Last edited: December 06, 2004

Johnston Officials Defend ‘Sex-Act’ Arrests of 7 Men

But Several Groups Say the Town’s Scarlet Letter-Like Approach May Have Contributed to a Man’s Death.

Providence Journal, January 27, 2002 
75 Fountain St., Providence, RI 02902
Fax: 401-277-7346

[Names of the victims and store owners, plus identifying information has been X'ed out so as not to further victimize these individuals. The name of the suicide victim has been retained as his name was widely publicized. -Bob]

By Jonathan D. Rockoff and W. Zachary Malinowski, Journal Staff Writers

JOHNSTON—Four of the men traveled from out of state to the cinder block building a few hundred yards from Town Hall. Three others were from Rhode Island.

They were a diverse lot. One was a lawyer, the husband of a federal magistrate. Another was a high-school teacher. There was also a town official, a retiree and a convicted sex offender in Massachusetts.

But they arrived, the police say, with a common purpose. As each entered the building, they walked past sex toys, pornographic videos and X-rated magazines. All but one headed for the small movie theater in back.

There, as a pornographic film played, the police arrested them for engaging in various sex acts.

City and police officials trumpeted the Jan. 16 arrests as the latest effort to crack down on the sex industry in town. They released the suspects’ names and addresses, and warned those considering similar trips to Johnston to think twice. Critics attacked the tactics, saying it amounted to a Scarlet Letter-like approach that reinforced homophobia and may have contributed to a man’s death.

On Jan. 20, one of the suspects killed himself. Stuart Denton, the 55-year-old chairman of the Plainfield (Conn.) Planning and Zoning Commission, was found hanging in a backyard shed.

"I’m shocked," said Johnston Mayor William R. Macera. "It just shows the length someone will go to when they are caught up in this kind of situation. The embarrassment. It shows the kind of pressure that still exists."

Yet Macera and other town officials defend the undercover sting and say there may be more in the future. They say the men engaged in "disgusting" illegal behavior and created a public health hazard.

But lawyers for the suspects and civil-rights advocates argue that the men, all adults, were engaging in consensual sex behind the closed doors of a licensed adult-entertainment business. They said the suspects shouldn’t have become victim to the town’s crackdown on the businesses.

"Suicide is a public health concern, too," said Steven Brown, head of Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

"It’s hard to comprehend who was being bothered by what these people were doing, if they were doing anything."

Amid all the neon that dominates Johnston’s busiest commercial strip, Amazing Express, the adult-video store at 1530 Hartford Ave., offers an almost dull counterpoint. Its boxy exterior is battleship gray, and peeling.

Across the street from a daycare center, there is little indication from the building’s exterior that the interior is stacked with sex-related merchandise and features peep-show booths and a pornographic theater.

The undercover operation stemmed from several calls to the local police early this month, Chief Richard S. Tamburini said.

About 7:45 p.m. Jan. 16, four undercover detectives walked in to take a look around. According to police reports, one detective checked out the peep-show area, a strip of booths stretching away from the back of the store.

There, the detective reported, a door to one of the booths opened. [XXXXX], 41, of [XXXXX]., Woodstock, Conn., exposed himself, the detective wrote. [XXXXX] was arrested.

The four detectives entered the movie theater, also at the back of the store, but opposite the peep-show booths. It cost $5 to enter. A pornographic movie was playing.

The detectives and the six suspects were the only spectators among the 50 dimly-lit seats.

About 25 minutes into the movie, the police allege, [XXXXX], 30, a [XXXXX] High School teacher, moved to the second row and sat next to one of the detectives.

"This detective then witnessed the suspect unfasten his pants and expose" himself, according to the police report.

[XXXXX], 57, of [XXXXX], Attleboro, also was engaged in a sex act in the theater, police alleged. [XXXXX] is a registered sex offender in Massachusetts.

Meanwhile, four other men had gathered in a "semi-circle" in the back of the theater fondling each other.

The police identified the four as [XXXXX], 48, of Arlington, Mass.; [XXXXX], 68, of [XXXXX], Warwick; [XXXXX], 49, of [XXXXX], Scituate; and Denton.

[XXXXX This paragraph removed entirely to protect one victim's identity.]

The seven suspects were arrested and taken to the Johnston Police Department, where they were photographed, fingerprinted and issued summonses to appear in District Court, Providence, to face criminal misdemeanor charges.

