Seven of Eagle 8 Found Not Guilty after Full Day Trial

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eagle2(APN) ATLANTA — On Thursday, March 11, 2010, Municipal Court Judge Crystal Gaines found seven of the Eagle 8 not guilty, while one of the dancers accused of providing adult entertainment without a license, Antonio Benitez, did not show up in court. Gaines issued a bench warrant for his arrest.

The Eagle 8 included four dancers–Leandro Apud, Thedarius Johnson, and Robert Kline, as well as Benitez–and four Eagle staff members: co-owner Robby Kelley, doorman Ernest Buehl, bartender Chris Lopez, and manager David “Yuke” Sheperd.

About 35 Eagle patrons, staff members, and community supporters attended on behalf of the Eagle 8, filling up the left half of the courtroom.

The trial was supposed to have begun at 8:30am, but did not begin until 10:45am. In addition, Gaines stopped the proceedings several times to hear various unrelated traffic ticket pleadings.eagle1

Gaines had only heard opening statements, two motions, and testimony from the APD, before breaking for lunch from 12:45pm to 2pm, then not starting until 2:15pm.

OFFICERS TESTIFY FOR THE CITY

Prosecutor, Senior Assistant Solicitor Larry Gardner argued in his opening statement that when undercover officers went to the Atlanta Eagle on September 10, 2009, they observed “dancers in the nude.” Then, he said later that they were “semi-nude” in that they were wearing undergarments but allegedly exposing their genitals.

“They were not an adult entertainment establishment. They didn’t have the permit or business license,” Gardner said.

The City’s first witness, Detective Bennie Bridges, the officer in charge of the raid, noted, “We went to the establishment after receiving complaints of sexual activity. We paid to get in. We were told at the door it was underwear night.”

“Gentlemen [were] dancing on the bar in various states of disrobe,” Bridges said.

First, Bridges identified Kelley, then identified Johnson, when Defense attorney Alan Begner objected that the City was asking Bridges to identify the defendants in the order they were sitting. “Did he identify him to you before, or tell you he’d ask you in the order they were sitting?”

Bridges said no; however, after Gardner started changing up the order of the identifications, Bridges could not identify at least three of the defendants. He could not identify Lopez; he identified Lopez as Kline; he identified Kline as Sheperd.

“Johnson was on top of the bar in his bikini underwear. He was pulling down the front of his underwear, exposing his penis. He did this several times,” Bridges said. “He did come down from the bar and went into the ‘birdcage’ and started dancing in an exotic manner, gyrating his hips, rubbing his crotch area.”

Kelley later testified for the defense that it was not a birdcage. “It’s a jail, not a bird cage. It’s a leather/S&M bar. It’s there so we can lock someone up if we so chose.”

“Apud stood on the bar at the same time as Johnson, gyrating his hips, standing on patrons, dancing, placing money in his underwear, exposing himself to customers as they tipped him,” Bridges said.

He then said that “Lopez”–who was not a dancer–“danced on the bar in white cotton briefs, he pulled down the rear exposing his buttocks, about midway.”

Bridges, in cross-examinations, said there were three paddy wagons brought not to arrest patrons but “to transport police.” However, Atlanta Progressive News–the only news agency on the scene that evening–can report that the undercover officers left in their own unidentified vehicles, while the APD officers left in APD vehicles. Thus, it is doubtful the paddywagons were there to transport the police.

“For our safety, we detain everyone,” Bridges admitted. 62 patrons were all detained, forced on the ground, and searched.

Bridges admitted there was no search or arrest warrant, but said he did not search the facility. “You didn’t search the apartment [Sheperd’s apartment upstairs]?” “No.” “The cash register?” “No.” “The coolers?” “No.”

However, Kelley and others insist that APD did search the premises extensively.

“You decided the Eagle had to be closed?”

“The owner was going to jail… The owner is the only one I’d leave the keys with,” Bridges said.

Bridges also said he purchased four alcoholic beverages that evening, but that he only took a sip of each one before throwing it away.

The City’s second witness, Vice Sgt. John Brock, could only identify two of the dancers. Audience-members began looking at each other in disbelief when Brock said that Johnson was wearing “underwear bunched up or a diaper.” No other testimony seemed to recall any of the dancers wearing a diaper that evening.

After Brock’s testimony, a third officer came in to testify but he apparently changed his mind, because the prosecutor later said he would no longer call the third witness.

Then, Begner made a motion to dismiss based on the argument that the dancers had not been charged under the appropriate code section. After the motion was made, Judge Gaines set the court in recess for lunch. She ruled against the motion shortly after lunch because she said there was some evidence to go forward.

