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Topless in Odessa

Will the Ector County Attorney impose Midland's morals on Odessa's topless dancers?
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As the owner of Acapulco Fantasies, a small totally-nude strip club just outside of Odessa, Irma Sagrario Zizzo used to show all her girls how she wanted them to do table dances. Zizzo, who would herself strip on nights when few dancers showed up to work, demonstrated this method for me recently, in the small front room of her sister’s house in Fort Worth, where she and three of her kids have been living since the club closed down last May. Putting out her Marlboro and hopping off the sofa where we were both sitting, she faced me and lined her feet up with mine. “See, foot to foot. That’s how I teach the girls,” said Zizzo, a thirty-nine-year-old mother of four who came to the United States from Honduras in 1986. “When I’m dancing,” she would tell me a few minutes later, “I feel good because that’s the way they’re going to learn it, the way I want it run in my club.”

By keeping her feet aligned with the customer’s, Zizzo explained, the dancer can guard herself from contact that would violate the public lewdness statute. Texas law forbids “any touching of the anus, breast, or any part of the genitals of another person with the intent to arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person” while in a public place, or a private place if the offender “is reckless about whether another is present who will be offended or alarmed.” (Also against the law are public sexual intercourse, “deviate sexual intercourse,” and any “contact between the person’s mouth or genitals and the anus or genitals of an animal or fowl.”)

As her two-year-old son played on the other side of the room, Zizzo proceeded with the dance. She is a small, handsome woman with auburn-tinted hair, dressed on that day in Winnie-the-Pooh shorts, a T-shirt, and a crucifix necklace. Her solemn expression didn’t alter as she raised her arms harem-style — elbows loosely bent, wrists crossing in front of her forehead — and calmly began to gyrate her hips. “This is how we do the dance, this is how we do the dance,” she said in time with an imaginary beat.

“We stayed like this,” she continued. “That’s how we do the dance, and if the guy is a gentleman, we have a wall [behind the customer's chair] and we go to the wall.” Zizzo indicated how she might place her two hands behind the customer’s head. “We go a little bit closer, but as long as he don’t touch and we don’t touch the customer, I think it was all right.”

For all her precautions, Zizzo was arrested for public lewdness last April 28, nabbed in an undercover operation: agents with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission visited three Ector County strip clubs and arrested a total of seven women; in the aftermath, the county revoked the licenses of all three clubs — Acapulco Fantasies, The Forest, and Caesar’s Gentlemen’s Club — the only clubs under the Board’s jurisdiction at the time. (A fourth club, Baby O’s, is within the Odessa city limits and so under the city’s jurisdiction, while another county club opened shortly after the undercover operation.)

According to the report later filed by T.A.B.C. agent Mark C. Gohlke — a report Zizzo vehemently disputes — the following occurred:

At approximately 11:10 p.m., a female (later identified as Irma Sagrario Zizzo) approached me and sat in a chair next to me…. I told Zizzo that I would like a table dance and she stated that she would give me one at the beginning of the next song. While waiting for the next dance to start, Zizzo stated that she was from the country of Columbia [sic].

…At approximately 11:15 p.m., when the new song began, Zizzo stood in front of me and took all of her clothes off, exposing her breasts and genitalia. During the dance, Zizzo rubbed my clothed penis several times with her hands in an attempt to sexually arouse me. Zizzo also sat in my lap, with her back facing me, and rubbed her genital area against my clothed penis, simulating a sex act. Upon completion of the song, Zizzo put her clothes back on and I paid the $20.00 for the dance.

At a quarter to midnight, Zizzo was dancing for another customer when another T.A.B.C. officer entered the club, took her aside, and told her to get dressed. When she asked him what was the matter, “He said, well, you’re under arrest for public lewdness,” Zizzo said. “I told him I didn’t do nothing. He said, you’re under arrest: you want to change, or go like that?” The same scene had played out earlier in the evening at the other two clubs. At the Forest, “One of the girls was screaming because she was in shock. She was screaming and crying, saying ‘I didn’t do it!'” recalls the club’s former owner (who requested anonymity). “They put the handcuffs on her and threw her in the car.”

