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Originally published June 2, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 3, 2008 at 12:17 AM

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Federal prosecutors seek to seize Colacurcio strip-club empire

Federal prosecutors have taken the first step toward seizing the strip-club empire of Frank Colacurcio Sr., obtaining a court order preventing the family from selling the properties and releasing details of a five-year investigation into organized crime and prostitution allegedly run by Colacurcio, his family and associates.

Seattle Times staff reporters

Federal prosecutors have taken the first step toward seizing the strip-club empire of Frank Colacurcio Sr., obtaining a court order preventing the family from selling the properties and releasing details of a five-year investigation into organized crime and prostitution allegedly run by Colacurcio, his family and associates.

Agents in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties today raided four strip clubs, the talent agency that hires their dancers, and the home of the elder Colacurcio.

Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske said at a news conference this afternoon in Seattle that the raids have nothing to do with questions of morality.

"This is the most significant organized crime investigation we have ever undertaken ... into an organization that has damaged this community.

"This is not about the morals police," Kerlikowske said. "This is about violence, organized crime and organized prostitution."

Federal prosecutors released a detailed affidavit outlining the investigation to date, but urged Colacurcio dancers, employees or anyone with information to contact the FBI.

Investigators are trying to build a case that Colacurcio and others promoted prostitution inside their Seattle-area strip clubs and engaged in other crimes in violation of the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations act, more commonly known as RICO, according to court documents. Under a RICO prosecution, law enforcement officials could seek to shut down the club in the Lake City neighborhood of Seattle and other strip clubs tied to Colacurcio in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties — a penalty prosecutors could not impose after convicting Colacurcio of tax evasion and illegal gambling activities in the past.

For the time being, the clubs will continue to operate. However, the restraining order prevents the family from selling them, stating that they are targets of RICO seizure provisions that allows the government to confiscate property purchased with illicit gains.

The raids began just before 10 a.m. with FBI, Internal Revenue Service and local police swarming Rick's strip club on Lake City Way, as well as Talents West, the nearby business office where Colacurcio Sr., his son, Frank Colacurcio Jr., 46, and their associates oversee the operations.

Officers were seen hauling boxes of records from Talents West.

Two women who arrived at Rick's just before 10:30 a.m. were questioned by officers in the back of a patrol car. One of the women identified herself as an employee to a reporter, but did not give her name.

At Honey's strip club in South Everett, several Snohomish County Sheriff's Office patrol cars and unmarked vehicles pulled into the parking lot just before 10 a.m. Several men in FBI jackets and IRS agents were also at the scene, walking in and out of the club as well some apartments on an upper floor.

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Shawna Graves, a 27-year-old dancer, said she arrived early for work Monday and was greeted by a group of FBI agents and uniformed Snohomish County sheriff's deputies. Graves said she was asked to fill out a lengthy questionnaire, which asked her about prostitution in the club and the activities of managers and owners.

"We're not bad girls, we're not prostitutes," Graves said. "We all have kids, we're all single parents. What the hell are we going to do?"

While police at the club declined to comment, several employees said that police told them that they club could likely reopen for business later today.

Autumn McCrorie, 33, said she's confident that authorities will be disappointed in their search.

"Frank [Colacurcio Sr.] is a good man. He gives us a place to work. They take care of us," said McCrorie, who has worked at many of the Colacurcio clubs over the last 10 years.

At Fox's in Parkland, Pierce County, FBI agents and Pierce County sheriff's deputies used a crowbar to pry their way inside the Spanaway strip club. Employees started arriving just before 11 a.m. and were questioned by authorities before being told the club would not reopen. Some employees said the agents told them the club was being closed down permanently.

A woman who gave her name only as Christy, told a reporter that Fox's was a great place to work and that management didn't allow illegal behavior.

"I've worked here for four years and I would break their fingers if anyone tried to touch me," said Christy, who said she was a dancer.

While agents were in Colacurcio Sr.'s home about 11:30 a.m., a woman who identified herself as Jessica McCaw arrived in a Chevy Suburban. McCaw, 32, said she was a longtime employee and "friend of the family" who worked as a dancer at Rick's. McCaw said she had spoken with the elder Colacurcio this morning and nothing seemed amiss, and that she had stopped by the house to rest following dental appointment.

