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Originally published July 1, 2009 at 12:33 AM | Page modified July 1, 2009 at 1:18 AM

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Strip-club figure Frank Colacurcio, 5 others indicted

Seattle strip-club patriarch Frank Colacurcio Sr., his son and four other men were indicted Tuesday on federal charges. The indictment is the culmination of years of investigations into allegations of prostitution and money-laundering at four strip clubs from Pierce County to Everett.

Seattle Times staff reporters

The government's charges:

×Racketeering by permitting, facilitating and promoting prostitution.

×Laundering money by accepting credit cards and ATM transactions for sex acts, and using prostitution funds to cover business expenses.

×Mail fraud by not disclosing full proceeds of their businesses to underpay taxes.

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About an hour after a grand-jury indictment was unsealed Tuesday accusing him of racketeering and other crimes, Frank Colacurcio Sr. lounged in a blue bathrobe in the master bedroom of his airy Sheridan Beach home, a red throw blanket draped over his lap.

As cable news buzzed on his TV, the 92-year-old patriarch of Seattle's strip-club scene said he hasn't been feeling well lately and wasn't aware that federal prosecutors had just unleashed charges that could send him to prison for the rest of his life.

"At this age, nothing surprises me," he said when informed of the charges. "That's a lot of malarkey."

But almost simultaneously, U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Sullivan stood on the steps of the federal courthouse in downtown Seattle and announced confidently that now, after nearly a half-century of investigations, raids and legal charges, authorities finally have enough to dismantle the Colacurcio nude-dancing empire for good.

"I believe we have very solid evidence," Sullivan said. "We feel very confident that when it's done that Frank Colacurcio Sr. and the others will, in fact, be convicted."

The indictment in U.S. District Court is the culmination of several years of high-profile investigations into allegations of rampant prostitution and money-laundering at four strip clubs from Pierce County to Everett. Agents have infiltrated the clubs, offered immunity to dancers who cooperated, and bugged the Colacurcios' offices.

Named as defendants are Colacurcio Sr., his son, Frank Jr., and four longtime associates: Leroy R. Christiansen, David C. Ebert, Steven M. Fueston and John Gilbert "Gil" Conte.

All but Conte are charged with conspiracy to commit racketeering, conspiracy to use interstate facilities in aid of racketeering, conspiracy to engage in money laundering and mail fraud. Conte is charged with conspiracy to use interstate facilities in aid of racketeering. The charges carry prison terms of up to 20 years, Sullivan said.

The government is also seeking a $25 million judgment against the men and their businesses. And it wants to seize all the real estate associated with the four clubs.

None of the men was arrested Tuesday. They have been ordered to appear for arraignment in U.S. District Court in Seattle on July 24.

Frank Colacurcio Jr.'s attorney, John Wolfe of Seattle, said his client will plead not guilty and "looks forward to proving his innocence at trial."

Angelo Calfo, Christiansen's attorney, said, "These are, in essence, state misdemeanor charges that have been turned into federal RICO [racketeering] allegations that my client did not commit."

And at Colacurcio Sr.'s home Tuesday afternoon, Conte, who has been close to the Colacurcios for about four decades, also denied the accusations.

"I don't understand the stuff," he said.

Prostitution alleged

The Colacurcio enterprise, which once spanned 10 states, currently includes strip clubs Rick's in Seattle; Sugar's in Shoreline; Honey's in Everett; and Fox's in Parkland, Pierce County.

Last summer, federal agents staged high-profile raids at the clubs and at the Colacurcios' business office in Lake City, called Talents West, along with Colacurcio Sr.'s home and an apartment in Seattle.

The indictment unsealed Tuesday reiterates what police and prosecutors have been saying at least since the raids last year: that the clubs were havens of open prostitution and that the club owners encouraged it, profited from it and structured their businesses to disguise those profits.

But the indictment revealed that since about March 2008, agents had been listening to the Colacurcios and their cohorts through court-sanctioned bugs planted in the offices of Talents West.

Prosecutors charge that the club owners enriched themselves through a business structure that left the dancers no choice but to resort to prostitution.

In a nutshell, the clubs allegedly operate by charging the dancers "rent" to work at the clubs and by charging customers admission fees and inflated prices for soft drinks. Liquor is not allowed in the clubs.

The "rent" for dancers can be as high as $130 a shift. And if they come up short, it accumulates as debt, Sullivan said.

The management overtly supported prostitution by installing "VIP" rooms where customers could be entertained more privately, the indictment alleges. And the installation of condom machines in each club encouraged prostitution, it says.

"All the girls indicated it was almost impossible" to make the "rent" by dancing alone, Sullivan said.

"These men made millions of dollars exploiting these young women in the Seattle and Tacoma areas," he said.

The indictment alleges that the money was laundered by accepting credit cards and ATM transactions as payment from customers. Customers were issued tokens that could be traded for dances or sex acts, the indictment alleges. The management allegedly would then take a cut when the dancers turned in their tokens for cash at the end of the night, thus profiting from any sex acts.

The mail-fraud allegations state that the club owners for years mailed in false entertainment-tax statements to the city of Seattle misstating the club proceeds.

To bolster their allegations, prosecutors included in the indictment a transcript of graphic conversations recorded by the bugs hidden at Talents West. Prosecutors contend the conversations show the Colacurcios and the others were permissive, if not outright encouraging, of prostitution at the clubs.

In one conversation, in March 2008, two dancers came to Talents West to complain to Colacurcio Jr. about rampant and open sex acts by at least one other dancer at Rick's. Colacurcio Jr. allegedly responded, "My type of girl."

Other conversations indicate that dancers were not disciplined when caught committing sex acts, and portray the Colacurcios and other defendants as joking openly about prostitution and referring to receiving sexual favors from the dancers.

Longtime notoriety

Colacurcio Sr. has long been portrayed by law enforcement — and the media — as one of Seattle's most notorious racketeering figures, if not its own small version of an organized-crime "Godfather."

In the 1950s, he was identified as a racketeer to a U.S. Senate committee by a noted Portland crime figure, and accused of using strong-arm tactics to control Seattle's pinball trade. In the 1960s, he opened Seattle's first topless club, the Firelite Room downtown.

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.

Last summer's raids came on the heels of Seattle's "Strippergate" scandal in 2003. What started as a seemingly mundane zoning issue about adding parking spaces at Rick's became a major issue in 2003 after the Colacurcios secretly funneled illegal campaign contributions to the re-election campaigns of then-City Council members Judy Nicastro, Heidi Wills and Jim Compton.

The elder Colacurcio and his son pleaded guilty last year to felony and misdemeanor charges and agreed to each pay $75,000 in penalties.

From his leather chair in his home overlooking Lake Washington, Colacurcio said Tuesday that after all these years, all the investigations and all the media attention, this latest turn doesn't bother him.

"It's just like everything else," he said.

When asked what he wanted his legacy to be, Colacurcio paused, mulling the question.

"I think my background speaks for itself," he said.

Information from staff reporters Jim Brunner and Mike Carter and from Times archives is included.

Ian Ith: 206-464-2109 or iith@seattletimes.com.

Lewis Kamb: 206-464-2341 or lkamb@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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