DPD liaison says action prompted by complaint, warns more police activity possible at bathhouse

John Wright | Online Editor wright@dallasvoice.com

Dallas police Officer Laura Martin, liaison to the LGBT community.
Dallas police Officer Laura Martin, liaison to the LGBT community.

Eleven people were arrested at The Club-Dallas on Friday night, Oct. 8, when police raided the gay bathhouse in Deep Ellum for the first time in several years.

Ten patrons of The Club reportedly were charged with either public lewdness or indecent exposure, while one employee was charged with interfering with police. DPD would only release records related to three of the 11 arrests, saying Dallas Voice needed to file a freedom of information request to obtain additional details.

Laura Martin, DPD’s liaison officer to the gay community, said the vice unit raided the establishment on Swiss Avenue in response to a complaint. But police wouldn’t say who had complained.

Martin said she believes it marked the first time since 2003 vice officers have gone in to the 34-year-old establishment, one of nine similar clubs nationwide.

“We’ve done operations in that club since the late ’70s. There just hasn’t been one in a while because there hasn’t been a complaint,” Martin said. “They [officers] were in there for a legitimate reason, and obviously there was illegal activity going on or that many arrests wouldn’t have been made.”

The Club Dallas on Thursday, Oct. 14 issued a one-sentence statement about the raid.

“The Club Dallas management is committed to pursuing justice for and defending the rights of each of its members,” the statement read.

The Club reportedly helped bond out arrested members from jail and has offered them legal representation.
Martin, meanwhile, warned that additional police activity at the business is possible.

“When somebody complains we have to go in, just like when someone calls 911 we have to go to the call,” Martin said. “Now that so much activity was found there, they can probably expect more vice operations there. … I’ve certainly never been there, but I’ve heard that public lewdness does go on in the club. All you have to do is keep your ears open.”

Though it is billed as “a private men’s club,” The Club Dallas is considered a public place for the purposes of Texas’ public lewdness statute, according to one criminal defense attorney who frequently represents people charged with the crime.

Public lewdness, defined as sexual intercourse or sexual contact in a public place, is a class-A misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a maximum $4,000 fine.

Criminal defense attorney Tim Menchu said a public place has been interpreted by Texas appellate courts to mean any place “a substantial group of the public has access to.”

“Just having to pay a cover charge doesn’t take you out of the realm,” Menchu said, adding that he would argue in court, “I guess everyone in the world has access to the bottom of the ocean, but nobody’s going to go there.”

Of the three individuals whose arrest reports were released to Dallas Voice, one was charged with public lewdness and two were charged with indecent exposure, which is defined as exposing one’s genitals with the intent to arouse or gratify and in a manner that is “reckless about whether another is present who will be offended or alarmed …”

Indecent exposure is a class-B misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a maximum $2,000 fine.

Menchu said he once successfully fought indecent exposure charges against five men who were arrested at Midtowne Spa, another gay bathhouse in Dallas. He said it’s hard for prosecutors to argue that the activity is recklessly offensive when all club members typically sign waivers saying they acknowledge it takes place.

“I don’t think it flies,” Menchu said of the indecent exposure charges.

“They didn’t go to the freakin’ park. They’re not out in the mall in the bathrooms. What the hell is wrong with that?” said Menchu, who’s straight.

“I personally have no problem with it. The problem is that with these particular officers in the vice unit, and with the DA’s office and with the state of the law, you’re putting yourself at risk.”

One member of The Club-Dallas who asked not to be identified said he doesn’t believe most patrons are aware of the risk. The member said one of his friends who is bisexual but was not out to his family was arrested in the raid, forcing him to call relatives from jail and explain what happened.

“Guys just honestly don’t know,” the member said.

“Most of these guys, if not every single one of them, while the police were interviewing them said, ‘How is this illegal? This is a private men’s club.’

“You’ve got to realize if you take away our places to have our sexual releases, that means we have no choice but to return to the streets, so it’s not a smart move,” the member added.

Another member who was present during the raid but was not arrested, accused police of  harassment and intimidation.

According to police reports, two undercover officers paid their way into The Club and gathered evidence, before additional officers came in and helped execute the arrests.

The member said the officers were carrying plastic flexcuffs and detained him for 45 minutes even though he was just working out in the fitness area.

He said he believes the city is trying to shut down The Club to make way for redevelopment around the new DART station that sits next door.

At one point the member said he heard one of the officers remark that, “I’m going to have nightmares forever after this.”

The member said he was also at The Club-Dallas the following night when the fire marshal paid a visit. “There’s real crime going on in the city, and they don’t need to be harassing a private club,” he said. “I’m irritated and I’m frustrated because I feel like the police department is targeting them.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 15, 2010.