Colacurcio, who is 90 and in poor health, has played cat-and-mouse with federal and local law enforcement officials for six decades, making him one of Seattle's most notorious racketeering figures. As far back as the 1950s, he was identified as a racketeer before a U.S. Senate committee and accused of using strong-arm tactics to control Seattle's pinball trade.

The three-year investigation that led to today's raids was indirectly triggered by a seemingly mundane zoning issue — the Colacurcios' long-standing effort to add seven or eight parking spaces at Rick's.

The so-called "Strippergate" scandal erupted at City Hall in 2003 after the Colacurcios secretly funneled thousands of dollars in illegal campaign contributions through friends, relatives and business partners to the reelection campaigns of Seattle City Council members Judy Nicastro, Heidi Wills and Jim Compton.

The contributions came shortly before the council approved a rezone allowing Rick's to add parking spaces, a request that was opposed by neighbors and the city's planning department. Nicastro and Wills were defeated in the November election and Compton, who was re-elected, later left the council. None of the council members was aware of the Colacurcios' scheme, prosecutors said.

The elder Colacurcio and his son pleaded guilty in January to felony and misdemeanor charges, admitting they reimbursed others to skirt campaign-donation limits. Both Colacurcios agreed to each pay $75,000 in criminal and civil penalties.

The Strippergate case revived law enforcement interest in the Colacurcios, prompting the FBI and the other agencies to form a task force in 2005.

Colacurcio Sr. has served four federal prison terms, primarily for skimming cash to avoid taxes and violating the terms of his probation. His son has served time for tax fraud.

But their strip-club operations continued to operate, initially as liquor establishments and then soda-pop clubs when state liquor rules were tightened.

Today's raids, which constitute one of the most concerted efforts ever mounted against the Colacurcios, could hand prosecutors the opportunity to shut down their operations. The RICO statute allows prosecutors to seek the seizure of real estate or other holdings that are proven to be the fruits of racketeering.

According to law-enforcement sources, investigators have sought evidence that the Colacurcios and associates profited from prostitution at their clubs, allowing them to rake in lucrative sums from cover charges, inflated soda-pop prices and daily fees they charge dancers to work in their clubs.

Dancers have been repeatedly cited by undercover police in recent years for engaging in prostitution and lewd conduct inside the clubs. Some floor managers have been cited for permitting illegal conduct.

Investigators also have traced profits to determine whether money has been invested in other business enterprises in violation of money-laundering laws.

Additionally, investigators have looked at Colacurcio Sr. or associates in the slayings of five people in the 1970s and 1980s. The victims were a rival strip-club operator and his fiancée, a bar owner in Central Washington, a mechanic in a murder-for-hire scheme and a police informant.

That effort has led to the conviction of a man in the Central Washington case; a guilty plea by a woman in the murder-for-hire scheme; and the apparent suicide of an Oregon man arrested in the killing of the strip-club operator and his fiancée.

But neither Colacurcio Sr. nor his associates have been tied to the killings, and involvement in the Central Washington case has been ruled out. But a King County sheriff's detective is continuing to pursue leads in some cases.

Colacurcio Sr. was first convicted of a crime in 1943 for carnal knowledge with a teenage girl.

He attracted wide attention in the 1950s, when he started operating jukebox and cigarette vending businesses, which historically have attracted organized crime because of their easily skimmed cash.

In the 1960s, Colacurcio Sr. introduced clubs with topless dancers to Seattle — another cash business that allowed illegal profit-skimming to avoid taxes.

During a 1971 trial, he was convicted of racketeering. Federal prosecutors tied him to a bribery scheme in which police were paid to ignore illegal gambling activities at area taverns.

In the 1980s, he expanded his strip-club business into at least 10 Western states. Eventually, law-enforcement agencies banded together, driving him out of most of the states.

Colacurcio was even considered Seattle's own connection to the Mafia, though investigators ultimately concluded he headed a homegrown organized-crime outfit.

"Mafia malarkey," he once complained, saying local investigators needed someone to label their own mob figure.

Seattle Times staff reporters Jennifer Sullivan and Christine Clarridge contributed to this report.

Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or mcarter@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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