After the arrests, the women from all three clubs were taken to the Ector County Jail south of town, and six of the seven ended up in the same cell. Tearful and angry, they compared notes. Roberta McDavid, one of two dancers from Caesar’s arrested that night, recalls, “The girl from Acapulco’s, she was there, saying ‘What the hell, I did not touch him!’ And the girls from the Forest: pissed — they were pissed.” (McDavid herself, who pled guilty to the lewdness charges and as a result went to jail for violating parole, insists that “I did not touch that man’s genitals,” but also argues that regardless, touching a customer shouldn’t land a dancer in jail. “If dancing is legal, well then why isn’t it legal to touch?… My dancing is for me and my kids,” says McDavid, who has a ten-year-old and a ten-month-old. “It’s not for sexual pleasure, it’s for money, strictly for making-a-living purposes.”) McDavid, who is black, also noticed that the racial makeup of the arrested group seemed skewed: “I thought it was really strange that four black girls were there, and one Hispanic,” given that most of the dancers in Ector County, like the majority of residents, are white.

Between January 1, 1997, and June of this year, T.A.B.C. agents have made 694 arrests for public lewdness. One hundred twelve — 16 percent — have been made in Ector County: home to less than one percent of the state’s population, and an estimated three percent of its topless clubs. Is Ector County, then, the lewdest county in Texas?

It may just be the complainingest. According to T.A.B.C. enforcement chief Greg Hamilton, agents work topless clubs “in response to complaints” from either individuals or local law enforcement and local officials, and the high percentage of arrests taking place indicates a high number of complaints. In the April sweep, it was the Ector County sheriff’s office and the county attorney’s office who called upon the T.A.B.C.; this, says Austin attorney Jennifer Riggs, who has represented topless clubs in San Antonio and Austin, is typical: “Usually the T.A.B.C. will work in conjunction with a municipality; the municipalities try to bootstrap their authority with the T.A.B.C.’s authority.”

Regardless of who complained, or whether the seven women who were arrested fondled the undercover agents, the result of the topless club sweep was perhaps more noxious than any instance of public sexual contact: hundreds of people lost their livelihoods, in a city already going through hard times. “It seems like the tighter things get, the more businesses they close or the more they try to arrest people,” says Rebecca Osborne, one of the arrested dancers, who denies having touched the undercover T.A.B.C. agent who had her arrested. “It’s hard enough keeping guys off your lap.”

As for what happened that night at Acapulco Fantasies, Zizzo’s account differs considerably from the one in Gohlke’s report. Running a “clean” establishment had been important to her, she says, ever since she and her husband Jack Zizzo bought the club in 1996. (They were divorced earlier this year.) She’d started stripping a year earlier, in a Killeen club called Dream Street; at first “it was real hard for me…. Especially when your mother raised you differently.” Zizzo says that she would “throw up, and cry, and it was real bad” when she started. But Dream Street, at least, “was a nice place, you cannot touch, you cannot do anything. It was very strict. It was something that helped me out, because they cared about the girls.”

“So when I got my own club I tried to run it the same way, very clean, have the girls they can talk nice with the customers, not only take off their clothes,” says Zizzo. This was particularly difficult in the beginning. The twenty-eight dancers whom she and her husband kept on when they bought the club were used to a looser standard, according to Zizzo. “I thought these girls would dance like me, or like Killeen, but when I came to Odessa it was completely different.” Dancers and bouncers were teaming up to scam customers, the dancer offering to have sex in the private dance room, and then, without ever delivering that service, signaling the bouncer to toss the guy out after the money had changed hands. (Zizzo learned of this practice one night when an angry customer held a gun to her head in the parking lot.) “When I found that it was dirty inside, what they do, I decided to keep the good ones, and get rid of the bad ones,” says Zizzo.

Business declined after Zizzo cleaned house. Customers told her that she should run it the old way if she wanted to make any money, but “I was afraid,” Zizzo says. “$100,000 just for the business…. And we were afraid that if we run it dirty or something, that we was going to lose one day everything, so that’s why I tried real hard to run it clean, because it was a lot of money for me, for my husband.”