CHARGES DROPPED AGAINST FOUR OF SEVEN

Shortly after lunch, Gardner moved that charges be dropped against the doorman, Buehl, because as the doorman, he had not observed what had been happening inside the club.

Then, Gardner also asked to have the charges dropped against three of the individuals whom Officer Bridges had misidentified: Kline, Lopez, and Sheperd. At this point, the only defendants remaining were Apud, Johnson, and Kelley.

EAGLE PATRONS AND STAFF TESTIFY FOR THE DEFENSE

Geoff Calhoun, an Eagle patron, testified he spent ten minutes at the bar before playing video games and saw no indecent exposure.

“What kinds of briefs [did you observe]? What color?” “I don’t know.”

Patron Thomas Hayes said he was at the bar 40 minutes before the raid and saw the dancers in their underwear–which he described as spandex bathing suits–but that the saw no exposure.

Kline, the dancer whose charges had already been dropped, said he did not engage in indecent exposure, nor did he witness other dancers doing so.

Dancer, Mr. Johnson, clarified that his undergarments were white Calvin Klein briefs, that they were box cut shaped, and that they were not spandex. He said he was the first dancer to arrive and that he did not engage in indecent exposure.

Lopez said he did not see indecent exposure but he was focusing on customers. Buehl said the same but that he was working at the door.

Dancer, Mr. Apud, testified he had just showed up and was changing his clothes when the raid began. “I was in the dressing room when the APD started screaming.”

“What brand of underwear were you wearing, Hanes?” “Absolut, it’s European.” “Okay, Hanes,” Gardner replied, apparently thinking Apud had said “absolutely,” and not Absolut.

Kelley testified he had been a co-owner for 14 years and that he saw no indecent exposure that night. He testified that the bar was searched and that the police told him they would be in jail from Thursday until Monday with no bond set.

Gardner then claimed no bond was set because there was no code in the APD’s computer for providing adult entertainment. This may be because, as previously reported by APN, code violations such as this usually result in a 1,000 dollar fine.

JUDGE’S RULING, APN ANALYSIS OF CASE

In the end, Gaines ruled there was insufficient evidence to rule beyond a reasonable doubt–which she said was the appropriate standard–that Kelley, Johnson, or Apud were involved in providing adult entertainment without a license.

Begner had also argued they were not even being accused of the appropriate crime. While he denied that the dancers had participated in indecent exposure in the first place, he said even if they had done so, that did not amount to providing adult entertainment under the law.

However, Gardner read aloud a definition of adult entertainment establishment which seemed quite broad and vague.

Gaines seemed unenthusiastic about Begner’s argument that the Eagle 8 had been charged under the inappropriate code sections.

However, Gaines said she could not find them guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Only two police officers testified out of the 30 or 40 that raided the bar that night, and again the testimony of Bridges was so confused that charges had already been dropped against three of the eight.

Begner argued the absence of the other officers did not allow the two officers’ testimony to be corroborated or cross-examined. And again, Eagle staff and patrons testified they saw no indecent exposure.

In APN’s analysis of the case, the likely reason the City did not have all the police officers testify is that they did not want them to be cross-examined about their behavior during the raid, seeing as how there are several investigations–a pending APD Office of Professional Standards investigation, a Citizens’ Review Board investigation where the Council just approved subpoenas, and a civil law suit–and their testimony in the criminal case could be used in all three.

Now that the Eagle 8 have bene found not guilty–aside from the dancer missing in action–it is possible that the Eagle and/or the various defendants can turn around and sue the City for additional reasons above and beyond the existing federal suit over excessive police force and constitutional rights violations. These additional legal actions could include suing for wrongful arrest, for the cost of having the bar closed that night, and possibly legal costs and the cost of bail.

The City Council of Atlanta and the Mayor had opportunities to ask that the charges be dropped in this case over the last six months. However, the Council declined to get involved when Councilman Michael Julian Bond introduced a resolution that among other things, asked for the charges to be dropped.

More recently, Mayor Reed–who promised in his 2009 campaign to demand the truth and hold everyone accountable–has opposed APD officers testifying before the CRB and said in a statement to various media outlets that he views the Eagle case as a financial danger to the City.

At the end of the trial, Eagle staff and supporters began applauding that the seven were found not guilty. “Silence! You are all in contempt!” Gaines shouted before leaving the room.

(END/2010)

About the author:

Matthew Cardinale is the News Editor for The Atlanta Progressive News and is reachable at matthew@atlantaprogressivenews.com.

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