and crime and underage women and that women are exploited and blah blah blah. But it's not true. It's these few little clubs that get desperate. It's not the norm."
The case is the latest blow for the large Dallas adult club scene, which has been trying to fight off stiffer regulations and attention from religious leaders and other critics. Nationwide, club owners have successfully argued their constitutional right to provide nude dancing as freedom of expression, but many municipalities and states have placed significant limitations on the business in the last decade, preventing alcohol from being served in all-nude clubs, creating no-touch buffer zones around dancers, and forcing strip clubs away from residential areas.
Just a few years ago one could find small neighborhood strip clubs throughout Dallas, next door to churches, schools and family diners. Now most of the city's 43 sexually oriented businesses have been corralled along an industrial strip of Interstate 35 and Harry Hines Boulevard, where evangelical Christians from Heartland World Ministries Church and others sometimes come to pray for the salvation of club employees and patrons.
Houston, which may have more strip clubs than any other city in America, according to "The Ultimate Strip Club List," is also famous for being the largest city in America without zoning. But officials have drawn the line at strip clubs. After a decadelong legal battle, the Houston police cleared the last legal hurdle in February and plan to start sending warning notices to force an estimated 200 to 400 sexually oriented businesses farther away from residential areas, parks and schools. "We really haven't had teeth for the last number of years to fight them, because of all the lawsuits and court appeals. Now that those are exhausted, it is going to give more power to the city and the police department to start taking action," says Houston police spokesman John Cannon.
Meanwhile, a Texas law dubbed the "pole tax" that assessed a $5 cover charge on all strip clubs to help rape victims and those without health insurance was struck down last week by a state judge, who called it too broad. A revised version is expected to eventually become law.
Strip club owners say they are being unfairly harassed by these increasingly restrictive regulations, arguing that current laws against prostitution, drugs and child abuse are sufficient to keep the bad apples out of the business. Exotic dance clubs generate $15 billion a year in the United States, providing tax revenue and jobs, says Spencer, the industry's national advocate. She says she worked her way through a private Roman Catholic college as a stripper, then opened a successful club of her own and eventually retired early to Florida. She says the industry does have some thorns but contends that most strip clubs are not dens of evil filled with "perverts and geeks."
In the last decade some parts of the adult-club industry have evolved toward a corporate model, with conglomerates buying local clubs to form international chains with staffs of accountants and lawyers and uniform management standards. For instance, Houston-based Rick's Cabaret, where Anna Nicole Smith performed, is a publicly traded company on NASDAQ that recently opened a new club in Fort Worth. Another upscale topless chain, Spearmint Rhino, with branches in Britain, Australia and Russia, recently opened a multimillion-dollar outlet in a former Dallas steakhouse, where it sells $100 bottles of Moet champagne. Despite their preferred moniker of "gentlemen's clubs," many now hold couples nights and welcome women as a way of expanding their audience and profits, styling themselves as "restaurants with a view." David Beckham reportedly even took his wife Victoria on a date to a Spearmint Rhino club in Las Vegas.
Not surprisingly, Las Vegas's strip clubs rake in the most revenue, with their 24-hour, 365-day schedule. Atlanta is known as the Sin City of the South for its plethora of all-nude clubs that serve alcohol and are popular with conventioneers.
Dallas, another "primary market" for the national strip-club industry, offers something for everyone. Small clubs without liquor licenses, like Diamonds Cabaret, attract customers with bottomless dancers, because the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission will not grant liquor licenses to all-nude establishments. Young men looking for the girl next door or a punk rocker stripping to the sounds of heavy metal riffs, country crooning or Shakira might opt for a larger club, like Baby Dolls. Some businessmen hold dinner meetings at the Lodge, whose menu offers "Crabs! The Good Kind," a low-cal section, and an entire page of fine cigars. The girls who emerge from the Lodge's rocky grotto under the antler chandeliers strive for a modern dance aesthetic, spinning their legs overhead in languid circles while keeping their thongs on. Known for being one of the classiest strip joints in town, the Lodge employs a former Dallas Morning News editor as a day manager and is one of the few such clubs in Dallas owned by a woman.
Diamonds Cabaret is just across the Interstate, but a world away from the Lodge. Adult industry advocates hope the scandal of the former doesn't damage the reputation of the latter. "To make everyone pay for the few is unfair," says Spencer.