In the end it didn’t matter. According to Zizzo, club manager Alejandro Vásquez, and dancer Rebecca Osborne (each interviewed separately for this story), on the night of April 28 a rowdy, bald-headed customer with a goatee — later identified as Gohlke — groped Zizzo and Osborne, then had them arrested.

Zizzo had hoped not to go in at all that night. She’d just returned from a trip to Honduras, where she’d gone to get copies of documents she and her two older, Honduran-born children would need to apply for U.S. citizenship — something she intended to do this year, though she won’t be able to if convicted of public lewdness. “I was tired, and taking care of stuff like the bills,” she recalls, “but the manager (Vásquez) called at about 9:15. He said, I’ve got like eleven people, and I’ve just got two girls.” So she told Vásquez she’d be right over.

Acapulco Fantasies was a small place, housed in a plain white building that had been painted, earlier this year, with a mural of a tropical sunset, then partially painted over when anonymous callers objected to the female silhouettes posed among the palm trees. This in spite of the fact that few people had reason to pass the club at all: the building is on Loop 338 to the west of town, out where nothing but a few oilfield businesses, junkyards, and gasping pump jacks speckle the orange-brown desert. As soon as Zizzo arrived there that night, she went to the office and started trying to call other dancers; when the undercover agents came in she was dividing her time between the club floor and the office. According to Osborne and Vásquez, who saw him enter the club, Gohlke was unusually boisterous from the beginning: “He walked up to the D.J. booth and was complaining to the manager how we didn’t have enough girls that night,” says Osborne. “[He said,] ‘If this is an entertainment place then why don’t you have more women working?’ I walked over to him and asked him if he wanted some company for the evening, like a table danc e, and he told me no, but he wanted me to go get Irma. And I said okay. He said, ‘No offense, nothing personal, but I just like the dark-haired, dark-eyed girls.'”

Osborne went to fetch Zizzo: “Monica [Zizzo's club name], there’s a customer out there; he wants to talk to you. At least say hello.”

So Zizzo did, and Gohlke asked for a table dance. This is Zizzo’s account of what happened next:

He got twenty dollars [to pay up front], but before that … I said I was from Honduras, and he said, ‘I’m from El Paso. I just got divorced,’ and he was using real bad words like, ‘I’m so fucking horny girl, I came here to this place, maybe I can find some company.’

And I said, ‘Well, you can’t.’

He said, ‘No, in El Paso, in El Paso you can have anything if you want to.’

And I said, ‘Not over here. Over here, if you really want to see a naked woman dancing for you it’s just to look.’ That’s how I explain it to my girls when they’re dancing, to explain real nice to the people, if they want to see a naked woman it’s just to look, not to touch.…

He said, ‘Come on girl, you don’t understand when a man don’t have pussy for so many months?’

I said, ‘No sir, if that’s what you’re looking for, uh-uh.’

‘Okay, go ahead and dance,’ he said, ‘That’s fine.’

I explained to him, ‘I’m going to dance for you, but please don’t move, you cannot touch me.’

He said, ‘Okay, but I cannot promise you.’

I said, ‘I’m just telling you that I can dance, but not to touch.’ The first two minutes, I was dancing, and he was just looking, he said ‘Uhhh… Ooooh…’ He was enjoying, really. With our customers that are not T.A.B.C. they’re more gentlemen than these people. Talking with you, they make you think that you’re a lady. You’re not trash, you’re not a prostitute just because you take off your clothes…. But these kind of people like T.A.B.C. come in they make you think that you really are trash, the way they are touching.…

So when I was at the wall, that’s when he got me like this [with his hands on her lower back] and pulled me over there. So I touched my titties in his face, so then I pushed [off of] him, and I said, sir, remember what I told you….

He says, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry I’m not going to do it again.’

So okay, the first warning for you. I tell the girls to give a warning. And if they don’t behave, quit the dance…. So he said he’s going to behave, so when I’m dancing I go this way like this [turning around] and he’s got his hands here [on either side of her crotch], and pulled me to him, and when I go up — I tried to fight him — that’s when he placed three fingers in the middle of my pussy. This hurt me. I go that’s it, I’m not going to dance for you no more.

And he said, ‘But look at, look at how — and he grabbed my hand — look at how horny you got me. And he grabbed my hands and put it right there [on his erect penis]. That’s why I say, why do they send people, if they cannot handle it, you know?