Last week, [XXXXX], [XXXXX] and [XXXXX] pleaded no contest to charges of disorderly conduct and their cases were filed for a year. That means, if they stay out of trouble for a year, the convictions will be erased from their records.

[XXXXX] and [XXXXX] entered not guilty pleas. Denton committed suicide.

A town of approximately 27,000 residents just west of Providence, Johnston has been the punch line of many jokes. The state’s garbage is dumped there; assorted mobsters call it home, and its zany politics are legendary.

For example, in October 2000, Mayor Macera was found with a campaign worker in a car at the Central Landfill that police say reeked of marijuana. Macera was not charged.

For years, as many as a half-dozen adult businesses operated within the city limits. But like many other communities, the town has worked to pressure the clubs to leave. A 1997 ordinance banned both alcohol and nudity in the same establishment.

Just three adult businesses remain in Johnston, and the police have recently conducted undercover investigations at all of them.

Mayor Macera said the community doesn’t need its reputation further tarnished by becoming a magnet for men who engage in illegal sex at the local pornographic video store.

He called the activities a "public nuisance and a public health nuisance."

"We don’t want that in the town," added Macera, pointing out that a developer recently invested $30 million in a shopping center on Atwood Avenue, not far from the club. "We don’t want to entertain these kind of people and that behavior.

"Let them go to their own towns."

Police Chief Tamburini said the seven suspects "knew that anything goes" at the Johnston cinema.

Tamburini said the stings would continue for the good of the community. The police are simply enforcing the law, he said. Tamburini didn’t see any civil-liberties problems because the clubs are public, not private.

"We’re not looking to bat down a door and go into a house to go after the activity," Tamburini said. "That’s not what we’re interested in. We’re interested in protecting the general public."

Stephen R. Famiglietti, a lawyer for one of the suspects, said the town’s efforts to crack down on adult entertainment have made pawns out of adults patronizing the establishments.

Famiglietti said the U.S. Constitution prevents the town from shuttering the businesses, so the town has turned to shaming their patrons.

"Because of the First Amendment rights we have, there is no other way to put that kind of business out of business," Famiglietti said.

Kate Montiero, president of the Rhode Island Alliance for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights, faulted Johnston officials for publicly embarrassing the suspects.

Montiero said the officials who chose to publicize the arrests should not now profess surprise that Denton committed suicide.

"It’s a tragedy, but for anybody to pretend they’re shocked and surprised is very disingenuous," Montiero said. "Publicity around these kinds of arrests has often led to real damage to people’s lives."

Montiero said the police should enforce public sex laws and protect the public health, but she said there were other ways than using homophobia and shame.

"If Johnston wants to get rid of certain kinds of establishments, they need to work with their zoning laws," Montiero said.

The Johnston police aren’t the only ones to arrest patrons at adult-entertainment businesses and then publicize the arrests.

The Providence police have arrested men on charges of committing sex acts at Roger Williams Park, on the East Side and at other places around the city, and the police have touted the operations and released the identities of the suspects.

In 1994, Providence police arrested four men at various X-rated video stores around the city on loitering and solicitation charges. The Providence Journal published their names and addresses. Judges later dropped all of those cases but one, which was filed on a not-guilty plea.

For the men who have pleaded not guilty in the Amazing Express case, there is reason to believe that they, too, can prevail.

Kevin F. McHugh, an assistant city solicitor in Providence who has litigated a dozen cases involving strip clubs, questioned whether the charges would stand.

McHugh said communities throughout the country have tried enacting ordinances restricting the behavior of adult-entertainment patrons.

"But you don’t see a lot of those ordinances because they are difficult to enforce," McHugh said. "It’s an enforcement nightmare: You have to have someone complain, and the police going in there all the time."

Most communities, McHugh said, have turned to zoning to curb the clubs, limiting adult-entertainment establishments to industrial areas and restricting their sale of alcohol.

Business registration forms filed with the Johnston town clerk list [XXXXX] as president of Amazing Express’s parent company, and [XXXXX] as the store manager. They could not be reached for comment.

Johnston Town Council President Robert V. Russo said he expects to hold a "show-cause" hearing on the video store’s operation.

Russo said that the council could issue a warning, suspend the store’s business license or shut it down. The store’s management will have a chance to launch a defense.

The council president said he supports the police and their arrests of store patrons.

"Do I feel bad that these men were caught? Yes," Russo said. "But it’s a public facility. Anybody in the public could be exposed to this."

  • With reports from Bob Jagolinzer

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