Questioned about Zizzo’s account, Gohlke, who joined the T.A.B.C.’s El Paso office last October after serving for ten years with the University of North Texas police force, said he could not remember such specifics as which dancer approached him first; he recalled little other than what was in his report. “That’s like asking me what I ate for breakfast two weeks ago,” he said. Gohlke said that he told Zizzo he was from Dallas, and that he did not touch Zizzo or Osborne at any point during the dances.

The county’s sexually-oriented business ordinance directs the sheriff to revoke a business’s license if any act of public lewdness is “k nowingly allowed” by the license-holder or an employee, and all three licenses were revoked in May. Dancers from Caesar’s and the Forest pled guilty to the lewdness charges — which they had a strong incentive to do, since two women from Caesar’s who’d been arrested previously for public lewdness had, in a non-jury trial in April, been found guilty by the judge, and fined $1,500 apiece plus court costs.

The dancers from Acapulco Fantasies decided to hold out for a trial, but the club’s license was revoked anyhow; the arrests for public lewdness, without conviction, sufficed. Acco
ding to County Attorney Tracey Bright, that’s because license revocation is a civil matter: “There’s a completely different standard for criminal charges and for civil charges. It’s up to the hearing board [the county's Sexually Oriented Business Board, which heard Zizzo's appeal of the license revocation] to decide whether that’s been met.” Bright’s legal theory has been questioned by other lawyers, notably Steve Brannan, who represented Caesar’s before it went out of business. “The ordinance is insufficient in that it doesn’t place any burden of proof on the county,” Brannan says. “It allows revocation for acts without there being a trial to see if in fact the law had been violated.”

For Caesar’s, by far the largest of the clubs, the license revocation was the last straw. Clubowner Jeff Fambro had been butting heads with the county for months, and rather than pursue an appeal he decided to close down Caesar’s for good, putting 200 dancers and 50 payroll employees out of work. Zizzo shut down after the Sexually Oriented Business board denied her license, adding fifteen or twenty to the lost-jobs count. The Forest decided it would appeal and stayed open, but according to the owner, business plummeted in the wake of all the publicity over the arrests and license revocations.

When I visited Caesar’s a month after it closed, a hailstorm had just hit Odessa, and shards of white neon had been knocked from the club’s towering sign down into the empty parking lot. Inside, the 14,000 square-foot club was a gloomy cavern of unoccupied turquoise chairs and purple tables and plastic ivy, its high stages dark, its waterfall broken, abandoned iced tea glasses lined along the bar — the ruin of a faux Roman empire on the edge of a city in decline. No matter how you feel about topless places, says former Caesar’s dancer Sandy Rich, the club was one of the city’s few tourist draws: “All these customers used to come to Odessa, who’re not coming back. This was the only attraction; there’s nothing else here.”

Leaning back in one of the club chairs, Jeff Fambro, a former realtor who looks to be in his mid-thirties, told me he suspects that the troubles for Ector County topless clubs stem largely from the ongoing antagonism between him and Lieutenant Jess Aguilar of the Ector County sheriff’s office. After Fambro refused to turn over a list of his dancers to Aguilar, “that’s when [Aguilar] started coming in every night, picking a girl, griping at her, threatening to arrest her, sending her home, that kind of stuff.”

Aguilar himself implied that Caesar’s had provided the impetus for the undercover operation. “I coordinated it,” said Aguilar, when asked who initiated the April sweep. “My office doesn’t have the funds” to do such a thing independently, he said, “it was initiated, orchestrated, and directed by myself.” Caesar’s, he went on to suggest, simply refused to toe the line.

A thirty-year veteran of the sheriff’s office and director of its Internal Affairs Department, Aguilar assumed oversight of the county’s sexually oriented businesses in January of 1997. At the time, he says, “The sheriff instructed me that we would bring them [the clubs] under control.” Controversy over a proposed topless clubacross the street from the Ector County Coliseum had stirred up anti-adult-entertainment sentiment in Odessa the year before, and the City Council had voted to ban topless and nude dancing within the city limits — although dancing with “pasties” (opaque nipple coverings) was permitted. As a result, Odessa topless clubs were shutting their doors, while others were opening up just beyond the city limits, Caesar’s among them.

As soon as he took over supervision of the county clubs, Aguilar requested that each clubowner volunteer a list of all its dancers, their aliases and real names, their driver’s license and social security numbers, and their dates of birth. Fambro refused. Apparently, a pissing match ensued. (Fambro on Aguilar: “He was just throwing his weight around — ‘You’re going to do what I say….’ He yelled and screamed and came into my office.” Aguilar on Fambro: “He was the one who verbally told me I was a pain in his ass, and that he didn’t have to do a damn thing I told him … that he had lawyers.”)

According to Aguilar, Caesar’s was a den of public lewdness.s “I have visually seen it happen, a dancer performing oral sex on a customer,” he said. “I asked [Fambro] to help me, to comply with some of the requests that I asked, voluntarily, but he was very rude, very crude, and told me he wasn’t going to do it…. It was more than fifteen separate offenses…. If anything I tried to keep him open, tried to work with him.”

If Aguilar had a problem with Caesar’s, Tracey Bright, the county attorney, is widely thought to have had it out for all the clubs. “I don’t know what it is,” said one Odessa lawyer who has represented topless dancers charged with public lewdness. “The only cases she wants to try [personally] are these cases [of public lewdness],” he continued. “She’s a hard-core feminist, I guess; she thinks it’s degrading.” One of the women tried for public lewdness last April, Sandy Rich, recalls Bright saying during the trial, “They [the dancers] need to get respectable jobs.” (Calls to Bright’s office to confirm this were not returned.) Another lawyer agreed that Bright dislikes the clubs: “I think she’s against them…. It’s a popular political view to take.”

Bright herself insists that her personal views do not influence her work: “I feel like I uphold what the law says I should.” Not one to ingratiate herself with reporters, Bright granted one interview and did not return follow-up calls. Tall, slim, and hawk-eyed, she seemed quite tense as we spoke, and her right hand, which for the most part hovered in front of her mouth, would occasionally whip out beside her ear, as if she were preparing either to swear an oath or slap somebody. Early last year, she says, the subject of public lewdness arose at a meeting of the Mayor’s Drug and Crime Commission. “It just came up, and I don’t think anyone even knew that I went back to my office and did something about it,” Bright says. “I felt like we were not having the impact on the people who were committing the crime that we needed to be,” and as a result she changed the standard plea-bargain offer for public lewdness charges, from a fine-only plea to thirty days in jail.

To criminal defense lawyer Adrian Chávez, this was an unusual step. “All of a sudden they were wanting thirty days in jail,” he says. “Nobody gets jail time on a first offense except for these dancers.”

Then last fall, the commissioner’s court adopted new regulations for clubs, introduced by Bright, requiring that dancers must remain six feet away from patrons, on a stage at least eighteen inches high. “My office discussed it last year because the public lewdness charges we were seeing were the result of contact between patrons and dancers, and we felt like that would work toward alleviating that type of criminal charge,” Bright said. “But quite frankly, we need to have a public hearing on that and introduce the evidence to the Commissioner’s Court about all the charges that we’ve had, and that has not been done yet, so that’s why we have not actively enforced that yet.” In fact, clubowners did not find out about the new rules for some time; Fambro says he received notice of them with the letter revoking his license. “Now her favorite thing to say is, ‘All we do is enforce the law.'” Fambro says of Bright. “Well that’s true, but it’s also her office that wrote the law.”

A curious thing about topless clubs is the way that they both feed on and make a mockery of old-fashioned notions of male and female roles: the men are “gentlemen,” the dancers are alternately sluts and virtuous mothers (or college students) trying to make ends meet. Aguilar described the dancers this way: “They come from all over, and … instead of prostituting themselves in the street, they’re prostituting in the clubs. Some of them are trying to do it [dance] legitimately, but for others, it’s ‘I’m going to do whatever I can to make the most money.’ A lot of them are mothers, they have a home, they have a husband, to them it’s just a job, and those don’t allow the guys to stick their fingers where they shouldn’t be sticking them and suckle where they shouldn’t be suckling. Then there’s others that don’t give a hoot.”

For a topless dancer, an inch separates doing her job from breaking the law; the same minuscule distance lies between the dancer as strapped mom and the dancer as the dangerous purveyor of lewd acts. The dancer as working woman is not quite an accepted notion, even within the industry — where it is standard practice to employ dancers as independent contractors, without regular wages or benefits. Surely the ambivalent image of the topless dancer facilitated the crackdown in Odessa. Were any other type of work involved, could a few government entities in an economically depressed county arbitrarily wipe out several hundred jobs, without a whisper of protest from anyone but the business owners?

After Caesar’s closed, Sandy Rich and her husband Edward, who also used to work at Caesar’s as a barback, went down to San Angelo for a couple weeks to work at a club there. But Rich, who used to earn $600 a week working five nights at Caesar’s, says there was “definitely no money” in San Angelo. Both she and her husband have since applied for dozens of jobs, with no luck.

Twenty-one-year-old Rich has worked in topless clubs for the past three years, and says her work history is a hindrance: “I applied for front desk clerk at the motel I stayed at in San Angelo, and they looked at that and said, ‘We don’t hire people like you, you can’t even keep your clothes on.'” She has also applied for “waitress, car wash, telemarketing, cleaning service, front desk clerk, twenty to thirty jobs in all. Nobody’s called; nobody’s called Jeff [Fambro] for a reference.”

Of the five dancers interviewed for this story, one had found a job, one was in jail, and three were jobless and applying for government benefits. (On her application for a court-appointed attorney on file with the county clerk, Osborne listed her family’s source of income as “picking up cans.”) Several others whom I tried to reach had left town. The Riches have lost their house and car; they and their two young children have moved in with Edward’s grandmother; they’ve applied for food stamps and Medicaid. The second time I spoke with them, they were headed into town to donate blood, for fifteen dollars apiece.

Even though it had its license revoked, the Forest never closed. The other clubowners suspect this is because the owner had friends in the sheriff’s office; Aguilar says that he never shut the Forest down because the letter officially revoking the license was returned to him undeliverable, and before he could deliver it himself, the club was sold to a new owner who applied for, and received, a new license.

“A lot of girls that are here, these girls don’t have nowhere else to go,” says the former owner. On a night in late June, business at the Forest had picked back up. Located on the site of an old lumberyard east of town, across from a string of motels with bad reputations, the Forest is a totally nude, bring-your-own-booze club, with a couple dozen tables and two stages. Oilfield workers, frat boys, and Dilbert types sit with twelve-packs of Bud Dry or coolers they’ve brought in themselves, while the women, most of them young and very attractive, circulate among the tables in tight dresses, or strip down to their high-heeled sandals and garter belts to give table dances.

It is the standard ritual, here as in countless towns. The D.J. plays the bad pop music the women like to dance to, and dancers, in various states of undress, strut out from behind the mirrored archways for their turns on stage. They play at the pole and then take to the floor, lying on their backs and straddling their legs, or kneeling on all fours; one woman I saw dance simply bent over with her back to the audience, sensuously placing one finger in her mouth and then on her genitals, in a slow masturbatory dance routine. The men approach the stages slowly and then stand stone still before the women like rapt anatomists, staring at their genitals and then giving them a dollar or two. The stark contrast between the mobility of the women — as they glide among the tables or dance onstage — and the frozen poses of the men as they sit or stand, would almost seem to justify T.A.B.C.’s policy of pursuing only dancers, and not customers, for public lewdness. (“The dancer’s the one that’s touching,” in most cases, said T.A.B.C. enforcement chief Hamilton, who added that the agency has made it a requirement that arrests for public lewdness always be made by agents posing as customers, so that the agent can testify in court.)

Almost. If you left the Forest and drove north to Graham Central Station, a huge multiplex of different-themed bars and dance floors, “you would have seen more rubbing on breasts than you would ever see at one of these clubs,” says attorney Scott Tidwell, who has represented several Caesar’s dancers.

“This is a selective law enforcement issue to me,” he continued. “‘Oh, these girls are just hookers.’ I disagree with that. Many of these girls are fairly nice girls. The majority of them lack the skills to make a real good income.”

Irma Zizzo is scheduled to stand trial for public lewdness on August 31.